Women in the Workplace:Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world
OLINDA HASSAN explores the role of female participation and leadership in the workplace.
The last decade has witnessed an impressive rise of women in the workforce in Bangladesh. The encouraging rate of growth has been reflected in a variety of sectors. Being able to identify some women in high positions in the normally male-driven corporate industry is certainly encouraging. With change comes a social pressure for cultural shifts in perceptions. For example, today, the working women’s future ‘dreams’ are not just obtaining independence, but advancing in their respective careers. Such notions of career advancement closely resemble the historical aspirations of men. However, women’s paths towards such dreams are vastly different from men and the reaction that such women face from their peers and families continue to be problematic. Combined with the general consequences of a patriarchal society, women in Bangladesh’s corporate world are driven by additional determinants — How should I get ahead as a woman? How do I manage my life at home alongside my career? How do I deal with family expectations?
Traditional gender-roles and seeking female leadership in the workplace
A reason why women in South Asia, such as in Bangladesh, opt out of professional careers is to raise their children. Because of continued stigma attached to women and raising children at home, a woman’s continuation of work after birth remains a cultural obstacle. Women in South Asia also continue to have an uneven share of responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their elderly parents and/or parents-in-law. Combined with having to take care of children, many South Asian women find it exceptionally difficult to resume their careers at the level they left since they are unable to remain connected or develop professionally in a linear fashion.
Moreover, women’s participation in Bangladesh’s movements continue to be limited in scope. To this day, whether married or not, young or old, women face a harder time being able to work odd hours, overtime, or over weekends — the types of commitment that are needed in a competitive, corporate world. Women in general face more pressure than their male counterparts to explain and gain approval from their home as to why she would need to work longer hours, or why she would have to take a certain work trip out of town, for example.
The movements of female workers at the workplace are more scrutinised with a magnifying glass than their male counterparts. “As women, we already face advances from our male colleagues. I have even been advised to flirt with them in order to be heard. The definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is definitely much more difficult to navigate for us than it is for our male colleagues. There is just too much cultural pressure,” said one female communications manager for a multinational corporation in Dhaka who asked for anonymity.
At the work place, it is more difficult for women to break into a male-dominated industry, since a woman in leadership or seeking a leadership position must showcase that she is as capable as any other man at work. She must work hard, if not harder, to gain staff respect and understanding.
Thus, women often have to choose between their career and their family life as both components require much attention and physical presence.
However, some of the difficulties listed above may be used as excuses and are self-created. In a recent article in Business Standard, Vinita Bali, the managing director of Britannia Industries was asked about how she felt working in a male-dominated industry and she expressed that sometimes, “we talk about it so much we make it bigger than what it is.” While problems may exist, embedded problems from culture can be changed. Women must thus be more vocal in defending themselves at their home and create a reasonable venue for approval and understanding. After all, more women than ever hold corporate positions in Bangladesh, and this could not have been gained without achieving understanding between families and communities.
“This isn’t a golf-playing, beer-drinking homogeneous culture,” Naina Lal Kidwai, Group Managing Director and Country Head of HSBC in India once said in an interview regarding corporate women in South Asia. “Women could join the workplace on their own terms…You still have to network; you still have to work hard, but that made it easier” (HRM Asia).
Appearances, its judgments, and why it may matter to a woman’s employment
The Bangladeshi corporate woman can instigate all kinds of images. You have the one who wears stylish, trend-setting saris and comes to work with her designer bag and always perfect hair and flawless makeup. On one hand, she embodies professionalism with her clean, clear cut modern image. On the other hand, she is seen as a bit too much — a bit too modern, a bit too smart, a bit too out there. Who does she think she is, better than all of us?– a common Bangladeshi sentiment arises. The leading corporate woman can also wear a simple sari or shalwar kameez, with visible dark circles under her eyes and non-flashy shoes and I-care-more-about-my-files bag. This can generate a nod of approval from those who want to see a hard worker, but she can also be subjected to being too simple, too sloppy, and too intelligent. Either way, no matter how she dresses and presents herself, a negative perception and related typecasting can, and most often does, follow.
