Our world faces multiple challenges: fragility of economic and political systems, cold and hot wars, cyberattacks and extremism, and disruptions caused by climate change. We need every tool to understand these threats and craft workable solutions. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are at the forefront of creating tools and innovative solutions. At every level, we need our best thinkers and that must include women.
In December 2018, I participated in a series of meetings and speeches in Japan, focused on how to encourage women and girls to pursue STEM careers. These conversations highlighted the global and regional barriers to increasing women in STEM, as well as innovative interventions to change the status quo.
Simply put, diversity, both inherent and acquired, helps drive innovation. We know from research that diverse teams are more effective at problem solving, when different voices, viewpoints, expertise and life experiences are brought to bear.
This is true both in STEM and national security fields, which are overlapping and connected, given the security challenges that cybersecurity, extremism (often propagated via social media platforms), and climate devastation pose. Understanding the impact of these challenges on women and engaging women to address these issues — as innovators, decision-makers and community actors — is critical.
Globally, women are underrepresented in STEM. According to UNESCO, 29 percent of those in science research and development are women, with a low of 19 percent in South and West Asia and a high of 48 percent in Central Asia. Europe and North America are at 32 percent. In the U.S., 80 percent of STEM jobs are in engineering and computer science but women comprise only 12 percent of the engineering workforce and 26 percent of the computing workforce. In the U.K., women are underrepresented in STEM at every stage of the STEM pipeline. In 2016-17, women students accounted for less than 10 percent of A Level exam entries in computing, 21 percent in physics, and 39 percent in math. Across the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), women represent 58 percent of university graduates, but only 20 percent of computer sciences graduates.
In both academic and practical STEM environments, we need to cultivate ways of tackling science and technology problems that are inclusive, not exclusive, and that highlight the impact of STEM on real world problems. This helps interest women in STEM, which can address gaps in technology design and usability. Most artificial intelligence (AI), and the programs that utilize AI, are created by (white) men. Those programs and apps will be different than those created by a more diverse group. A recent article documented that “smart speakers” like Alexa and Home have a hard time understanding commands by those who speak American English with an accent.
Challenges and Barriers
Solutions to increase women in STEM must address three major types of challenges.
1. Redefining “what a scientist looks like” and lack of role models: STEM fields are broad and varied. Currently, within STEM, young women gravitate to healthcare, medicine, education, arts, and humanities, while young men gravitate towards engineering, computer science, math and physics. Young women need access to information about all types of STEM possibilities and the women who have succeeded in those careers. The media often does not cover these women and as a result women’s career trajectories are less visible. In the U.S., young women engineers have started a social media campaign#ilooklikeanengineer to change these stereotypes. At the same time, parents and teachers need tools to encourage young women and girls to consider STEM careers, in order to break gender norms.
2. The “leaky” pipeline: Women drop off at every stage throughout the STEM journey, whether in elementary school, high school, university, or in the workplace. Those who remain can be isolated. An OECD study found that while 15 year-old boys and girls are fairly even in terms of science aptitude, girls have less confidence in their abilities. Girls drop out because of a confidence gap, not an ability gap. But once hired, just as in other fields, women may not be encouraged to pursue higher level jobs by their employers and the time constraints also can become pervasive as women enter child-bearing years.
3. “Meta” challenges: These are gender biases and stereotypes about whether women should, or can, pursue STEM careers. They are exacerbated by issues faced by virtually every woman in the workplace, such as perceived leadership aptitude, work-life balance, lack of child care, and flexibility.
How to Encourage Women to Enter (and Stay in) STEM Careers
Identifying challenges is easy. Identifying solutions can be harder, but research and experience point to the following interventions that can work.
Highlight women in STEM: There are have been successful women in STEM for hundreds of years. These include pioneers like Ada Lovelace, U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992), one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer, and Briton Sarah Guppy (1770-1852), who patented a method to make safe bridge pilings. They include current innovators like Stanford student Amber Yang and the U.K.’s Sophie Harker, an engineer at BAE Systems. We need to tell these stories so we aren’t continually “rediscovering” this gap. Databases like www.100esperte.it of 100 women experts in Italy or www.WomenAlsoKnowStuff.com help.
