When Priya joined a US-based research firm in February 2022, she had not anticipated that the job would involve listening to “wife jokes’”after each meeting. “They would complain about their wives and then would point at me and say, We should not say anything in front of her because she will get ideas and will not let her husband live’,” Priya told IndiaSpend.

Priya had inquired about the gender ratio of the organisation during her interview. She was told that the company was actively hiring women as most of the team members are male. A few days later, when she joined the team, she realised that she was the only woman in a team of 16. Over the last eight months, in addition to facing casual sexism, Priya has also been ostracised and has struggled to assert her leadership.

“I was hired as a senior visual designer with four people reporting to me, including a junior designer,” said Priya. “Whenever I assign a brief to him and ask him to work on it, he says he does not understand it. And I explain it to him in more detail. Once, he told me, ‘If you know it so well, why don’t you do it?’”

When she told her supervisors, she was told to not report him. The design lead told her that he would assign the tasks to the junior designer since he probably did not want to work with Priya or did not like a “woman telling him what to do”.

Gender-based discrimination at the workplace that often begins during the hiring process makes it difficult for women to join and continue to participate in workplaces, IndiaSpend found during interviews with women employees, diversity consultants and human resource professionals. India has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates in the world.

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted in 2020-’21, just around a quarter of Indian women are in the labour force. In urban areas, this proportion is lower at 18.6%.

On August 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the National Labour Conference, said the country needs to think of what can be done to help encourage women to join and stay in the workforce.

Over the last few years, many companies have been adopting gender diversity policies, including period leave, flexible work timings and taxi reimbursements. But do these policies work? And should they be adopted by all companies? In the fourth story for Women at Work 3.0, we address these questions and highlight what companies need to do to improve diversity and retain female employees.

You can read the earlier stories in this series here, here and here.

Gender diversity

Increased participation of women in the workplace leads to higher profits, better decision making and more innovation, multiple studies conducted over the past decade and a half have found. In a 2015 global survey, over 80% of 73 Indian chief executive officers said diversity helps in attracting talent, enhancing business performance and strengthening brand and reputation.

Despite these benefits, Indian companies are not succeeding in introducing women and retaining them in the workplace. India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world, doing better than only Afghanistan among its neighbours. The reasons for this range from socio-cultural norms, unpaid household work and the marriage and motherhood penalty, as our earlier reports highlight.

Gender stereotypes – women are not good bosses, cannot make decisions or handle risks – impede women’s progress at the workplace. Priya is not alone and research has shown that men are least comfortable with having a female boss and that women are often assigned secondary tasks and have to perform better than men to get equal professional recognition.

These factors also lead to an erosion of self-confidence and imposter syndrome, a self belief that you are unqualified or incompetent. Fighting these also acts as a barrier, said Nirmala Menon, founder and chief executive of Interweave Consulting, an inclusion solutions consultancy.

“When you are constantly being told you have to play second fiddle and that your first job is to be a good mother and wife, women end up not rising to their full potential. Because there is that sense of guilt and fear and lack of legitimacy for leadership, they tend to not raise their hand for opportunities,” she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. The loss in household incomes increased women’s urgency to enter the workforce. But the accumulated debt and financial stress because of the financial impacts of the pandemic has made women more susceptible to exploitation and discrimination.

Eight months into the lockdown, fewer women were employed compared to a year earlier, with urban women being impacted disproportionately. And as restrictions eased, women thronged to workplaces to make up for the economic losses and accumulated debts.

The latest labour force survey data shows an increase in labour force participation but this is distress induced. The increase, driven by rural India, has pushed women to take up poor quality, low paying jobs, IndiaSpend reported on October 3.

Moreover, staying employed during the pandemic also led to added mental stress for women. Women faced more pandemic-induced mental stress compared to men, found a survey of around 1,500 households in Delhi, conducted between May 2019 and May 2020. The study found that women whose husbands had lost their jobs faced higher stress and, among them, employed women with jobless husbands faced even more stress.

To address these issues and improve diversity, several leading Indian and international companies have been introducing affirmative policies. Accenture and Barclays run programmes to reintroduce women with career breaks to the workforce, ITC recently announced policies including childcare sabbaticals and travel support for women managers, and multiple companies have introduced period leave. EY has monthly forums aimed at supporting young mothers.

