The bias surrounding women on top
“When will it be okay for us to embrace power?”
I watched Joanna Coles, Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, on TV the other day, asking this very important question, addressing the very important issue of the stigma around powerful, successful women. [Feature Image Courtesy: chicagobusiness.com]
The discussion was focussed around the US presidential elections and Hilary Clinton’s recent state win over Bernie Sanders . But the question penetrates deeper into the global outlook rampant in our societies today.
Women in power, be it the working mother, the CEO, the international sports star or even the political leader – constantly find themselves going to trial for being the other gender and judged by a jury that consists of their male counterparts or societies that have made it their business to look down upon, question, criticise and judge the female population at their will.
A woman finds herself having to constantly rise above the din of misogynistic inferences – both subtle and blatant but never apologetic. When M/s. Coles was asked on the show about the perception of Hilary Clinton as the potential ruler of the country, she deftly manoeuvred the conversation towards this important stigmatisation citing the example of Clinton. That dialogue around the former lady secretary of state as the potential first ever president of the United States was as rife with sexist undertones as it was rich in feminist votes and democratic supporters of the Clinton regime.
The story is the same for every woman in a position of power or importance. This is another good reason to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’. The CEO of Facebook and a great example of successful women leaders, Ms. Sandberg uses anecdotes to illustrate her points from conversations with various other eminent figures. She talks about the TV actress and producer Tina Fey who addressed the assumption that a successful working woman must not be able to juggle both work and family life and so one of the most frequently asked questions is “How do you do it all?” – a question that is never asked of a man and is inherently condescending and sexist.
Another example is of the widespread media attention that was brewed when Marissa Mayer accepted her role as CEO of Yahoo while in the third trimester of her pregnancy. Stay-at-home mothers often tend to look down upon career women and vice versa. These are questions and conversations that need to be turned on their head.
I have worked with a software company that caters to the oil and gas sector for 2 years. After a gap of a year and two country moves later, I now plan to re-join them. As is atypical of the tech and the energy industry, the ratio of male to female employees shows a wide gap. The general assumption is that the industry ‘isn’t for them’. In the company I worked for, while admittedly the gender gap was also large with more male employees to a fraction of the amount of female employees, it was really the collective team – the ‘people’ both male and female working in concert together towards a common goal that made this gender gap virtually inconspicuous and a non-issue. As long as the drive and passion is there to achieve a common goal, the sex of your team member should be a non-issue. And the treatment of this as a non-issue needs to start with the top management and trickle down from there.
The elephant in the room as soon as a woman enters any office that holds a pertinent level of importance is always palpable. Women, immigrants, persons of colour and the poor for example – all those who fall at the bottom of the social and political hierarchies and are afforded lesser wages will ostensibly also always be perceived with a lesser amount of seriousness and credibility in the office they hold than their more secure male counterparts. The answer lies not in going after those who condemn and criticise but going after this archaic divisiveness that keeps the lines always drawn by subjecting some parts of society to lesser means than others based on what they look like.
Attempts are being made aggressively to break the glass ceiling but the playing field in most countries remains anything but level. Lean In and McKinsey conducted a study of 118 companies and 30,000 employees that listed all the reasons why women are being held back in the work place. Researchers have arrived at the conclusion that more work-from-home and family friendly opportunities, flexibility and more opportunities for higher paying jobs can be some solutions. Marc Benioff, CEO of the cloud computing company Salesforce.com echoed his stance on the importance of equal pay for women by talking about Women Surge, a new initiative started by Salesforce to identify and evaluate top female talent and to make sure that every meeting, every training program and the like have equal representation for women too. Benioff pointed out that women in high positions in the company are in fact, paid more than their male counterparts, “because in the tech industry those are hard to find!” he says and so they recognised the talent and value of these employees. This further induced a countrywide reassessment of salary structures within Salesforce and they implemented the same practice across the board.
The story in India is no different. The cloud of derision that dots the work environment around the top woman leader is as thick as ever. The tide has started to turn, however slowly, but the road is a long one. Diversity and equality have become significant buzzwords that have started to open eyes and ears and garner coveted responses. But there is no need to sugarcoat and turn a blind eye to the struggles that a woman undergoes to keep both boats of work and family afloat. Indra Nooyi, Pepsico’s CEO, in an interview with Forbes in 2014 candidly laid down her belief that women, in fact, can’t have it all unless they work out the correct mechanism between both their lives – the work and the home one. “Stay at home mothering is a full time job. Being CEO for a company is three full time jobs rolled into one. How can you do justice to them all?” Unless you have the right support from both worlds. Without that support one of the ships is sinking whether you like it or not.
And the support we talk of can only be mustered when the notion of “women can’t” is dropped once and for all and the focus shifts to acknowledging all that they are doing already which is way more than a man does.
“When will it be okay for us to embrace power?” was Joanna Coles’ question.
It will become okay when the wages, job positions are equalised which will extinguish the root cause of the problem itself. It will become okay when families, friends, colleagues and bosses are supportive of the woman climbing the corporate ladder as well as managing the household without the sexist remarks and lingering aura of condescension.
And it will become okay when more men come forward to highlight the importance of treating every woman as an equal.