Women passengers travel in a ladies compartment of a local train at a railway station in Kolkata July 8, 2014. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government disappointed markets with its first major economic policy statement on Tuesday, promising to seek foreign and private funding for the railways but giving no details of how it would lure investors. India's state-owned railways are the fourth-largest in the world. They have suffered from years of low investment and populist policies that have kept fares low. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri (INDIA - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS POLITICS)

It’s that time of the year again. Every organization worth its salt is offering discounts and offers for Women’s Day. Corporate offices are gearing up to celebrate the event with shopping, free make-over and mehendi artists are crowding its shiny corridors.

In a serious case of preaching to the converted, various events are being organized to talk about women’s rights in plush five star hotels to a crowd which is eminently empowered and privileged. Is Women’s Day only about pampering women and making them feel special? Has it turned into another tick box event under organization’s ‘diversity’ initiatives? What about representation and affirmative action for the truly under privileged women of our society?

Personally, I have never been comfortable receiving free goodies on Women’s Day as I felt somewhat undeserving of it. Apart from being born as a female, what had I done to get that gift? I also found it rather embarrassing that the men were always excluded from all such planned events making it unfair and slightly confrontational. When men and women are mutually dependent on each other for their success, why should a particular gender be excluded? Are we trying to counter male privilege through investing in female privilege? I find such an approach counter-productive to the discussion around ‘equality’. I see men as partners not opponents in this journey.

History of Women’s Day
Women’s Day owes its origin to the workplace. In 1908, women garment workers in New York went on strike protesting against the working conditions. In 1909, Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in USA. Over time, it turned into an international movement for women’s rights and universal suffrage. In 1911, in Europe, rallies were held demanding right to vote, right to work and hold public office as well as end discrimination at workplace.

A lot has been achieved since then. But the work that these women started is not over yet. Over the years, the nature of Women’s Day celebrations has undergone a change. With rampant consumerism, the true spirit of Women’s Day has been overshadowed.

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Enhancing Female Work Force participation
There are some fundamental issues on our approach towards diversity in organizations. Creating impactful action items on gender diversity are difficult, time consuming and may give results in the long term. However, we measure success on diversity only in the short term which may sound something like- ‘Female hires should be 30% of total hires in a year’. The demographics, access to education and societal attitudes means that the availability of women in the Indian talent market is limited. It is important to note that only 27% of Indian women are in the workforce which is one of the lowest percentages globally and alarmingly, this number has been on a downward trend.

The reality may be different in the developed markets. We need to stop pretending that the initiatives that worked in the West are going to work in India. Given the skewed birth ratio, lower levels of women education, lower participation in workforce and high dropout rates, this challenge seems almost insurmountable. Setting ambitious targets for diversity hiring is all well but where are we going to hire these women from, if the labour force has insufficient number of women?

Sample this statistic- A recent report from the NITI Aayog said sex ratio at birth (SRB) nationwide had dropped from 906 in 2012-2014 to 900 in 2013-2015. The SRB is the number of girls born for every 1,000 boys. Normally, the SRB is around 952 girls for every 1,000 boys. The heinous practice of killing the girl child in the womb continues in India despite several legislative actions. With limited resources, the education of the male child takes priority. Saving money for a girl’s marriage takes precedence over spending for her education.

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How many organizations in India are working to improve these statistics? How many organizations are partnering with government to ensure that more women get a chance at education or even at remaining alive? There are definitely a few but it is not enough. Actions on these areas may not provide results in the short term. Are organizations willing to invest in long term, sustainable solutions on gender? This has a direct link to the availability of women in the workforce.

Women in the Unorganized Sector
A large part of the unorganized labour force comprises of women. These could be construction workers, domestic help or agricultural workers. They are mostly paid half as much as a man, work in difficult conditions, are prone to sexual harassment and have no child care support. These are the invisible work force of India, who have no voice, no rights and little awareness. Apart from few NGOs, not too many organizations and individuals are speaking on their behalf. There is a definite need to step up interventions in this area and improve their status.

Gender Pay Gap
I don’t think anyone can refute that such a phenomenon exists. Management should take corrective action (if needed) and share it with employees. Many organizations are still in denial mode. As an HR professional, I have rarely seen recruiters being sensitized on this topic or compensation experts talking about it.

However, it is encouraging to see that women are talking about this phenomenon now and organizations are taking notice of the fact.

Policy Initiatives and ‘Sympathetic Sexism’
Policy initiatives like flexi working, work from home and enhanced maternity leave are all welcome steps but we need to position them correctly so as to not perpetuate the age-old notion that taking care of the family is primarily a woman’s job. Again, initiatives like ‘Return to Work’ programs are welcome but instead of being only focused on women, they can be gender neutral. A man too could potentially take a break for all the reasons that a woman does but even today that is treated as a social anomaly.

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The discussion on gender equality has spawned a new breed of men and women who indulge (often unknowingly) in something called ‘Sympathetic Sexism’. There are those who say that ‘Men should help their wives at home in the household work’ as if it isn’t the man’s responsibility and he is doing his wife a favour. Or those who look down on woman who choose to be stay at home mothers. Or those who hire a woman who has taken a career break from work but then think and act as if they have done her a huge favour. Or those who say that ‘Oh, he’s a great husband. He takes care of the kids while his wife can spend a day with her friends.’ The underlying emphasis here is that leisure is not a fundamental right of a woman but a privilege that her husband bestows on her. They might sound quite harmless but are equally damaging for the cause of equality.

Despite the modern façade, most organizations even today remain conservative in thought and action, perhaps a reflection of our patriarchal society. More efforts are needed to sensitize the workforce to keep biases in check, create a culture of inclusion in organizations and to act as champions of gender equality.

Women’s Day should be celebrated through showcasing efforts and results towards betterment of women both inside and outside the organization. Ways and means to involve employees into such initiatives should be looked at. I deserve that Women’s Day gift if I have managed to pull even one woman into the work force or drive career growth of a female colleague. Women’s Day was a momentous event which stood for demand of fundamental rights for woman. It cannot be reduced to a line-up of fun events. #KhabarLive