Redesign our education systems: It’s critical to encourage female students from elementary school on by calling on them in class, taking their questions seriously, and making sure they see the possibilities of STEM careers. Teachers need the skills to embed this interest, and the exposure to the women role models discussed above. There are lesson plans that can be used to address these issues. “Auditing” how schools are doing in producing gender mix of STEM graduates can make a difference. Gender audits help teachers and administrators evaluate how students are doing, using surveys, focus groups, and data to evaluate student attitudes, participation patterns, and feelings of acceptance. If schools find gendered patterns of exclusion or harassment, they can more easily disrupt them. Scientists-in- residence at schools can explain what they do and be a resource for students. Across the globe, tech camps bring young women together during summer vacations. In Peru, the U.S. Department of State worked with the private sector and the Government of Peru to sponsor acamp with 100 young women from the United States, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.
Promote STEM’s role in problem solving: In the U.S., women earn about 20 percent of engineering degrees and 16 percent of computer science degrees. This is being addressed at key universities by highlighting the social impact of science and its role in solving the world’s pressing problems. These approaches have helped increase the number of women earning engineering degrees at schools like MIT, Yale, Howard, George Washington, and Harvey Mudd. At Harvey Mudd, the percentage of women graduating from the computer science program increased from 12 percent to approximately 40 percent in five years. The school revised its introductory computing course, provided research opportunities for undergraduates after freshman year, and exposed young women students to key conferences and meeting women leaders in the field.
Collect data to expose gender gaps: Data can pinpoint specific gaps in professional career paths and achievement. For example, there may be a lot of women in STEM overall, but fewer in computer science or engineering. It’s easier to overlook gaps if we don’t collect data. The European Union’s “She Figures” database tracks comparisons of women and men Ph.D. graduates, researchers and academic decision‑makers. The data illuminates differences in the experiences of women and men working in research, such as relative pay, working conditions, success in obtaining research funds, and scientific publications.
Rethink the hiring and retention process: Gender blind interviews and application processes yield more women, not just in STEM. Helping women succeed in STEM jobs is equally important. Employers shouldn’t make assumptions about how long a woman will stay at the company, or assign her only to certain tasks. Companies can also develop apprenticeship programs for those with nontraditional backgrounds. LinkedIn’s Reach is such a six month program; successful participants include an optometrist and a dancer. LinkedIn focused not on resumes but skill sets, such as talent in coding, ability to learn new skills, commitment to work and growth potential during interviews.
Many of the issues faced by women in STEM fields are common to women in any workplace, but STEM jobs have particular challenges. We need to aggressively address these challenges to ensure that we have the best talent engaged, and enough people to fill these key jobs. Our ability to be competitive and create a secure future depends on it.
In many discussions, the term “gender” is often used interchangeably with “women and girls.” These concepts both get at gender norms and roles, but are different. Here’s a overview of these terms and how they differ. In short, we’ve learned that gender equality is are not just about women or girls, but about the different ways women and men experience their lives, have access to resources and can take advantage of opportunities. It broadens our perspective, so that policies and programs take into account those differential experiences of women and men, and address structural constraints to gender equality. Importantly, taking gender into account also encourages programs to include men and boys – political, business and religious leaders as well as husbands, brothers and fathers – because their gender or social roles will also change.
While “sex” refers to the biological characteristics that define us as female or male, “gender” refers to the economic, political, and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female. How gender is defined varies among cultures and changes over time.
Gender equality is the concept that all human beings, both men and women, are free to develop their personal talents and abilities and make life choices without the limitations set by stereotypes, rigid gender roles, or prejudices. It does not mean that women and men are the same, but that their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities should not depend on whether they are born male or female.
The role of women and the idea of “gender equality” in development has changed over time. For a very long time, development programs did not take sex or gender into account. Commodities or services, such as food, healthcare or education, were provided by richer countries to developing ones without attention paid to the characteristics of the beneficiaries.
