Why Is My Promotion Dependent On My Marital Status?

Last updated 22 Dec 2017 . 12 min read

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Harpreet Kaur is a gender, workplace and human rights professional with over thirteen years of experience in developing strategies, research, advocacy and communication. She is the founding member of India’s Human Rights & Business Network, Human Rights & Business Resource Group and on the advisory panel of India Responsible Business Forum.

In this interview with Vandana K, Harpreet talks about gender inequality and gender bias at the workplace and in the society.

What are some of the biggest barriers faced by Indian women especially in the corporate sector?

I don’t think there is just one barrier that women face in the private sector, but if I were to point out just one, I would say inequality. Women continue to face gender-based discrimination at workplaces - at every step of the pipeline - right from entry level to leadership positions. Business-as-usual policies, practices and cultures perpetuate gender inequality, leaving women underrepresented on corporate boards and in leadership positions.


Women are often discriminated at workplaces through various stages of their life-cycle such as marriage and maternity, that sometimes act as a deterrent to recruitment, appraisals and involvement in high visibility projects and at other times, result in women exiting the workforce. For instance, when men get married and have kids, they feel entitled to demand a salary rise due to ‘additional responsibilities”; women, on the other hand, fear losing employment and promotions with this additional responsibility.  


Also, what we also must not forget is that the businesses do not impact women in isolation from our socio-cultural contexts. The prevalent social norms with predefined gender roles and stereotypes exacerbate workplace barriers and inequality that women face. We often talk about the double burden women carry, but the reality is that a woman faces more than just a double burden – she is expected to take care of the home, kids, partner, in-laws while managing her own career. This makes women far more disadvantaged as compared to men, who are able to prioritise their career over everything else.


Speaking of care, we’ve seen more and more women, including feminists, talking about the need for taking self-care seriously. Do you think self-care is a real need or just a marketing buzzword?

Even if it is a marketing buzzword, I think it’s time we pay heed to it. Self-care doesn’t mean just being able to go to a spa or getting a massage, it’s beyond just physical self-care and includes one’s emotional and mental care too. And one needs to be in a state of physical, mental and emotional well-being to be able to take informed decisions for oneself and for others we care about.


As women, we need self-care because we constantly play the role of nurturers and caretakers – taking care of our kids, our partners, parents, parents-in-laws, our relationships, our careers and so on. And this care-job often leaves women burnt out, yet, they refuse to care for self because of the insidious undercurrent of guilt they feel for investing in self-care.


We are conducting need gap analysis for one of GCWL’s programme focusing on women returning to the workforce post maternity. Throughout group discussions and interviews, we kept hearing how an ‘ideal woman’ is expected to take excellent care of the house, kids, husband and parents-in-law. What we also heard are the undercurrents of frustrations from the same women of having worn out completely proving themselves at work and at home, on a daily basis. Women repeatedly mentioned how they lost their self-worth and confidence after exiting workforce, and that moving out of the workforce is more than leaving ‘just work’. It also meant “losing touch with colleagues and knowing what’s happening in the industry, missing out on social circles and lack of opportunities to interact with others due to child and elder care”. High-time women care about themselves, identify their own needs and take steps to meet them and nurture themselves.


We tend to see that women workers exit the formal and informal sector once they get pregnant or after having a child. Now that the Indian government has made 6 months of maternity leave mandatory, do you think this policy is enough to change the social norm?

Certainly not, the new maternity leave policy is not enough. You may change the maternity leave policy by putting a new law in place, but the lack of an enabling environment continues to put women in a disadvantaged position.


The pros and cons of maternity leave have been talked about at length at various forums and while I understand and appreciate both sides of the argument - its proponents taking it as a welcome step to support women continue working post maternity and its opponents who have raised concerns regarding recruitment and retention of women in the Indian workforce due to extended leave. My concern is slightly different - are we legitimising ownership of child-care/care-work to women through a long maternity leave? Because women have a 6-months paid leave – does it take away men’s responsibility to care for the new-born or the family? Should we be happy with 6-month maternity leave, or demand a 6-month parental leave where the mother and the father have equal opportunity to choose to take care of the new-born. Though, it isn’t a happy ending either -  during our research, women reported that they chose to leave work instead of asking their husbands because of the social structures and hierarchies. The statement “log kya kehte” (what would have people said) kept resonating, when we asked questions about men leaving work to take care of the child.


What needs to be introduced with the new leave policy, therefore, is the acceptance that child-care isn’t just women’s responsibility. We also need to ensure an enabling environment and structural support such as reliable day care centres and policies encouraging women to remain in the workforce post maternity.


Unless there is a fair distribution of care-work among women and men, it’s going to be a big challenge to retain women in the Indian workforce.


Have you seen any changes in workplace barriers faced by women in the private sector in the past few years?

There have certainly been many positive changes in the private sector, for example, the big four consulting firms and some IT firms granted 26 weeks leave, much before the  government passed Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill 2016. However, though companies’ widespread adoption of policies focusing on diversity and inclusion, prohibiting gender discrimination and sexual harassment, has opened many doors to women at workplaces, it has failed to seal the exit points for women at workplace, suggesting that impediments to women’s advancement are more complex and elusive than deliberate forms of sex-discrimination or family responsibilities.


