“All she needs to do is sit and look pretty”; “They shouldn’t have let her helm the project, I hear she’s trying for a baby”; “This job is too stressful for women”; “She gets to leave work early because of her kids”; “She’s PMS-ing. SCARY!”
Raise your hands if you’ve heard these conversations directed at a colleague. While the gossip is often relayed as a whine or with outrage, have you wondered why in this post-feminist age, some prejudices run deeper than others?
According to a recent study, it boils down to the male employee’s marital structure. The study suggests that men from traditional set ups â€” where the husband is the breadwinner, and the wife stays at home â€” are more likely to carry a negative attitude towards women than those whose wives hold fulltime jobs, said Sreedhari Desai, lead author of Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace.
Desai, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Kenan-Flagler Business School,University of North Carolina was led to examine the difference in men’s attitudes towards women thanks to a family member.
“In India, I couldn’t help but notice how women were sidelined even in domestic decision-making. However, I observed that one of my uncles treated women with dignity, which reflected in the language he used even when women weren’t around. What set him apart was that his wife was a working woman. I wondered how having a working wife as opposed to a stay-at-home one influences a man’s psychology?” said Desai, who co-authored the study with Dr Dolly Chugh of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Dr Arthur Brief at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
Earlier workplace studies confirm that we are “daily bordercrossers” between the domains of work and family, so the attitudes and emotions generated at one spill over into the other.
“Men with stay-at-home wives are in a situation where their spouses take care of the home and family so that they can be the breadwinners. As such, these men may become accustomed to the notion that women are meant to fulfill a domestic role, whereas men are uniquely qualified to work,” said Desai.
Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms, a New Delhi-based organisation that helps companies employ women with flexible working hours, has first-hand experience. Chahal found the attitude that Desai talks of rampant among several senior executives and investors whom she met while setting up her firm in 2010. Interestingly, recalled Chahal, all were men and of them, many had stay-at-home wives.
“Several executives I met were supportive. But when asked if they would employ women with flexihours, they would either direct me to their wives, or say, ‘our business is not for women’. I would be asked personal questions like whether I was married, or how many children I had. Would a man be asked these questions in client meetings?”
This attitude, said Chahal, stems from a couple of assumptions. The high-level executives saw women as inherently different on account of their specific needs. And they assumed that if a professional has other commitments, her efficiency at work would be suspect. Their blindspot was a gendered thinking that women’s personal lives are more important than men’s.
As a result, confirms the study, the presence of women in the workplace is viewed unfavorably. Organisations with higher numbers of female employees are perceived to operate less smoothly and qualified female employees are denied opportunities for promotion.
Out of the 134 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2009, India ranks 114th on the overall index. Data from the Gender Diversity Benchmark forAsia report of 2009 offers supportive data, too. The Diversity & Inclusion in Asia Network of Community Business, a Hong Kong-based think tank, produced the report on companies operating in China, India, Japan and Singapore. Based on a sample of 10 multinational companies operating in the four countries, India came last in percentage of women employed at all levels.
“The reality is that some women have different needs. But that is seen as a deficiency, not as a challenge to be resolved,” said Chahal.
What of the women who choose to climb the corporate ladder? Chahal agreed they are the worst hit.
Twenty-eight-year financial consultant Rakshita Singh (name changed) says working professionals like her have learnt to take ‘jibes’ lightly. “Would I like to be considered only on the basis of my work? Absolutely. Will that ever happen?
I’m not too sure. The best thing is not to take sexism lying down,” she says. “Pun unintended,” she adds.
This article was published here