A few decades ago, discussions and program implementers began to take into account that women might have different needs than men and/or might prioritize assistance in a different way. An example — for a long time rice was distributed around the world in 50 lb bags. While most men could haul the bags onto their backs and carry them home, the weight made collection of this food almost impossible for women. A simple change, made at women’s request, made the bags of rice lighter so that women could transport them.
Next, development organizations began to consider how men and women benefited from their programs. For instance, asking if both boys and girls were able to attend school, and what the barriers might be if there weren’t equal attendance rates. Or, if an agriculture program was teaching how to improve crop yields, were both male and female farmers benefiting from that knowledge. If all of the intended beneficiaries were not being reached or the outcomes were not being reached as planned, implementers started asking questions.
In the last ten years, technical experts have moved from a focus on women to gender. What was acknowledged was that in order to “empower” women, their social or gender roles had to change. For example, if the aim of a program is to create more women business owners in order to increase her family’s income and move them out of poverty, then the program cannot focus solely on the female entrepreneurs-to-be. Training women about how to start and run a business is key, no doubt, but the program must also take into account the local laws that prevent women from having access to credit, and, very importantly, how her income will create a new balance of power within her home. We now know that when a woman, a wife, earns her own income it can change the gender roles of both the woman and her husband. If a women begins contributing to family income (when she didn’t before), this can make her husband feel shame that he cannot solely support his family and lead to an increase in violence against her. And the same is true when women learn more about how their bodies function, play a greater role in politics or even stay in school a few more years.
The United States government, particularly the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has kept abreast of this growing field of gender and development just as it has with other technical fields, gaining new knowledge and improving its programs to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars more efficiently as it ends extreme poverty. USAID collaborates with other governments, private companies and implementing partners to know more and do better for women around the world.
While the gap between the number of boys and girls in primary school has been eliminated, the number of women in elected office has increased and the number of women in the formal workforce is higher than it has ever been, now is a good time to remind ourselves about the importance of these issues, how we arrived at this moment and the need to continue this critical work.
Within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, Goal 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. For Goal 5, there are nine targets. In this blog post, we will focus on SDG5 Target 4, which focuses on the value of unpaid care and domestic work and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family.
The prevalence and invisibility of unpaid care work in the U.S. and abroad makes acknowledging and tracking data critical to developing policy solutions. UN Women’s “Progress of the World’s Women Report” acknowledges that “Domestic work makes all other work possible”—and this is true regardless of whether that work comes from domestic workers or unpaid family caregivers. The labor of domestic workers is critical to the function and growth of national and global economies.” (Source)
Unpaid care and domestic work are barriers to reaching gender equality as they reinforce discriminatory gender stereotypes that force women to stay in the home and limits participation in the public sphere, (Source) and contributes to the persistent gender gaps in labor force participation, activity rates, and wages. In terms of numbers, women comprise the majority of domestic workers, accounting for 80 percent of all workers in the sector globally; which means that approximately 55 million women participate in domestic work. (Source) There are at least two million domestic workers in the United States, and most of them are African American or immigrant women.