A Catalyst report mentions that close to 50% women drop from the workforce within the first four months, after they return from maternity leave. Clearly, our current system is failing us and it’s not just a change in the corporate sector or policy making that will make a difference. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why India’s rank has fallen so steeply on the Global Gender Gap Index 2017.


What can companies do to improve gender gap in India?

There are a number of things companies can do to improve gender gap in Indian workforce, but largely put in policies and practices that reduce attrition and foster women’s leadership within their organizations. This could range from reviewing recruitment and promotion policies to reduce unconscious biases, address structural gaps and facilitate infrastructure that helps women remain in the workforce, increase transparency in the pay structure, make workplaces safer for women and so on.  Our initiative #CEOs4Women aims to address this gender gap and urge CEOs to commit to the Gender Equality Pledge to stop discounting women from the workforce.

Harpreet Kaur


Tell us about your work on women, business & human rights.

The Genpact Centre for Women’s Leadership will be hosting the first-ever UN Asia Consultation on Gender, Business and Human Rights in collaboration with United Nations Working Group on Business & Human Rights and United Nations Development Programme, Bangkok. To be hosted on campus at Ashoka University on 20-21 February 2018, the multi-stakeholder consultation will bring together academia, states, civil society and businesses to unpack the gendered impact of business activities on women’s rights.


The consultation will contribute perspectives from Asia in the UN guidance to be developed to assist both States and business enterprises with practical recommendations for what it means to protect, respect and remedy the rights of women in a business context in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles.


As a follow up of that, GCWL will launch a course of Women, Business & Rights that aims to provide a gender lens to the future leadership. The course will discuss various ways in which businesses impact women across positions in the market - at workplaces, in labour supply chains, as consumers and as communities. The participants will explore diverse ways in which corporates affect women’s human rights - from impact of HR policies, to the way in which portrayal in media impacts women, to how displacement could impact women in ways different from men and so on. The course is an attempt towards providing knowledge, expertise and empathy to the future leadership to help them combat structural and societal barriers to achieving gender equality.


At Genpact Centre for Women’s Leadership (GCWL), what kind of programmes do you offer to working women or women who are returning to work after a break?

The programme Breakthrough-Back from the Bump caters to the women returning to workforce post maternity. This initiative is to ensure that bump is a pause, not a full-stop in women’s career. Envisaged as a one-stop service provider for trainings, resources and job opportunities, it is a fairly new programme aimed at addressing re-entry barriers for returning mothers across corporate and development sector.  


Have you faced gender biases at a personal level? What would be your advice to working women who face barriers every day?

Huh, did I face any barriers – well, just after I got married, I was applying for a promotion and my new marital status was brought into discussion. I was asked if I am planning to have children soon. Not sure if men are ever asked these questions during their interviews. I wasn’t granted maternity leave because I was a ‘consultant’, mind it on a recurring contract without a day’s break for 4 years at that point of time. I have been asked my age just at the end of my interview(s) when I applied for senior leadership positions, and the list goes on.


And I wasn’t living outside society either. Being a researcher, my job always required traveling, as I refused to be an armchair Anthropologist. People would tell me that all my traveling would stop once I get married. It didn’t, thanks to my determination and support from family.


When I had my daughter, the same people told me that now my wings would definitely be clipped. Fortunately, it didn’t happen and never will. For I chose to make decisions, the ones that made me happy first, provided me a sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of each day, for I knew if I wouldn’t be happy, I won’t give happiness to either my husband or my daughter.


These decisions didn’t come easy either, I struggled a lot. I had to put systems and practices in place to ensure my daughter’s growth or safety doesn’t suffer because of my absence at home. My husband shared equal responsibility of child-care with me, while my mother-in-law encouraged me to reach new heights. The fact is I often manage home even while I am away – from ordering groceries to organising daycare pick-ups for my daughter – but I do it all happily.


My most important advice to women, therefore, is to take decisions that make them happy and own their decisions. It is okay to put yourself first, self-care is important! Very often women make sacrifices believing that they’re taking a decision together with their husband, partner or family when in reality, these decisions are informed by their social conditioning.


Many women reported the same during our ongoing research and mentioned lack of confidence and depression after having decided to leave work post maternity. Bold decisions in the beginning will lessen frustrations later in life and help women to stay on track. However, this will not happen automatically or just by women taking action. Men, families and societies need to be involved too.


What would your advice be to men who have working women in their lives or who want to support women at their workplace?

Talk to my husband (smiles)! My advice to men is to shed stereotypes based on predefined gender roles. That is the first step to ensure equality and dignity for women.

This interview was conducted by Vandana K for India Responsible Business Forum (IRBF), an initiative of Oxfam India. Every year, IRBF brings out the India Responsibility Business Index (IRBI) which encourages Indian companies to be more responsible and create good policies. The next IRBI will be launched on 27 February 2018 in New Delhi. You can register for it here.

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