Redefining what work means to create a fairer workplace

employeeFormer UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan has been quoted as saying, "Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance." In recent years, much has been said and written about the importance of achieving gender equality. Organizations are becoming more conscious of the gender disparity that exists at the workplace and are revisiting their organizational policies, recruitment targets and pay scales to promote greater female labor participation. Yet, implementing these strategies alone is proving to be insufficient. More women are falling off the labor grid in India than ever before. Those who do enter the workforce quit before they reach the middle layers of the organization and very few make it to the top or get a seat in the boardroom.

Why does gender inequity continue to persist despite the best efforts of organizations to address it? Part of the answer lies in the deep-rooted socio-cultural norms that demand that women put their families and home first, regardless of their education levels. Women, even today, continue to do the lion’s share of household work. Consider these statistics:

  • Globally, women do 75% of all unpaid work, including housework and child and elder care, according to a report by McKinsey
  • In South Asia and MENA, women spend more than five times as many hours as men on unpaid care work

This is further compounded by stereotypical workplace perceptions and rigid practices and structures that emphasize physical presence at the workplace. Women looking to climb the corporate ladder are expected to model themselves after successful male colleagues and prioritize work above everything else in order to succeed. As a result, women are constantly torn between two contradictory set of expectations – that of the ideal worker and the ideal woman – a binary choice that is a result of generations of subconscious bias. As women strive to “have it all”, the duality of work and home places immense pressure on them, often forcing them to choose between family and their career.

This equation is unlikely to change anytime soon unless organizations embrace a radical shift in the way they define work, what it means, and how it is measured. Realizing absolute gender parity requires a holistic approach – one that recognizes that women’s needs are unique and different, and attempts to address the key fundamental factors that create work-life conflict such as long hours, rigid schedules and traditional promotion policies. Here are three major focus areas for organizations looking to truly embrace gender diversity and empower women:

1.Redefine what work means

Despite flexi and remote work becoming more commonplace than ever before, “face time” at the workplace continues to be an important factor for success. The odds of success continue to be unfairly stacked in favor of the ideal worker - those who are able to put in long hours at work. This is especially true for employees in managerial roles or those on assignments that need extensive team collaboration. Consequently, women hesitate to tap into flexi opportunities to manage their work-home conflicts, ultimately impacting either their work-life balance or career progression. Worse still, those who do avail of flexible options are often penalized for it. A survey by Deloitte and Timewise found that over 25% of women were given access to fewer opportunities or passed over on promotions because of their flexible working patterns.

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What organizations can do: One way to address this is to shift the focus away from “presenteeism” to a result-based approach to work. Flexible working can become an accepted norm in an organization when senior leaders model the right behavior by availing flexible work days. Formalizing flexibility through meaningful policies can encourage not only women but also men to better utilize flexi-work options in order to fulfil familial responsibilities, thus reducing the pressure on women at home. Unilever UK, for instance, made this transition successfully with their Family Friendly Benefits program. The company offers agile and flexi working, and provides ‘back-up’ care to support employees with child and elderly care arrangements in case of emergencies. They also provide guidance on parenting, from family planning to return-to-work mentoring, as part of their Maternity and Paternity Support program.

2.Recalibrate how work is measured

Creating an organizational mindset that promotes gender balance requires a redefinition of what work means and the way work is evaluated and rewarded. Today’s workplace can no longer be defined by physical boundaries in an increasingly digital and connected world. The modern workplace demands a re-haul of the fundamental approach to work and re-design of performance metrics. For instance, performance metrics need to measure employee caliber against Key Result Areas (KRAs) – regardless of where and when the work is performed, or whether the employee has taken a break in their career. Recalibrating metrics helps shift the organizational focus – from subjective traditional evaluation practices to objective evaluation processes that leverage crystallized KRAs.

What organizations can do: Holistically rework evaluation metrics to promote success factors such as talent, team spirit and productivity. This ensures that women who avail flexi work options or take a break are not passed over for pay increments or promotions. Lay the foundation by defining and implementing policies that allow for small breaks in career progression as women and men alike hit important personal mile-stones such as marriage, child-birth, relocation due to family needs and so on. Create pay policies that do not penalize women for taking a break from work and provide upskilling, training, mentoring to help women seamlessly transition back to work after a break. Most importantly, sensitize managers, leaders and the workforce alike on the new approach to work and performance evaluation. PWC and Tata Sons have initiatives in place to help new mothers or women on a sabbatical retain their performance ratings. Such initiatives provide women with the security and flexibility they need to balance conflicting work and family needs.

3.Change gears to a flexible performance model

The advent of the connected workplace offers a great deal of flexibility to work from any location. Workplaces can take advantage of this development to make flexibility the norm by gravitating towards a model where employees deliver work at their convenience - within the larger framework set by the organization to ensure that targets are met. Cultivating a culture that not only promotes workplace productivity but also appreciates individual dreams, passions and aspirations is key to building an inclusive and successful workplace. Consider the example of Google who introduced the “Innovation time-off” concept at work, allowing their engineers to spend 20% of their working time each week on a project of personal interest.

What organizations can do: Flexibility must not be perceived as a fringe benefit available in return for “omni-accessibility” of employees or as a “leeway” given to women who need time to attend to their family. Encourage managers and C-suite executives to adopt a conspicuously flexible approach to work, without compromising on accountability and results, to demonstrate how a flexible performance model works. Additionally, ensure that employees have access to the right tools to collaborate and stay productive while using flexible work arrangements.

Leading companies such as GE, Johnson and Johnson and Salesforce actively promote flexible employment opportunities to attract, retain and engage top talent. To quote Emma Watson, “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong…it is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideas.” Driving such systemic change requires a work environment that not only accommodates family life but also empowers and rewards employees who seek to balance their work-life priorities. Organizations that reset the traditional paradigms of what work means and how it is measured will experience numerous benefits, including a happier, balanced and more engaged workforce, enhanced productivity and better financial performance.