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Minority Report | Vesting in women

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 Shefalee Vasudev

One of India’s best-known feminists, Urvashi Butalia, publisher of Zubaan, an imprint of Kali for Women, the country’s first feminist publishing house, was invited last week by Swedish furniture retailer Ikea to conduct a gender class for managing their business in India.

In other words, Ikea wants its managers to understand how a foreign company should engage with its women employees in India, including those at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid. That it has made this a prime concern before opening its first store is a sign that it wants to be here for the long haul. It is Ikea’s policy to hire women to make up 50% of its workforce.

Last year, the company won approval from the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) to invest close to `10,000 crore to open 25 stores in India, making it the largest investor in single-brand retail, after the country allowed 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector in 2012.

Ikea, which sells household goods, furnishings, furniture and cookware through large stores on highways near big cities, is still to announce where it will launch its first shops in India.

There is no dearth of advice on this fast-selling segment of management wisdom called how to do business in India, especially for foreign companies that would expectedly face enormous corporate, legal, cultural and political challenges. Given the diversity of our workforce, it is sufficiently complex even for organizations rooted in India to find the right balance between corporate discipline and responsibility.

However, most of the advice found in books (including one by consulting firm EY), management journals or newspaper articles, is wrapped around taxation, legalities, working within governmental attitudes, risk management, market entry, business structures inside organizations, pay, cultural notions among Indians and language issues—summing up the canvas of work culture.

The concerns hardly zero in on the needs and expectations of women, even though I stumbled into some notes on how to create equal and secular organizations and what secularism means in India. But a separate sensitivity charter for females is perhaps not even top of the mind for Indian companies.

Much of our understanding of gender issues at the workplace is cloaked by the smoke that leapt out of the cases of sexual harassment that dominated headlines last year.

But provisions against sexual harassment are just one of the concerns, as Butalia points out. Toilets for women equipped with the right sanitary conveniences (a rarity even in some of the best Indian workplaces), change rooms with safe lockers for those who must change out of personal clothes into office uniforms, regular, reliable transport facilities for late evenings, would be the bare minimum.

Equally important, says Butalia, is to enable women in such a way that their job becomes a powerful choice for them and their families instead of being seen as a draining compulsion to become supplementary earners to help run their households. For this, extending insurance to family members through the woman employee, and inviting their husbands and families for designated family days periodically is crucial. What a woman is doing at her workplace needs to be showcased to the family so that her work gets the dignity she deserves when back home she is spoken of as a working woman.

It is inspirational reasoning, one that needs strengthening and implementation, especially for those with middle and lower designations. Across the world, women remain deeply divided inside their minds about their working status. There is always a section of society as well as inside the family that labels them self-serving and ambitious if they work—the lady with the briefcase stereotype—and lazy or unenterprising if they don’t. Beaming back to families what they actually do on a day-to-day basis and highlighting what they are good at would change the notions around working women in environments which force them to contribute to bread and butter and yet be judged for doing so.

The question that’s been playing in my mind since this conversation with Butalia is whether Indian companies worry about their female employees on similar lines and for those from other nationalities? We all know that every foreigner working in India gets a crash lecture in personal safety, what to wear and what not to do. But, perhaps, some specific human resource investment is required for companies hiring foreigners to see if they can be made comfortable in a particular way, whether they engage in the right dialogue with their female or male colleagues, whether there is an integration of attitudes based on respect of cultural differences. It may not be a bad idea to have large, open staff meetings and start by asking: so what is the least you expect from your workplace.

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