The sixty-first session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York from in March this year opened up a different kind of world to me. To say it was an incredible journey will not do justice to what it actually meant for me.
I have been associated with the development sector since I was very young. Even though I was working full time as a Human Resource (HR) professional, I tried my best to be connected with some Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) or the other. In 2005, I decided to completely shift to the developmental sector and thus began to see what it means to be working in a NGO, not in the capacity of a volunteer but as a full time employee.
With time my idea of Human Resource Management (HRM) work also underwent a major transformation. Only after joining Breakthrough in 2009, I fully realised the importance of HRM being the strategic partner of the leadership team, being pulled into all kind of discussions and made to participate in every step. Sometimes unwillingly but in hindsight, I understand those were very important steps for me. So being almost pushed to participate at CSW was at one level an acknowledgement of the fact that HRM is just not a support function of Breakthrough but a lot more.
With the increasing complexities, pressure and challenges faced by organisations today, the role of HRM is not just management of employees from recruitment to retirement any longer. This department is a vital part in an organisation’s success. By success, I don’t mean making huge amount of profit but achieving its mission, vision, objectives and goals. So this gradual realisation that existence of HRM is to acknowledge the value of employees as an organizational resource and harnessing human potential, dawned on me at this organisation with immense help from everyone, especially my peers.
Hence, it was indeed a special moment for me to be nominated to participate at CSW. But it’s March. Time for appraisal, increment, developing training need analysis, smoothening ruffled feathers, applying balm to injured soul and generally being around when emotional upheavals can wreck the fabric of the organisation. But looking at the priority theme of this year 61st CSW, ‘women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work’, I decided to let go of everything else and participate.
It’s a space where representatives of UN Member States, UN entities, and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all regions of the world come together. And since the theme for this year was to do with women’s economic empowerment, I actually thought there will be corporate houses too. And as HRM recruits and builds up the environment and culture too at a workplace, I was expecting my tribe to be present there in large number.
Though their stark absence was a massive disappointment to me, but I decided to chat up with representatives from many NGOs, International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and other networks about what they think of the steady decline in women’s workforce participation all over the world and role of the leadership, in particular HRM, in creating an equitable, safe and empathetic environment for employees.
In India, the decreasing women’s labour participation is a matter of major concern as the level of women employment is always the index of the kind of socio-economic progress that a community pursues. Despite the fact that female literacy and education enrolment rates have been rising, India today has lower levels of women’s workforce participation. The rate fell from 29.4 percent in 2004-2005 to 22.5 percent in 2011-2012, as per the latest government statistics. To every 54.6 employed men, there are just 14.7 working women. As per International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Global Employment Trends 2013 report shows out of 131 countries with available data, India ranks 120th in female labour force participation. We are also seeing women dropping out of jobs mid- career; percentage of women in India dropping out of white collar jobs in mid-career is as high as 48 percent, as compared to the Asian average of 21 percent.
There are many reasons to it. One of them is the ‘double burden syndrome’—a culture where both men and women feel that the family and household duties are primarily a woman’s responsibility. The other unexplored and hardly talked about reason is an unsympathetic and unsafe work environment. Violence against women and girls, especially sexual harassment at workplaces, remains a largely neglected issue. Sexual harassment (SH) at workplace is fairly common in India and we are just waking up to the seriousness of this issue. We are seeing several head of organisations being accused of sexual harassment and on investigation being found guilty.
Of course there is The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 but having laws & policies and ensuring strict enforcement really won’t change the mindset that perpetuates violence & discrimination, hence not likely to change the situation for women in workplace. The problem is much deeper out here. Sexual harassment is, above all, a manifestation of power relations and women (for transgender and people with different gender identity too) who are in a very vulnerable and insecure positions, lack self-confidence, or have been socialized to suffer in silence.
There is a dire need for normative changes in the workplace to create an environment that is safe and induces confidence among its women workforce, so that even if it is a head of the organisation who is the perpetrator the woman can fall back upon the organisation.
I would like to end this post by sharing a few questions that arose in my mind during the 61st CSW:
1] What are the underlying reasons for decreasing women’s workforce participation? We are aware of the reality of sexual harassment and violence and its threat in public spaces reducing women and girl’s mobility. But is it SH at workplace and rampant discrimination that women face that is playing a bigger role in throwing out women from workplace?
2] With anti SH law in place will recruitment of women go down? Will the male dominated corporate sector create an unwritten policy that will stop HR from hiring a woman?
3] HRM is mandated to create a safe and supporting work environment for all its employees where sexual harassment is not tolerated and transparency amongst employees with respect to this is promoted. Where is the conversation happening among HRM professionals about this? Everyone knows HRM cannot change the culture of an organisation in isolation. And if the rot is set at the top leadership level then can the HR do anything?
4] How difficult is it for the corporate sector to realise that better employment opportunities for women can also contribute to increased profitability and productivity? Companies that invest in women’s employment often find that it benefits their bottom line by improving staff retention, innovation, and access to talent and new markets. When will they wake up to this reality? And what can we do to wake them up?
5] It’s widely stated that if women’s labour force participation increases by 10 percentage (68 million more women) by 2025, India could increase its GDP by 16%. A recent McKinsey report shows that by bridging the gender gap in the labour force, India stands to gain as much as 2.9 trillion of additional annual GDP in 2050. Keeping this in mind, why are we not making more efforts to close this gender gap?