Around the world, women spend two to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men. (Source) According to a 2014 OECD study, women and men in the United States also spend their time differently. While men spent an average of 19 minutes per day caring for a family member, women spent 41 minutes. While men spent an average of 82 minutes per day doing “routine housework”, women spent 126 minutes. (Source)
One way to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work is by creating more public services that can take care of the family care and household duties that are now disproportionately done by women. The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not mandate employers offer paid leave for new mothers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Twenty-five years ago President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which included a provision giving eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child. (Source) Because of the lack of support at the federal level, states and the private sector are now starting to address the issue. As of May 2018, twenty-one states had pending legislation for paid leave laws, in addition to the five states and District of Columbia that have paid family leave laws already. (Source)
Further, the U.S. Government also does not provide for child care, and quality child care is often very expensive. In a 2016 report, the cost of infant child care in 49 states plus the District of Columbia exceeded seven percent of the state median income for a two-parent family. (Source) Daycare is also often hard to find. A report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), found that 51 percent of the population in 22 states resides in “childcare deserts.” In those neighborhoods, the number of children under age five outnumber available daycare slots more than three to one. (Source)
Another way to reach this target of Goal 5 is through the provision of infrastructure and social protection and the prevention of abuse of those who work in the care sector. Of the 67 million domestic workers worldwide, 60 million are excluded from social security coverage. In the U.S., while the infrastructure for domestic work, such as access to clean water and availability of household appliances, generally exists, laws protecting domestic workers are often not enforced, or domestic workers are excluded from certain legal protections. (Source) As a result, beginning with New York in 2010, eight U.S. states (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Nevada, Oregon and California and New York) have passed Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which protect workers from racial discrimination and sexual harassment, provides for one day off a week, and overtime and paid leave. Other states have yet to catch up. (Source)
Finally, in order to reach this SDG target, governments can actively promote shared responsibility for care and domestic work. From what I can find, the U.S. government has never had a campaign to increase the burden sharing for unpaid care and domestic responsibilities. There was a three- year “Make it Work” campaign centered around the 2016 U.S. elections that asked candidates to focus on child care, pre-Kindergarten and elder care; pay transparency and the fight for a higher, national minimum wage; as well as paid family and medical leave, earned sick days, fair scheduling, and workplace fairness for pregnant women. Family Values@Work is a network of coalitions in 21 states working to pass policies that value families at work such as paid sick days and affordable family leave. These policies are not only good for individual women and families, but provide support on a policy level for a more equitable division of labor and family responsibility.
Every day and in every way, we depend on technology. It helps us access information and each other, and organize our business and personal lives. But, there are increasing concerns about technology: how it impacts privacy; how the designers of tech tools (spoiler alert: mostly white men) embed gender and other norms in what they design; and, how technology perpetuates offensive and dangerous offline behavior.
Certainly, there is differential access to the internet. Women globally have less access than men, and even in the U.S., where overall internet access rates are fairly equal, women with fewer resources were 50 percent less likely than men to be online, and 30–50 percent less likely to use the internet for economic and political empowerment.
Technology is a powerful connector. It is imperative that women and girls can use technology to fully access education and financial services, grow their businesses, and communicate with family and friends. At the same time, it is critical that technology reflects the lives of women and girls, and does not replicate offline harassment and gender-based violence.
In order to do that, we must increase the number of women — across the globe — who design technology. Women like these. Most artificial intelligence (AI), and the programs that utilize AI, are created by (white) men. Those programs and apps will be different than those created by a more diverse group. For example, a recent article documented that “smart speakers” like Alexa and Home have a hard time understanding commands by those who speak English with an accent.
Jobs designing technology must be filled by a broad range of people. Effective problem solving occurs when people with diverse voices, viewpoints and life experiences are involved. Research published by the Harvard Business Reviewsupports this approach, finding that diversity, both inherent and acquired, helps drive innovation.
Yet barriers limit the kinds of people who enter and remain in these fields; women, especially, are often left out of the talent pool. A report by the American Association of University Women found that, in the U.S., 80 percent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs are in engineering and computer science, but women comprise only 12 percent of the engineering and 26 percent of the computing workforce.
How can we make progress? Here are three steps:
- Be purposeful in efforts to attract women: In the U.S., women earn about 20 percent of engineering degrees and 16 percent of computer science degrees. Key universities are increasing these numbers. According to a 2015 federal study, women earned over 40 percent of engineering degrees at schools like Franklin Olin, MIT, Yale, Howard, George Washington, Harvey Mudd, Brown, and Southern Methodist University. At Harvey Mudd, the percentage of women graduating with degrees in computer science increased from 12 percent to approximately 40 percent in five years. The school revised its introductory computing course and split it into two levels divided by experience, provided research opportunities for undergraduates after freshman year, and exposed young women students to the field by attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference.
