Published: Women in the Workplace: Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world (Daily Star)

The article can be found in this month’s Forum magazine supplement of the Daily Star or online by clicking here.

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.

Published in Hollaback! today: Playing Word Games- “Eve Teasing” in Bangladesh

I just had a piece I wrote for Hollaback! published in their blog today. I discussed Eve Teasing and what the phrase actually means and plays in a society that has recently focused a lot on sexual harassment against women, both in the courts and  media. This is a follow up to the article I wrote on street harassment in Bangladesh for the Daily Star this month.

To read, click here where you will be directed to their front page. Or see below where I have pasted the article.

Playing Word Games- “Eve Teasing” in Bangladesh

BY OLINDA HASSAN

“Eve teasing”, or sexual harassment is problematic in Bangladesh, especially when we want to talk openly about the aggression South Asian women face day to day on the streets. The phrase has a biblical link- it refers to Eve, the tempting, beautiful woman who inevitably attracts attention from men. So, while “eve teasing” in South Asia refers to the day to day sexual harassment that women face, whether it’s an unwanted touch from a passerby or a cat call from the boys in the corner, the phrase itself blames women, she is tempting, men can’t help it.

Bangladesh’s high courts recently stated that the term “eve teasing” downplays the serious nature of the harassment that women in the country face in their day to day movement. I have seen and experienced my share of eve teasing. I have watched a store clerk eye a girl half his age’s chest and ask her to bring her assets to the store as her mother walked right beside her. This is not something to be ignored, neither should we blame the girl, who could not have been more than 13 years old. The high courts have made this clear, let’s not call this “eve teasing”, let’s use the correct term, sexual harassment.

So how important are words when we talk about these kinds of crimes? When I interviewed several male students at Dhaka University for an opinion-project last year, I was surprised to hear a few of them say that girls are asking for it, even at a time when sexual harassment has been making headlines in Bangladeshi media. Alam, a 20-year old History student said, “What am I supposed to do, when the girl is wearing such a tightly fitted kameez [the traditional dress worn in Bangladesh]? She is at a University, she should be dressing appropriately. I can’t help but look and tell my friends, and try to get her attention when I am bored.” He went on to tell me how girls know that they are going to get attention, so they should protect themselves by dressing accordingly, rather than “complaining” about getting harassed.

In an increasingly globalized world, I particularly enjoy watching girls in Bangladesh dress the way they want and not follow social norms in their clothing. I think that fashion holds a unique story telling power. So why should women have to dress in a way that makes them less vulnerable? Is she taking on the role of Eve when she wears clothes that could, potentially, tempt men? Or is she simply exerting her independence and her right to be who she wants to be on the streets?

Women don’t get harassed on the streets just because of what they wear in Dhaka. Men in Dhaka have basically been allowed to harass women because they were never caught and punished, until now that specific laws have made it a crime. Dhaka’s streets, once dominated by men, are beginning to change as more women are taking on professional roles. Women are increasingly getting educated at one of the highest rates for a developing country. Bangladesh has several female political heads, including its Prime Minister. It is one of the most liberal Muslim-dominated countries in the world. Nevertheless, a patriarchal culture still exists.

Referring back to the notion of words, how important is it to make sure that we use the right words when we talk about violence against women? I followed up with Alam and asked what he thought about sexual harassment against his female peers that take place regularly in Dhaka University. Alam hesitated and said that what his friends did, the cat calling, and sometimes following women was not sexual, or harassment. Then, I asked what he thought about “eve teasing”, to which he responded that it was all innocent and fun.

Calling sexual harassment “eve teasing” makes the aggravation seem harmless and amusing against victims who are purposefully tempting. How do you make a society start saying “sexual harassment” where the culture never really talks about sex and sexual behavior openly? And an even bigger question is, how do you convince a society that victims are not purposefully tempting perpetrators, that men don’t harass women because they are asking for it? Although it may seem like a mountain to climb, there is an answer – education as education fosters change. Both men and women need to be educated about exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, the impact of it, what is acceptable and what is not, only then can we move forward.

