The debate on women’s rights, at home and at work, has made headlines in the past month in India. Public Relations (PR) is among those businesses where women comprise around 70% of the workforce (if not more) and women are part of the top management in most PR firms in India. Although there is no study to substantiate this aspect, if we were to look around in any PR firm, it would seem the norm. Appointment of women CEOs makes headlines in other industries but for us in the PR business, it is business as usual. Of the various disciplines of mass communication, PR is where women entrepreneurs and leaders have helped build the business from scratch. So, I felt that it is only fair that public relations should be seen as the model for a gender neutral environment that corporate India needs to cultivate.
For most corporates, two key issues that need attention are the acceptance of women as bosses and the need to understand a woman’s concerns in balancing her personal and professional life.
Truth be told, many modern and ‘civilized’ Indian men would find taking orders from a woman a tad demeaning. A highly qualified and successful friend (in the real estate sector) once mentioned to me that he turned down a job offer because the company had too many women employees and he was not keen to adjust to their working style. Another friend was thinking of tendering his resignation because his boss, who happens to be a woman, was quite hot-tempered and he couldn’t possibly imagine being chided by her in front of other colleagues.
The fact of the matter is that while women as subordinates are fine (and sometimes desirable especially to accompany male bosses for meetings) but having women bosses isn’t welcome at various levels in the corporate hierarchy. In order to shroud these chauvinist feelings, the most widely used (and abused) argument is that women are more emotional and so may not be able to take unbiased decisions. Well, human emotions have played a major role in our upbringing. Even bearing a child is an emotional decision. If emotions were taken away from human lives, not sure how many of us would see the light of this world.
Discussions on these chauvinist topics are at their peak during appraisal season. If women colleagues with lesser years of experience than their male counterparts are promoted, issues are raised about either the lack of meritocracy in the organization or favoritism towards women by the boss. The same male colleagues wouldn’t think about meritocracy when women are forced to take a career break either for the sake of their children or to accompany their husbands when they need to relocate. And how is it that there is hardly any talk of meritocracy when girls are either denied higher education by families or advised to opt for less time-consuming career options such as teaching or secretarial jobs so that they can devote more time to the chores at home after marriage.
Despite braving the odds, many Indian women happily sacrifice their careers for their children. My mother was one of them. It is a pity when the sons grow up and question the right of other women to greater opportunities at the workplace to make up for the lost years. Surely, we owe it to our mothers to help other women succeed.
On discussing the subject with women colleagues, some of them mentioned that while male colleagues were supportive, it was women colleagues who were not so forthcoming. It was surprising to know of instances of women trying to impede the growth of other women within the same organization. A woman employee once mentioned to me that she was more apprehensive of how other women colleagues would react to the news of her promotion. The patriarchal mindset truly runs very deep irrespective of gender.
Calling it a societal problem or blaming corporate culture is not going to help. We need to look ahead. Board room discussions or televised panel discussions on the subject of women emancipation are not enough. Some people are tempted to recommend reservations for women in jobs. The experience with reservations in jobs in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India has proved that they are primarily enforceable only in government departments or public sector and have restricted the persons of these communities to getting less-skilled and primarily non-managerial jobs. Extending the same reservations to women may get them more jobs but not necessarily more respect. This fight is fundamentally of respect for women.
The issue is clearly that of change of mindset. Therefore it requires stronger internal debates within corporate India on how more opportunities can be extended to women at every level. There are cases where men genuinely do not understand the situations that women face on a daily basis. Gender sensitization sessions to help discuss women’s perspectives and pressures among male colleagues at all levels may help in building better working relationships and addressing prejudices against women that have been part of the patriarchal mindset.
It is accepted for men to let their family lives take a backseat while they devote more time to their careers. Most married women do not have that option. So, the point on flexibility for women needs to be better understood.
In conclusion, corporate India needs to give more to women to correct the skewed distribution of opportunities. Companies need to be open about the steps being taken to address it, particularly in the case of women who have taken career breaks for the sake of their family. Some companies have made a good beginning by stating measurable goals such as having at least 40-50 percent management positions held by women within a set time frame PR owes a lot to women leaders. If women can help build and succeed in a highly challenging and demanding profession as public relations, it is a matter of time before the success story is repeated in other disciplines, provided they are given the opportunities they deserve.
The author of this post, Tarun Nagrani works at a leading Public Relations firm in Gurgaon, India. The views expressed here are the author’s independent views and do not reflect his organisation’s viewpoint. He has just launched a blog dedicated to PR and can be found here.