- If you can see it, you can be it: Across the globe, STEM camps bring young women together to learn and to encourage interest in STEM careers. In the U.S., young women engineers have started a social media campaign #ilooklikeanengineer to change gender stereotypes about what an engineer should look like. Helping women succeed in STEM jobs is equally important. The U.S. State Department’s TechWomen program supports women from over 20 countries, and pairs them with an American mentor at companies across Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Promote STEM’s role in problem solving: When schools promote the impact that STEM jobs can have on solving problems, women are more attracted to those fields of study. Technology is more than a gadget; it’s a tool to solve pressing issues. To this end, Google Cloud’s Dr. Fei-Fei Li co-founded AI4All, an organization to cultivate diversity in the AI field through education, mentorship, and early exposure to its potential for social good.
Collectively, technology needs to help all of us. Taking these steps gets us closer to that goal.
Expanding markets. Ensuring quality control. Accessing supply and value chains. Broadening networks. Addressing management challenges. Showcasing women’s leadership. And yes, advocating for change.
These are topics that a dynamic group of African women entrepreneurs are focusing on during their visit to the U.S. as part of the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP). AWEP was launched, in conjunction with the 2010 African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum, as part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Every year, U.S. Embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa nominate leading women entrepreneurs to participate.
I worked with this group as they crystalized their professional and personal goals for the IVLP and made concrete plans to use new contacts and skills when they return home. We discussed the challenges they face as business leaders and women and the centrality of developing strong leadership and communication skills. The group brainstormed about how to address their challenges as leaders, managers, and innovators; how to successfully confront gender norms and policies that can hold back women’s economic success; and how to effectively exercise authority.While in the U.S., the group is meeting with government and business leaders as well as entrepreneurship experts. Their meetings address topics such as U.S. business practices and African access to U.S. markets, integrating African women into the global economy, and funding access for commercial expansion in Africa. These women are leading actors in economic growth and social advocacy in their communities and countries. AWEP’s alumnae have created thousands of jobs and established more than 20 women’s business associations across the Sub-Saharan region.
These women and countless others across the globe are central to creating jobs and economic growth. Research by McKinsey Global Institute shows that if women participated in the labor force at the same rate as men globally, GDP could increase from $12 to $28 trillion by 2025. This is an 11-26 percent increase, which at the highest level is roughly equal to the combined GDP of the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies. In Sub-Saharan Africa, GDP would increase by 12 percent. Supporting women is not only important for these women and their communities and countries, but for all of us.
Here are some of my takeaways based on my conversations with this year’s AWEP participants:
- Networks make a difference. Bringing women together creates strong networks and helps people learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. On visitor programs, participants meet and interact with many U.S. experts. But just as importantly, they meet and bond with each other, make connections based on shared experiences, and create lasting support systems. The AWEP group identified strengthening networks as key for two reasons: first, it helps each individual make connections and second, it provides a platform to share knowledge with others.
- Documenting successes and leading by example are important. As the group noted, both quantitative data and qualitative documentation make the case for women’s economic impact. Research data is foundational and can win over those who are skeptical about the impact of women on the economy. And telling the stories of successful women-led businesses and their economic impact grabs and holds attention. These stories of women’s contribution to job creation and prosperity can inspire other women and help build support among policymakers. Additionally, harnessing interest in women’s economic empowerment can start conversations about how communities flourish when women are fully engaged and how to address other issues that hold women and girls back.
- Governments and businesses are key partners to accelerating women’s economic participation. Entrepreneurs are innovators and bring their skills and talents to product development, but they need partners in government and business. For example, women have a harder time than men accessing finances. Governments can address many of the issues that create barriers, such as laws that make it hard for women to borrow money, and banks can support creative ways for women to handle funds, including mobile banking technology that would allow women at marketplaces to make deposits on the spot. Everyone must be part of the solution.
The bottoms line is that these business leaders are fully engaged, creative, and looking to make collective and individual impacts. Their efforts change lives and communities every day. Supporting them is a privilege.
When women’s participation in the labor force increases, GDP rises. When women start businesses, communities flourish. When women are promoted to senior management and appointed to corporate boards, companies do better. We ignore this compelling data at our peril.