Picking on details- the new proposal that could make women cover their eyes in Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia are already made, by law, to wear the abbayah/abaya in Saudi Arabia (long black cloak). The law does not however, technically say that women have to cover their hair. Interpretations of the law, of cultural notions, and media may make it seem as if you do need to cover your hair, however.

Now to the news that there is a proposal to force women in Saudi Arabia to cover their eyes as well, or as some media reports have taken the liking to term it as, covering their “sexy eyes”.

A few notes:

1) It is reported that Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [CPVPV] (also known as the religious police or Mutawa) have made this call. The religious police has over the past decade lost a significant portion of power to control or prosecute what they may deem as immoral behavior in Saudi Arabia. While general stereotypes and historical events may make people from the outside think that they are a powerful force, this has not been the case, especially in cities like Khobar and Dammam where the most the religious police has done recently is to go up to a woman and ask her to cover her hair. She can refuse and simply walk away, as personally observed.

2) The announcement came a few days following the incident of a Saudi man being sent to the hospital after fighting with a Mutawa, and being stabbed by the Mutawa, after he ordered his wife to cover her eyes. Interestingly, the attention has gone to asking women to cover their eyes, not to the Mutawa for using such violence upon civilians. No where in the religious police code should deem such a violence and furthermore, allow members to be involved in a “process of punishment” that gets out of hand. This may be just another way to exert their already losing power over civil obedience in the Kingdom

3) The news comes weeks after the announcement that Saudi women will be allowed to cast votes in the Kingdom, and rumors of finally allowing women to drive one day. These are significant events which may truly turn they very way that families function in Saudi Arabia- a process much needed for a society, as well as for their place in international diplomacy and affairs. However, with the next line in the throne being Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, it may be a bit more difficult than hoped (he is allied more closely with the conservative sector of the country).

4) If the eyes of the women are tempting, stop looking at her. A very simple solution for all the men who are also supposed to lower their gaze. If the Mutawa is in existence to ensure that people are complying with Islamic “rules” and obedience, it may do well to reconsider their methods and see that religious rules are not specific to just one gender.  

Published: “Street Harassment is Still Serious: The violation of women in Dhaka’s public realm”

I wrote this piece for the Forum magazine regarding the issue of street harassment in Dhaka, and why we must still pay attention to this issue, which many may not consider a form of “violence”, but rather a soft approach to sexual harassment. To read, pick up a copy of the Daily Star today. Or follow this link for an online version: http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2011/November/street.htm

Or, read below:

Street Harassment is Still Serious:
The violation of women in
Dhaka’s public realm

Sexual harassment on the streets is also a form of violence, argues OLINDA HASSAN.

Zahedul I Khan

The laws governing violence against women have made their presence in Bangladesh. From Acid Crime Control Act (2002), to legally declaring eve teasing as a form of serious sexual harassment early this year, crimes that violate a woman — verbally, physically, emotionally — have been, and continue to be addressed by politicians, advocacy groups and NGOs. Violence against women has a history in Bangladesh.

Street harassment against women has also been addressed in some form or the other, usually categorised in the eve teasing form. Defined as being violated — usually verbally — in the streets, this form of harassment is not just limited to the common traits of female victims, or those of a lower social standing, poor and uneducated. Unwanted or solicited attention is given to women of all backgrounds in the streets, in all parts of the city, by all “types” of men. In most of the cases however, commonly, the woman is the subject, the man the predator. It is also something that women face worldwide; The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported that 83% of their women faced street harassment at least once in their life, and similar statistics were found for South Africa, Mexico and France, to name a few.

With urbanisation and the rapid population growth in Dhaka, women inevitably become more prominent in the streets. Women from all social backgrounds are joining the work force or institutions for higher education in large numbers in the capital, as opportunities for female participation increases. This trend is certainly a triumph in the modern women’s movement of Bangladesh.

