I’ll be honest: I cringe when I hear the words ‘Women’s Day’.
I cringe because the essence of its meaning has been lost and been replaced by a number of activities that display the most blatant instances of tokenism. The perfunctory activities around this day are nauseating, particularly with brands and media selling ‘packaged hopes’ to the ‘fairer sex’. Last year, I read there was even a Stiletto Run at an upmarket mall in Bengaluru, in which women had to run in heels measuring 3.5 inches. The promotional literature for the event included the worthy lines: “Confident but not buoyant, compassionate but not weak, come and celebrate remarkable women...”
In the workplace, this ‘special’ day is often reduced to the distribution of online shopping vouchers, flowers and chocolates, and other standard hollow gestures like banal panel discussions and women’s awards. After all, that’s what some people think women enjoy. No wonder, then, that many women associate Women’s Day more with debasement than empowerment.
As I wrote my book, ‘Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do’, two key messages struck me.
First: The rhetoric of “it doesn’t happen to people like us” is far from true. There is abuse and domestic violence in educated families with high disposable incomes too. Women in the corporate sector are not immune, and the control of women by their families continues to dominate the narrative.
Secondly: Research by Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta, (professor of Psychology and Brain Studies, University of Massachusetts) indicates that for women to be more successful, they need to see more female peers in the workplace — more successful women leaders with whom they are able to connect and who can inspire them with the confidence required to reach the higher levels of their organisations.
During my own research I heard an interesting account of how successful women can support female colleagues in the workplace. Meeta Modi* is a senior vice-president in a technology firm and had a colleague in her team, who was a Six-Sigma consultant.
Meeta told me: “Sunita* got along well with everyone and her work was so brilliant that our team had won awards based on her contribution. She was married to a general manager from an MNC and stayed with her in-laws. The family was traditional. The mother-in-law would make her cook before leaving, and tell her she had to cook again after coming home. Her husband made sure he was there to pick her up from work and was in the house when she was. That was the level of his support. She did complain, but never cribbed. One day I asked her if her family understood the importance of her work and what she did. She said her husband knew, but her mother-in-law didn’t even care. She was on a fast-track programme and soon she was promoted. Before giving her the news, I called her home landline and spoke to the mother-in-law. After introducing myself I said to her, “I want to thank you for supporting Sunita. She is doing such a brilliant job.” I compared her performance to other team members. I added, “Maybe you want to do something special for her.” I then called her husband and told him the same thing. And I told him that he should break the news to Sunita, and that I would only give her the promotion letter the next day. After a few days, she said to me, ‘I don’t know what has happened, but everything has changed in my house. My husband asks me exactly what kind of work I do. He wants to know more. He is amazed that I am actually doing this kind of work. My mother-in-law has calmed down.’”
Meeta admits that she did it because Sunita was a good resource and she wanted to retain her. As a manager, she managed the situation in a way that worked well for all the people involved. Meeta’s conversations with Sunita’s family members are a positive manipulation of our cultural constructs. Every parent of a colleague is our “aunty’ or “uncle”, and it’s significant to note that it’s easier for us to treat them as such, and speak to them with less hesitation.
I brainstormed with a number of women and corporate leaders as to how one could really make Women’s Day meaningful and different. Some corporates had a women’s week or a month during which they held activities. My biggest push in our conversations was to make them think further as to how they could influence the condition or mindset of women and families, so as to bring about a change that truly supported women in the long run.
1.In-law Day: The idea that resonated most was a “Bring your In-Laws or Spouse to work” concept. What does this do? It showcases the woman in a positive, productive light. It provides a platform for her to introduce other women colleagues to her family. It provides a potent opportunity for bosses to speak to the families about how much they value their team member. It makes the families truly respect the woman’s contributions. A CEO in Pune holds a ‘Bring your Mother-in-Law to Work Day’ at her company and she says it has hugely impacted the relationships between the women working with her and their own families. Families are proud of what their daughters-in-laws do, and now, mothers-in-laws are more and more ambitious for their daughters-in-law. In many cases, it has removed the tension from their relationships.