With slow economy worldwide and higher competition among job seekers, men and women alike are facing new challenges in the market. Interestingly, in the array of research, articles and advice blogs written to aid women, there has been a particular assertion: looks matter.
“If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help (or hinder) your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by,” recently wrote journalist Laura Sinberg for Forbes, one of the leading publications for corporate America. According to the Journal of Labor Economics,attractive people earn about 5% more than their average-looking colleagues.
A 2009 study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that 73% of women felt a “youthful appearance” played a role in getting a job, promotion, or getting and keeping clients. Many in the study cited difficult economic times as the reason for such a sentiment; the better-looking are the ones advancing in their careers where competition has become even more rigorous.
Such statements and studies may seem anti-feminist and anti-women’s movement. It certainly can be seen as offensive. But given the recent economy, women are certainly taking the looks-factor into consideration.
In Bangladesh, the number of working-women who are in the rising stage of their careers, between the age of 25-45 are visiting the parlours more than ever, opting for work-appropriate looks ranging from haircuts to subtle manicures. New boutiques and fashion houses are offering more and more “work-appropriate clothing” specifically created to make a woman feel and look more serious. Young women employed in major business and banking industries in the city are increasingly “looking the part.” It is not that one should ever not look work-appropriate; rather, there is a conscious decision made by many women to have to look attractive in the workplace, beyond just being “presentable”.
“The first lesson I learned as a South Asian woman is, I don’t have to compromise my values, but I really need to understand how I articulate them,” said Shahla Aly, a general manager at Microsoft at a conference at Harvard Business School in 2005 in a discussion about South Asian women at work. “My need to dress modestly can be articulated in dress that is more pervasive. At that point [when she first began her corporate job], I had not yet earned the right to be different.”
Countering stereotypes as women increase their visibility in corporate South Asia
South Asian women in business sometimes endure stereotypes exclusive to Asian women; on one hand, they are deemed as very intelligent, sharp, and able to think from varied angles. However, they are also often labelled as passive and submissive, and unassertive. In the corporate business world, these perceived qualities can hamper a woman’s professional growth. Additionally, there is a massive disconnect between an educational system in Bangladesh that now produces a large quantity of female graduates and a business climate that has not yet included this talent pool. Even if a woman is hired for a higher-end position, she will earn less and have lower chances of a promotion than her male counterpart.
A recent survey by Catalyst found that companies with female board directors consistently outperform corporations without women on the board in areas such as return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. Another study posted on the Harvard Business Review cites such trends to qualities such as women invest more on preparation before board meetings and have higher attendance rates. They seek to broaden the scope of discussions and bring in a different set of characteristics that makes any corporate board unique and all-encapsulating. Given the recent economic climate worldwide, such characteristics are needed more than ever for struggling or expanding industries.
The discussion of what inhibits female growth and entrance into professional roles in Bangladesh (in an age when we have become focused on addressing gender gaps) takes place in the light that more women than ever are indeed advancing their careers in South Asia. Let us take India for example: foreign banks (e.g. HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) and the country’s ICICI Bank and Axis Bank are all run by women. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women (HRM Asia). Even though the traditional Indian society is patriarchal like Bangladesh, modern women in the region do not need to act like the stereotypical male banker to advance their careers.
Increasing the representation of women on corporate and governing boards is not singularly a women’s issue — it is a gender issue, for both men and women, and a professional concern. It is often asserted that putting women in leadership positions can broaden a company’s perspective on social welfare issues and “counteract the ’empathy deficit’ on corporate boards” (World Economic Forum). While these studies certainly place attention upon women, it is time women take on more active roles and be seen not just as female leaders, but as leaders. Women, whether they choose to dress for success and maintain traditional norms are certainly able to also juggle a career. Both women and men must make a conscious decision to champion diversity and open the path for other women — it is not impossible unless it is tried, experimented and fought for.
Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discuss various musings in her blog atolindahassan. wordpress.com.