The glass ceiling is alive and kicking at Indian workplaces

Avantika Debnath, HR professional, writer, dancer
Avantika Debnath, HR professional, writer, dancer

By Avantika Debnath

Kirti’s resignation was foreseen since the day she escalated a harassment case against her manager. Priyadarshini, the HR personnel sitting next to my workstation, proceeded with Kirti’s exit interview. She noted down every statement made by Kirti and I knew that all this was being done in vain. In the past five years, I had witnessed numerous exit interviews of this kind and I knew that these are but a consolation to a parting employee that her grievances would be addressed after she left, while no heed was paid to them while she worked in the organization. Later that day, I was part of a presentation with all the key executives of the organization. As I entered the hall, I was taken aback by the vanishing proportion of female participation in the male-dominated conference room.

When I had started my career five years ago, I was a part of a 12-member team with seven female executives, as ‘human resources’ was always a female-dominated department. But with the years, these women went missing. Though we see quite a handsome number of women at entry-level jobs, the proportion diminishes as one climbs the ladder. I wouldn’t blame it on the lack of ambition or career-focus in modern Indian women, but the complexities of the Indian corporate environment.

While appointment letters boast numerous codes of conduct, these are seldom followed. Corporate laws against sexual harassment serve as nothing more than mere eyewashes. Those who engage in such objectionable activities are not the usual lot, but are either higher officials, or are in the “good books” of the key position holders. Nothing much, not even an official warning letter is issued to such men; on the contrary, the work life of the complainant is troubled to the extent of forcing her to quit the organization.

Photo: Salon.com
Photo: Salon.com

If sexual harassment alone was not enough, there comes the situation of gender bias. When I asked one of the senior managers in my previous organization why he would not entrust vital responsibilities to his female team members, he frankly stated that women are good as long as they are at the entry level or at assistant manager roles. After that, they get into ‘the marriageable age bracket’ when most of them would be asked to quit their jobs and take care of domestic chores. Even if some women are able to carry on with their career after marriage, they would anyway quit after they have children. Those who continue with their career after having a child struggle a lot between the two responsibilities and thus become inefficient. Of course, exceptions are always there. But, to be on the safe side, he wouldn’t delegate major responsibilities or promotions to the girls in his team.

Then again, despite all these challenges and orthodox mindsets, there are a handful of women who do break through the glass ceiling and succeed in climbing up the corporate ladder. However, they have plenty of odds to face and it’s a tough world up there too. There are male colleagues who inevitably insinuate that these women have reached that level not on grounds of their merit, but because of their good looks or some other factors. The achievers’ capabilities are often questioned.

While we do have the likes of Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Chanda Kochhar (ICICI Bank), and Naina Lal Kidwai (HSBC India), the struggle for the average working Indian woman to reach the top of the corporate world seems a challenge given this attitude and superficiality in her workplace.