But these policies are not going to solve all the problems, said diversity consultants. “It is nice to have these policies but they are not going to change the system,” said Pallavi Pareek, founder and chief executive of Ungender, a consultancy working towards diversity and inclusion in workplaces. Very often the problems are cultural and require constant and dedicated efforts, we found after speaking to 15 women working in different industries.

Sexism, harassment and discrimination

In 2020, Prachi* was contacted by a headhunter for a prominent payment gateway company. As they started discussing a possible role, he asked her if she was married. Why is that relevant, she wanted to know.

He insisted it was and reluctantly revealed: “See, if you are not married, you would take leave for your wedding and if you are, then you would take leave for your children. We prefer to avoid that.” Prachi was aghast. “I did not know how to respond to that,” she said. “It was eye-opening for me as I thought these are biases of the past that people are getting over.”

Unfortunately, gender-based discrimination during hiring and at workplaces is still prevalent. A recent Oxfam report found that societal gender-based discrimination accounts for 98% of the gap in employment among salaried workers in urban areas. In other words, for women, their own education levels, experience and the level of education of the head of the household they belong to, only influences 2% of the probability of being employed.

Of the 15 women we spoke to, two faced discrimination at interviews, nine at workplaces and four at both workplaces and during interviews.

In 2016, after she graduated from an engineering college, Nikita* joined a firm as a design engineer. For months, she worked hard, spending weekends on projects. She received appreciation from clients and the team lead and won an organisational award for excellent performance.

However, when it came to appraisals, she was given a rating of only 3 out of 5, considered to be average. “I expected to get a higher rating,” Nikita told IndiaSpend. “I spoke to my manager and he told me, ‘We gave you three stars so that your male colleague will not feel bad. We don’t want to let him down. Hope that is okay.’”

For women from marginalised communities, there are added layers of discrimination, driven by stereotypes. Five years ago, Afreen* had applied for a job at a multinational company. The recruitment process involved 12-13 rounds and Afreen cleared them all. The final round was an interview with the operations manager.

When the manager entered, he offered his hand for a handshake. Afreen politely said that she is not comfortable shaking hands with men. The manager started the interview and after a few questions, he asked her when she plans to get married. He then added, “What if you leave the company if you get pregnant because you come from a Muslim family? You wear a hijab, you don’t shake hands. This is not professional,” she said.

“I told him, it all depends on performance and that I am the only earning member of the family,” continued Afreen. “I reached the last round but I knew then that I would not get selected. I feel like I was not given a fair chance.”

Complaining has not helped

In October 2018, the issue of sexual harassment at workplaces took centre-stage in the form of the #MeToo movement after many women spoke up about their experiences. Just around a year after this, in November 2019, Sejal* filed a complaint under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act) – the first such complaint to be filed with the POSH internal committee at her workplace, a finance firm.

Sejal was at a company party when her colleague forcibly kissed her after she passed out from drinking alcohol. The next day, when she complained, the head of the human resources department asked her if she was sure and warned that it would be a long procedure should she choose to file a complaint. But she was also told that if she were to report it internally, the company would ensure that the offender faced retribution. Sejal knew her rights and insisted on a POSH complaint.

Over the next three months, Sejal had to juggle work with the proceedings. She was told not to tell anyone about this but since the incident happened at a company party, everyone knew about it anyway and some would gossip about it.

Keeping with the confidentiality clause, she could not even tell her supervisor and for every meeting related to the case, she would have to make excuses. “There should have been some provision that she has made a complaint, she will need time,” Sejal told IndiaSpend. “Because we were working so hard, it was difficult for me to excuse myself at a junior level. When I would say that I have to go to a meeting, my supervisor would say I have not scheduled anything for you’. It was difficult for me to confront him every single time.”

Moreover, she also had to deal with constantly being confronted by her perpetrator. “His team sat right next to the female washroom,” said Sejal. “Often, I had to cross him and he would try to talk to me and I was very uncomfortable. So, I used to feel like not going [to the washroom].”