But with participation comes the notion that sheltering these very women is absolutely necessary. Families with vehicles — another increasingtrend in the capital — will go out of their way to make sure that the women in the family have the priority in transportation. Women are being told to be careful every time they leave their homes, or being told to not go out at all. Working, educated women from the middle to upper middle class are deterred from taking public transportation and being out late at night, both for safety and for preserving certain societal reputations. It is very evident therefore, that the ratio of the two genders in the streets of Dhaka is still overwhelmingly in favour of men. The fear of violence and harassment has led to a series of rules and regulations (often implied than said) imposed on women and their mobility.

Because of these imposed rules by society regarding the movement of women, when they are in the streets on their own, especially during the evening, they are suddenly subject to the high possibility of harassment. This could happen in many ways — it could be a cat call from street vendors, stares from rickshawallahs, sexual innuendos from passersby, being purposefully touched by the young boys in the crowd — all usually men who are the dominating gender in the streets. As one male student in his third year at Dhaka University (anonymous) explained after asking him about street harassment, “these women are not supposed to be in the streets, so of course they are going to get harassed. If they didn’t want that attention, they should have stayed home, and not dressed inappropriately which is going to get them the attention they claim they don’t want.”

Women have also been long taught to ignore such harassment, especially in the streets. Since childhood, women, whether educated or not or wealthy or in poverty, have been told to avert their eyes, look away, and keep walking, and not say anything when they are verbally violated in public. This comes from the fear of being further endangered, but more to do with being humiliated in public. The concern is the disgrace of the victim in public, not of the aggressor whose action goes unnoticed and in turn, avoids his humiliation as he is not confronted but ignored. This then gives him the false idea that he can continue his behaviour in public.

Bryony Beynon from London of HollaBack, a worldwide technology-driven anti-harassment movement that first began in New York explained to The Guardian (March 8, 2011) how “people need to understand that street harassment has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.” Aisha Zakira, the founder of HollaBack in Mumbai in their press release explained how street harassment incidents “are rarely reported, and are culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman and living in a city like Mumbai.” She further went on to explain how this type of violence is a “gateway crime” which creates a “cultural environment which makes gender-based violence okay,” and how while a legal method exists in countries like India and Bangladesh to tackle abuse at work or home, “when it comes to the streets — all bets are off.”

Women are also being told to ignore by other women, as commonly observed by mothers and other older female family members. These members from a young age are giving the impression that they are powerless and must thus simply ignore, that being harassed in the streets is inevitable but avoidable via ignorance. The long standing ideological belief in the “modest” Bengali woman of this culture often promotes such ignorance. Poor urban women for example are often stereotyped as having lower sexual morals, further making them not speak out in public for the consequence of being even more marginalised for their gender. Women, especially those who do not have an access to a private car must change their lifestyle, such as in the way that they dress as a social protection and in order to fit into this ideology and avoid street harassment instead of waiting for the act itself to terminate in society. The violators in turn quickly realise that they will not be held responsible, and gain further confidence to continue harassing in the streets.

Are women supposed to follow the social norms of staying home after sunset and dressing “appropriately” in order to avert such attention? What would happen if more women were to act out and confront the violators, in public? Would it really be that threatening to their modesty as a “good” Bengali woman? Let us assume that public transportation has suddenly become much safer in Bangladesh, for men and women: the rate of hijacking, robbery and threat has significantly decreased, if any at all still occur. Would the roles of women in the streets then change? This question must be asked because, along with violence against women being part of the country’s history, oppressing women by forcing preventative measures (such as ignoring violators) have also become rooted in the historical culture of Bangladesh. And cultures are difficult to change.

Women are increasingly sharing the household income and participating in higher education in Dhaka, a city that is also urbanising at a rapid rate and in a suffocating way. Modern politics encourage such female participation. And for those that are able, women are often being sheltered away in their activities, being told not to be in the streets too much and be in their private shells. Thus, the streets are still overwhelmingly dominated by men. However, what if more women did make their presence known? What if more women had the courage to be independent in their travels? Would the streets still continue to be a boy’s club? We all know of a woman, if not ourselves, who have had at least one form of a story to tell about being harassed in the street. The consequence of ignorance is the continuation of a type of crime that while it may not be considered violent, is as cruel as any other form of violence against women in Dhaka today.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh.