Glass Ceiling: The Challenges Women Face at the Workplace

imagesIt was at twilight that my friend and I sat talking about our future, both of us having recently passed our higher-secondary exams. I told her that I wanted to be a journalist and travel extensively, meeting new people and having novel experiences. She looked perturbed and told me that maybe I was not being very realistic, as both of us knew being women that sooner or later we would have to settle down and form a family, as our mothers and grandmothers have done for years. As a woman, she declared, I would be forced to adopt a desk job, so as to be near my husband and children. Another one of my male friends also said a similar thing when he told me that after marriage he would expect his wife to stay at home and look after his house and kids. This got me thinking that despite being modernized to the extent we are, whether Indian women still have certain obstacles and barriers left to transcend. Till date the house and the family is considered a woman’s domain – whether she is working or not – while the men are to bear the brunt of the financial responsibilities of the household. When a working couple returns home after a day of frantic work, in most Indian families it is the wife who proceeds to the kitchen while her husband relaxes on the couch, maybe deigning to ‘help’ her do the dishes after. The emphasis is on the word help, for while the man’s efforts in the household is termed as help to his wife it is the duty of the latter and it is the duty of the man to provide for his wife and children, while the woman is merely helping her husband bear the burden. These stereotypes are not a modern innovation but have existed since the dawn of civilization, for marriage has almost always facilitated economic division within the families of our ancestors, where men hunted game while women cooked the meat and sewed skins to make clothing. This disparity continues to exist in the modern world, especially in India. The woman is allowed to pursue her own career and economical development if she has time but never at the cost of her familial duties.

It is at childhood that the initial seeds of gender stereotypes are sown, when relatives and family members gift dolls to the young girl, symbolising her future role as a mother and care-giver; while her brother is gifted a toy gun or a toy car. Most of us girls are given to understand from childhood that we are to marry and have children in the future. This belief is reinforced by films and literature as the clichéd ‘damsel in distress’ waits for her ‘knight in shining armour’.  Keeping these in mind, it is hardly surprising to find our women lacking behind men in the workplace, as they have to handle the dual responsibility of both work and family. It has been noted that most women drops out of their career in its prime to meet such social obligations. Social norms also dictate that the wife relocate with her husband if he is transferred, a ‘good wife’ is supposed to leave her own career and accompany him. Another important aspect is that while ‘house-wife’ is an accepted and even socially commended role, ‘house-husband’ is still very rare, and mostly mocked at by the common masses. A survey conducted in 2011, found that in 19.9% families the husband was the sole earner, but the number was a meagre 8.3 for families with the wife as the sole earner. Stay-at home husbands in the US are less than 2 percent of the total population. The employment rate for married women is comparatively lesser than unmarried/divorced/widowed women with the ration being 6:15. Society orders that a good mother place her children before a blossoming career. Thus, marriage is a significant barrier to the career of women, and will continue to remain so as long as social doctrines state that it takes more time and better efforts to be a good mother than it does a good father, a good wife than a good husband, and even a good daughter than a good son, women will be at a disadvantage because women cannot commit the same amount of time and effort to work that a man can.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Sylvia An Hewlett said, “We’ve been trying to fix women so they fit into the lockstep male career model, instead of changing the model.” In a country, where many girls are still being killed in the womb or unable to attain even the basic education, females lack the numeric advantage of males in the workplace. Add to this the beliefs of women being less aggressive, less strategic in their thinking and risk averse, it is not surprising that so few women manage to reach positions of leadership and authority. A poster by the UK Equal Opportunities Commission states “prepare your daughter for the workforce: give her less pocket money than your son”. Gender inequality and stereotypes are so common and pervasive in the workplace that it is often overlooked. The percentage of women in senior management in our country is only 3% to 6%. A study conducted in 2001 by Schien can be cited, where she found that though women account for 40% of the world’s labour force, their share of management positions remain unacceptably low, thus emphasising the ‘think manager – think male’ global syndrome that persists even in a society that legally awards equal rights to both genders. Numerous studies conducted all over India found that women were often denied equal opportunities for pay-rise and promotions than their male counterparts, as well as equal pay.

In conclusion, I will just like to sum up saying that though women have been awarded equal status under the law, we still have plenty of social and cultural barriers left to cross to achieve equality at par with men in the workplace.

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