Business leaders, advocates and policy makers committed to economic growth and prosperity must use every strategy and tool to open doors and opportunity for women to participate in today’s global economy.
In early May, I moderated the opening plenary of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Toronto, which convened 600 influential business, institutional and political global leaders to strategize about breaking down entrenched barriers to women’s participation and developing concrete
solutions. The Forum focused specifically on influencing the agenda of the G7, a powerful group comprising the U.S., Japan, Germany, the U.K., France, Italy and Canada, as well as the European Union. This discussion was particularly timely as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made empowering women one of the main themes of Canada’s 2018 G7 presidency.
The plenary examined how governments, the private sector and multilateral forums like the G7, can take action to accelerate women’s economic opportunity, and in the process, create more jobs, increase innovation, and transform societies. It highlighted the importance of enabling environments and corporate culture, the role of technology, and the importance of measuring impact. I was joined on the panel by four dynamic women leaders from the private, public and NGO sectors.
Here are my key takeaways.
First, most private sector leaders today recognize the competitive advantage of women’s economic participation, whether in the corporate c-suite, in non-traditional jobs, or as entrepreneurs. But, talk isn’t enough. Companies that make their commitment real have been able to attract, and importantly, retain women employees by challenging assumptions, promoting work/life balance, and creating an environment where everyone is valued. For example, Salesforce took an honest look at how women and men were being paid, and increased salaries when it found discrepancies. But these actions aren’t only important to women. Today, both men and women are seeking jobs and starting businesses that value their contributions, are flexible, and give them a sense of ownership.
Second, strong enabling and legal environments are critical. To succeed, women need skills, networks, and access to capital and markets. At the same time, women also need access to quality education, child care, clean water, health care and a sense of personal security. This includes legal frameworks that ensure non-discrimination, and protections against sexual harassment, assault and violence. There is good news. According to the most recent World Bank Women, Business and the Law Report, over the last two years, governments in 65 countries took concrete steps to improve women’s economic inclusion. However, women still face legal barriers in over 100 countries, and those barriers adversely affect their economic choices.
Third, technology is both a tool and a challenge. Technology is driving change and innovation across the globe, and has a tremendous impact on economic competitiveness. As we embrace technology, however, we need to be mindful that globally, there is a gender gap in online access. In urban poor areas, women are 50 percent less likely than men to be online, and 30–50 percent less likely to use the internet for economic or political empowerment. A 2015 report, Connected Women, found that women are 14 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. And, when women own phones, they use them differently than men do.
Finally, measurement matters and helps tell the story. We know that making the business case is important, and macro-level data, like that contained in the studies cited in this article, makes a difference at the policy level. We also need to look closely at what works on the individual and business level. Measuring success is about understanding how many women graduate from a vocational program, and also how that translates into impact and value.
Under the Canadian presidency, the G7 is deepening its focus on these critical issues. As advocates, policy makers and business leaders, we can help by continuing to gather data about how women are central to economic growth. Interventions must ensure women are treated equally and fairly, and have access to the tools they need to succeed, wherever they are on the path of economic participation and leadership.
Human Resource offices and legal representation are not the first choice of disclosure for many who are intimidated by a negative workplace experience or an overbearing supervisor.
There’s often a gap between official corporate policies protecting workers against harassment, and the ongoing nonprofessional behavior in the corporate workforce. It can create a dangerous place to be caught in the crossfire of gender discrimination.
Social change results from two levels of pressure; one, official and another, personal. Efforts initialed by industry and government leaders such as the EDGE, WEP, PAX (see Smash 5/5/17 Blog Post) and online grassroots exchanges can both assist women in taking the initial step of sharing their grievances and receiving support and guidance.
“…The rise of the internet has opened important new forms of safe space.” Julie Creswell and Tiffany Hsu of the New York Times explain that the internet has become a clearinghouse for complaints, noted Dr. Anne Litwin, author, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.
