How Gender Diversity at Work Depends on Men Doing the Laundry

70 percent of the executives Mckinsey surveyed in Asia said greater gender diversity was not a strategic priority for their companies – that is, it was not among their top ten priorities

Mitu Jayashankar
Updated: Jul 4, 2012 05:06:03 PM UTC


I read a newspaper report recently that for the first time the number of women in the incoming batch at the Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore) would touch 100. This out of a total batch strength of 377. Great, I thought to myself. If more women join such premier institutes, there is a much greater chance of them going on to becoming senior managers in corporate India. My happiness was short lived. The next day McKinsey sent us a report, titled "Women matter – an Asian Perspective", the first in-depth study that McKinsey has published on women in corporate Asia. McKinsey took 745 companies from the local stock indices of ten Asian markets (including India) and looked at the gender composition of their boards and executive committees. According to McKinsey, women make for 42 percent of University graduates in India. But they make up for only 5 percent of Board members and less than 1 percent of CEOs in India.

But surely, I thought, the fact that a hundred girls have come into just one management institute in one batch must mean that the trend will be reversed. Not true, says McKinsey. I quote here from the report,

“In many Asian markets in recent years, the numbers of women graduates and of women at entry-level positions in companies have increased. Thus some commentators argue that it will simply take more time for more of these women to arrive at the top. But our research, as well as experience elsewhere, suggests this is unlikely to be the case. A rise in female graduates in Europe has had only a marginal effect. If companies want to see more women in their leadership teams, they will have to address the cultural and organizational issues that prevent them moving through the corporate pipeline. That is no small challenge.” What is worse, says McKinsey,  “Despite the business case for recruiting and developing more women, 70 percent of the executives we surveyed in Asia said greater gender diversity was not a strategic priority for their companies – that is, it was not among their top ten priorities”, says the report.

This is extremely depressing.

I won’t get into the economic merits of why there should be more women in the workforce. Enough has been said on that. I am only talking about what should be intuitive. If half our population is made of women, then it is unacceptable that less than one percent of CEOs in corporate India are women.

The McKinsey report and the IIM B announcement got me thinking. While we are pushing our girls to get the best education, when it comes to providing them the environment to succeed in corporate jobs are we somehow failing them?

Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an explosive story in the The Atlantic titled "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All". The gist of her story is this – for many years we have told women that if they are committed enough they can have it all. Slaughter says she herself was one of those feminist women who believed it could be done. “I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)”.  Slaughter, a full time professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and mother of two children, says "It’s time to stop fooling ourselves: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed".

Slaughter’s article has many layers and raises some very important points. But for now I am just going to pick one of these. She questions the “ambition gap” theory saying that the answer does not lie in making women more ambitious but in changing the way we work. Most offices she argues are built on a work culture that values spending long hours at office (the "time macho" as she calls it) and inflexible working schedules which are not in sync with how schools work or how children and families function. It is a legacy from the days when women were not part of the workforce. And it is this clash, of different time schedules and different rhythms that make it extremely difficult for women to be able to do justice to both roles.

The McKinsey study offers some answers. According to the respondents surveyed, the biggest barrier for gender diversity within senior management is the “double burden” that women carry of looking after home and work (40 percent), followed by the anytime, anywhere working model which expects senior managers to work round the clock (29 percent). Other reasons - reluctance of women to promote themselves (23 percent), lower ambition than men (22 percent), absence of female role models (20 percent) and women’s inability to network like men (19 percent) also find mention.

Clearly then as McKinsey says, “If the goal is to feed the corporate pipeline with more potential female leaders, the double burden will have to be addressed – no easy task given certain deep-seated cultural views, often held by women as well as men. But it is not the only issue. A corporate culture in which a manager’s commitment is gauged by whether he or she is available anytime, anywhere, makes it more difficult for women who want to balance work with family responsibilities to succeed. (This was identified as the second-biggest obstacle preventing women’s advancement in Europe as well as Asia.)”

But if “double burden” is the biggest impediment in a women’s climb to the top then whose fault is it? Don’t the men have something to do with it too? Some months ago, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School said something really interesting on Twitter. I am paraphrasing here but it went like this. “What can men do to advance a woman’s career”? Kanter’s reply, “The laundry".

Kanter's response is funny but also very intuitive. Slaughter's point of making workplaces more flexible is linked to making more men responsible for housework. As more men rush home to pick up children from daycare or start dinner they will no longer be able to call meetings at 6 pm on weekdays or on Sunday mornings. Priorities at work and home will immediately start changing. It will to a large extent ease the whole work life balance issue and reduce the "double burden" that women are expected to carry all the time.

Tell me what you think.



The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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