Change the cobblestones: The need to dismantle a system stacked against working women

One of my favourite corporate leaders, Indra Nooyi, recently talked about how she dismantled the cobblestones pathway that led to the entry level to the PepsiCo campus in New York. The cobble stones pathway was beautiful and grand, but there were gaps between them and women employees wearing heels had to risk breaking their heels or tiptoe so that their heels did not get stuck in the holes. Nooyi also endured this for a number of years, but when she became President, she changed the structure so that women could walk more freely now.

Today, we live in a corporate world that is much more cognizant of women’s needs. But these are probably the big corporates and forward-thinking companies, including startups that have been implementing such facilities and altering office structures and mindsets to cater to women employees. However, there are still gaps and there are still cobble stones that need to be changed in the workplace for women to thrive and grow in an environment that they are totally comfortable with.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.

The Pandemic as an Opportunity

The pandemic has hit working women the most with multiple responsibilities of managing the work, children, parents, kitchen and home. All working women might not have to manage all of these tasks, but the pandemic has had a more telling impact on working women. It is not surprising then that working women in droves have quit their jobs.

As per the WEF Report, women employees were more severely impacted by the pandemic. The situation has become another cobblestone. They experienced a higher unemployment rate and a more subdued entry into re-employment. Again, women’s re-employment has been slower, with lower hiring rates and delayed hiring into leadership roles. There is also evidence that among those women who have continued to work throughout the pandemic, some have reduced their working hours more than men and some have pulled back from promotions and leadership roles.

Clearly, the pandemic has exposed how our current system is stacked against working women, including more so against working mothers, and it has highlighted the mounting challenges they face in balancing their many roles.

However, the pandemic is also the perfect opportunity for us to turn things around for working women. As the world moves back into normalcy, let’s ask the question: how can we design more flexible work environments which will allow women and especially working mothers to play their dual role at the home and as well as in the workplace. Organisations must understand that today it is not about work-life balance, but it is about work-life integration. Work is increasingly seeping into personal life and vice versa. And to make the combination work, employers need to ensure employees can achieve their life’s goals along with their work.

Design Thinking approach

A Deloitte article on how design thinking can help tackle gender bias in the workplace quoted a very interesting example of classical music – In the 1970s, fewer than 5 percent of players in the United States’ top five professional orchestras were female. By 2016, women held over 50 percent of the chairs in America’s 250 top orchestras.

Many experts attributed the drastic positive change to a simple design choice: blind auditions. In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began putting a screen between auditioning musicians and the selection committee. To completely ensure that no bias creeped in, some auditions asked applicants to remove their shoes to eliminate the distinctive sound of a woman’s footwear. After intentionally redesigning the environment to remove any knowledge of or reference to gender during the audition process, orchestras suddenly started to hire more women.

Moving Forward

Women are multi-faceted and gifted to play different roles. Our present working environment is not good enough to cater to the psycho-social and physical needs of the women. Design-thinking focuses on the people that they are creating or designing for and, in this case, it should be used to focus on the needs of the women employee. Organisations need to leverage the principles of design thinking and create internal structures, processes and services for its women employees.

So, whether we are designing workplaces to again welcome women workers back to organisations post the pandemic or creating a new flexi working environment, it is necessary to implement innovative design thinking approach. The office or working environment of the future has to be built around the specific and special needs of women workers. Both physical and implicit biases have to be taken care of by including empathy, exploration and experimentation in the design process and ultimately reflecting organization wide changes.

Another recent development that caught my eye was the Ola electric all women factory. I would love to understand more and like to visit the factory someday! Things are moving in the right direction, but then it is a long road ahead.

To sum up, we need to take the opportunity provided by the pandemic to recreate the working environment and vanish all cobble stones both tangible and intangible and definitely not wait for a woman leader to rise to the top to dismantle structures that are not women-friendly.

(The writer is former CEO of HCL Technologies, founder-chair, Sampark Foundation, and author of Employees First, Customer Second.)

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