Internet rants may be seen as the exclusive purview for teenage angst, however, professionally employed women have found special sites that provide a safe place to share grievances and exchange resources with others who have experienced sexual harassment. Cresswell and Hsu list a few such specialized sites:
- Tech Ladies, an invitation-only Facebook group
- #HelpASisterOut, a forum for advice on how to file a complaint or learn about a company’s culture
- Blind, an app for anonymous chats about the workplace
- BetterBrave, an online guide to resources for sexual harassment victims
- SheWorx, an advocacy group for online entrepreneurs.
When corporate policy is being implemented a standard non disclosure element in a work contract can deter an honest report of sexual harassment or other infractions. The gossip grapevine is not the correct avenue for lodging complaints, however, some mechanism that ensures safety and anonymity is needed. Women have found their own venues for closing the gap between corporate policies and the ongoing negative behavior in the workforce.
Formal and informal methods are necessary to stem the tide of such infractions. Open, safe communication is a right that must not be withdrawn in the name of public image protection.
In July, I read the Washington Post article about 150 maids who rioted at the Mahagun Moderna apartment complex in Noida, outside Delhi, India. These workers stormed the complex because they believed a maid had been beaten and held captive overnight by her employers after asking for unpaid wages. The footage of the day is chaotic, with police (or security guards) clubbing protesting workers, and people running between parts of the complex. This story surprised me, given the disparity in power between maids and employers, and the economic pressure they face to send needed funds to their families.
The article quoted Tripti Lahiri, the Asia editor for Quartz, who has written Maid in India, a nuanced book on the proliferation and complexity of domestic help in that country. The book is riveting, disturbing, timely, and important. It is a richly textured picture of societal and household dynamics in India, and provides an understanding of who takes these jobs, voluntarily or not, what their lives are like, and the challenges they face. In Lahiri’s words: “We [the employers] eat first, they later, often out of food portioned out for them; we live in front, they in the back; we sit on chairs and they on the floor; we drink from glasses and ceramic plates and they from ones made of steel set aside for them; we call then buy their names, and they address us by titles.”
As India’s middle class grows, more Indians can, and do, hire domestic help to do virtually everything: driving, taking care of children, cooking, serving meals, and gardening. In some households, there are ten or twelve servants, supervised and micro-managed by a family member, most often when the worker is tending to children.
We meet employees who can’t speak for themselves, employees who haven’t been paid for years of work, who have been abused and in some cases raped. We meet parents from rural villages who haven’t heard from their children, working as domestic servants, in years. We meet employment brokers, some with the flimsiest of excuses about why a worker is missing and can’t be found, or hasn’t been paid, and who then turn off their phones. We meet employers, some of whom seem decent and others who are shockingly unabashed about paying the maids virtually nothing for literally years of service, and demanding constant work. We also meet domestic servants who see this occupation as a way into the middle class, and especially if working for expats, can make more than some government workers.
One of the most harrowing stories is of a member of parliament, who along with his wife is charged with murdering a maid. The description brings to light the lack of accountability in general and the flaws in the grindingly slow Indian criminal justice system, along with unrealistic expectations that illiterate servants can navigate these complexities.
But, this is not just a story about what happens in Delhi or Mumbai. It’s also about the impact economic growth has had in rural India. Many rural families depend on these workers to send money back. Young people (literally often boys and girls, despite laws prohibiting those under 14 from working) travel from far villages to work in the households of acquaintances or strangers. The contrast between village life and life in the cities, where homes have running water, wood or marble floors and numerous appliances, is stark. Many employers prefer these rural workers because are more malleable, but then complain that they don’t speak Hindi or understand how to run a washing machine.
This book helps us understand the larger phenomena. It also documents a nascent commitment to legal reform to protect these workers and hold employers accountable. It highlights some of the NGOs that are advocating for stronger laws and better treatment, as well as the challenges they face. There’s certainly a long way to go, but Lahiri’s telling of these stories and highlighting them is another step along that path.
- Diversity and Inclusion
- Economic Empowerment
- Empowering Girls
- Foreign Policy
- Gender Equality
- Human Rights
- Open Government
- Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
- Sustainable Development Goals