WFH: The myth of women's empowerment

2020 may be the year remembered for the worldwide havoc caused by a virus, but from a corporate point of view it will also be the year that decided decisively the debate over work from home (WFH) as a policy. Vaccine or no vaccine, WFH has gained an acceptance that effectively counters the objections Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer raised so controversially seven years ago. In particular, there’s been much hoopla over WFH’s vaunted special advantages for women. Though there is something to celebrate here, it would be inaccurate to project WFH as the elixir for women’s empowerment in the workplace.

Let’s agree that the WFH regime imposed by Covid-19 on almost every organisation and the flexibility it affords has proven a boon for educated women. In a society in which women still bear the burden of child and parental care and general housework, WFH offers them the opportunity to demonstrate their talent for multitasking and juggle their time more efficiently between competing demands. This was a point Arundhati Bhattacharya, former SBI chairperson and current CEO of Salesforce India, made soon after the national lockdown was lifted.

The positive spin-off from this WFH experience is that it could eliminate the innate prejudices organisations harbour against hiring women, especially younger, married women. Gutting that hiring bias is undoubtedly important for fostering an acceptance of gender equality in the workplace. But the assumption that WFH can dramatically alter the gender dynamics in the Indian workplace is misplaced.

Problem number one is men themselves. They dominate corporate India and so do their prejudices. The WFH option may encourage them to grudgingly consider judging men and women more equally in their HR decisions but it will take a lot more than a flexible workplace environment to overcome entrenched bigotry.

To be fair, this approach is not restricted to India. A famous Harvard study that sought to understand why fewer women than men hold senior positions or get promoted in American corporations showed that there was no perceptible difference between the behaviour of men and women in their roles in the workplace, and concluded that it’s the gender bias that dominates decision-making on promotions.

To quote the researchers: “Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean-in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.” 

For example, the study quoted previous research showing how women with children are considered less committed to work whereas men who have children are held to be more responsible. WFH may raise the proportion of women working in corporations but it is unlikely to change notions like these anytime soon.

We only have to look at our own IT and IT-es industry for proof of how gender bias is hardwired in corporations. This is an industry that saw supersonic expansion in the late nineties and early 2000s as global corporations turned to India for cheaper back-office services. This pace of growth, in turn, forced corporations to jettison gender biases and hire more women — so much so that women account for over 30 per cent of the workforce of this industry, many of them young women who regarded their jobs as long-term careers. Now look at the top leaderships of the biggest IT/ITes firms, and the proportion of women is in single digits.  

That said, WFH will certainly reduce the opportunities for men to bypass women within the organisational dynamics. The head of a US multinational in India once described how he ruled out office meetings after six because the timing made it difficult for women executives with children to attend. It’s the oldest exclusionary trick in the book. Now, thanks to an array of web-conferencing software, women have the facility to attend meetings at any time. The boys’ meetings at bars — or Zoom parties in these times of social distancing — may still keep women at arm’s length but when it comes to gender equality, incremental change is better than nothing.

In any case, WFH will not dramatically alter India’s dismal statistics on female participation rates in the workforce as Ms Bhattacharya had suggested. Middle class women form a minuscule proportion of the female workforce. For those numbers to change, more lower-middle class women need to be employed in factories — in garments, defence, automobiles — like their sisters in the West and in Southeast Asia.  And for that to happen, the economy needs to grow faster. But now that companies have discovered the huge cost benefits from WFH policies, women may find that they have climbed the first small step towards a level playing field.  


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