2.Workshops that tackle difficult issues: A friend organised a week of workshops for women in her office, which employed about 100 women. They could sign up in advance for workshops that trained them on negotiation, finance, and personal change to build skills like the ability to say “No” if needed. The most popular and successful workshop was the one that dealt with mental health and abuse. Women were suffering and did not have the support at home or among their circle of friends to ask for help. A consulting lawyer was also hired every day for an hour over the course of a month to advise young women, in confidence, who were struggling with abuse at home. Women set up an appointment on an online calendar and called in. Long term solutions in terms of counseling and meeting empanelled doctors were suggested to women.
3.Feminist Talks: I recently held a one-hour talk at an office, where I spoke to equal numbers of men and women on patriarchy, male privilege and how debilitating it is for women both at home and in the workplace. We spoke of everything from dowry to domestic violence, from women changing surnames, to children taking on only the male surname. We even addressed the elephant in the room – the “tradition” rooted in patriarchy: karvachauth. I had both men and women come up to me afterwards, saying they were beginning to question their choices and decisions. One young man said he and his wife were about to have a baby, and he now felt more empowered to make choices that would go against the patriarchal expectations his family had of them as a couple.
4.Game Play: Make Women’s Day about activities that women stop pursuing as adults – or are told are unsuitable for them, such as sports. Aside from the fitness benefits, this helps with developing strong links between women within the company and from different verticals. How many offices have a contact sport team for women? I have heard of cricket teams for men, even football teams for men, but rarely teams for women, barring perhaps badminton and chess. Why not organize and train teams for games like football, and have a corporate match on Women’s Day? A friend of mine plays football with women in Gurgaon and practices once a week. Aside from the physical activity, they all have become great friends and form an informal women’s support group. Another office at which I have been speaking is organising 3km and 5km mini-marathons for the women in their office.
5.Adopting a Cause: There are many women who don’t even know about Women’s Day, including perhaps your own domestic staff. Adopt a community or women’s cause that needs bolstering. Women in the company can mentor other women who need this extra support. Not only is it carrying out an important function but also makes us conscious of our own privileges. A friend on Women’s Day celebrates all the women who work in her home. She has “secret” bank accounts for her female domestic staff, in which she deposits part of their salary on a monthly basis. In short, the husbands cannot take this money away from their wives and it can be used for anything they want. On Women’s Day, she renews their health insurance and takes them all out for a movie of their choice. Some might see this as “tokenism”, but she says that it really has helped improve their working relationships.
All too often I have heard stories of women in vice-president and partner positions who believe that because they are successful, being part of Women’s Day is beneath their dignity — it is no longer needed because they feel they are at par with their male peers.
This is completely wrong-headed. Seeing successful women can hugely impact a young woman’s own leadership aspirations by making her feel that success is achievable. However, Nilanjana Dasgupta’s research also cautions: If a role model is presented as a superstar, a woman who is privileged by birth, and has attended the best schools and colleges, this could have a negative effect on the morale of young women who would see these advantages as insurmountable obstacles. In other words, if a woman’s success seems unachievable and out of reach, she cannot influence other women in positive ways. So when women leaders are invited to speak and interact with female junior colleagues, make sure they are briefed to be approachable, talk about their own challenges and present themselves as “relatable” colleagues.
Change begins from the top in companies, and CEOs must demonstrate a commitment to diversity by leading with hands-on involvement in much of what happens during Women’s Day — not by simply relegating it to the D&I or HR team to handle.
Often Women’s Day is treated as another event to tick off a long list. It needs to now take on a new shape and significance, which will bring with it long-lasting changes to mindsets, working cultures and entrenched biases.
If you can’t make the change this year, make it from next year, because we need much more than lip-service, we need to begin changing attitudes and conditioning.
Aparna Jain is CEO of Zebraa Works and a Leadership Coach. Her latest book is called Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do (HarperCollins 2016)
(*names changed to protect privacy of people involved)