When Sejal asked the company to help with this problem, with suggestions like shifting him to another department or telling him to not approach her, she did not receive any help. “These are provisions under POSH, I had read it through. I knew what I was demanding,” said Sejal. “They were treating me like I was being too demanding and that I was being a spoiled child.”

At the end of this process, she was told that he had acknowledged what had happened at the company party, and apologised for it. The company gave him a warning letter and told him his behaviour was unsuitable. It was the sort of standard letter usually issued for minor infringements. He continues to work for the firm.

“A lot of my friends got the same letter because they were cheating on the training paper. A few got it because they had a personal diary in their bag, against the company rule of not allowing any paper from outside that could be used to leak confidential company information. And he got it for kissing me while I was unconscious,” said Sejal, who quit her job in 2021.

All the women we spoke to either faced some form of retribution after complaining of workplace sexual harassment or received no help after complaining. Some said they did not complain as they saw no point in doing so.

Nivedita Yadav was 24 when she joined the sales team of an insurance company in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh. Being the only female member of the team, she was always pushed to attend to the customers, “since you are a woman, they [the customers] will like talking to you”. She quit the job in five months and after working as a freelancer for two years, returned to work with another company. She faced similar issues at the second job too and left in six months.

Both times, she did not complain as she did not think it would have helped. “I did not share because these things are too common here and everybody has internalised it,” Yadav told IndiaSpend. “So I did not think anything could come out of complaining.”

Sometimes, complaining can also lead to more problems. Priya, who complained about the work culture at the research firm, was ostracised by her colleagues and had to spend her lunches alone in a corner.

Her request to hire more female staff also led to more work for her. “I requested the vice president to hire more women and I was told, ‘Why don’t you hire a woman since you want one?’” said Priya. “It became an extra task for me and I became responsible for the performance of whomever I hire.”

Do these policies work?

Adopting and introducing policies aimed at improving gender diversity happen when the companies feel there is a need for diversity. Sometimes just making them realise this is a task, said Pareek of Ungender.

“The problem is, when we walk into a room and talk about the need for gender diversity, they will see one or two women sitting beside them and that is enough of an acknowledgment for them. We, as a society and as corporate India, are very happy if there is one woman for every 10 men. The fact that just a representation or tokenism [makes them happy] speaks volumes about why they are not making progress.”

The second problem is convincing companies about the financial benefits of diversity. “When UN Women or World Bank puts out data that if women were to join the workforce equally, hundreds of trillions of dollars could be added to the economy, companies want to know how much of that will be their financial gain,” said Pareek. “So we have to create that business growth conversation, not economic growth, not societal growth, not what is good for women.”

After crossing these barriers, when companies start creating policies, they have to understand that more than policies, creating an equitable environment is key to the success of any policy, say diversity consultants.

“The policy is easy to implement. You can go on the internet and find all the best policies and say that your company is also adopting the policy,” said Menon of Interweave. “But how it is implemented is more important.”

Menon gave the example of a policy providing flexible working hours for women to show how policies that are meant to benefit women can work against them. Very often women making use of the company’s own flexi hours policy are labelled as “not interested in their career or that work is not a priority for them”, said Menon.

Such policy implementation without sensitisation can also impact a female employee’s appraisals, promotions and career growth, said Pareek. “A policy that female employees should not work after 5.30 pm-6 pm, does work for women,” illustrates Pareek. “But if that means the male employees have to stay back and work overtime, then you see that these men are the only ones who are growing. When it comes to appraisals and promotions, they will be picked over the women.”

Asking for feedback and designing policies catered to the needs of the employees is key to the success. “Most of the time, these policies are coming from institutionalised companies like Wipro, Tata or Infosys,” said Pareek. “They are creating these policies after a feedback mechanism. They have already checked the need for the policy.”

“Feedback is the most important part,” said Shefali Kohli, who has been working to improve diversity and representation of women at Godrej Group for the last five years. “Women in our sales team told us that there are not enough public washrooms, which becomes a problem for them when on the field. So, they asked us to provide them with one day of leave for menstruation. And we did that.”

Pareek says companies need to do the same before designing or adopting any policy. Asking the employees about what they want and providing is the best approach, she added.

*Names concealed on request

This article was first published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.