Women in the workplace are subject to many assumptions regarding their marital status. Does it affect how they are perceived at work?
Tired of her demanding job, Ruchelle Fernandes, 29, decided to quit and take a break. In those 8 months of unemployment, she caught up with family, old passions, and friends. Rejuvenated, she decided to go back to work. But no company would hire her. Reason? Her married status as a woman who had taken a break.
Several women have experienced discriminatory practices while job hunting and at work.
Women at the workplace have talked about how their marital status precedes their calibre and ability to perform at work, and each category comes with its own kind of sexism.
“No one even cared to ask me why I had taken a break. They just saw ‘married’ and ‘break’ together, and made their decision,” she said to me during an interview. Given that she was recently married, it was assumed that Ruchelle would prioritise her domestic responsibilities over her work.
Why do companies practice this kind of discrimination, despite its glaring illegality?
Women Make For Just 20% Of The Workforce, With Odds Stacked Against Them
An October 2020 report by Catalyst states that despite the growth of the economy, women form less than a quarter of the workforce (20.3%). This is in part due to the restrictive cultural norms around women in the workplace and at work, mixed with the gender wage gap and inflexible policies set up by organisations. Considering that girls are nearly closing the literacy gap, this is sad, though unsurprising.
There’s a wide assumption that women will pay less attention to work at the workplace as domestic responsibilities will take up their time after marriage. The norm also dictates that women make more ‘compromises’ after marriage – moving cities, changing jobs, settling for a less fulfilling job, or giving up working completely. Thus, companies view women as flaky employees who are less likely to stick around, especially once they break the news of marriage.
To ensure that they don’t get flaky employees, recruiters resort to asking sexist questions during interviews.
“Some recruiters asked me how much time I spend with my in-laws and how often they visit,”, says Ruchelle. “A couple of them told me quite directly that they don’t want to hire me because I might take many breaks.”
But not all of them ask these questions directly. “They will ask you, “where do you see yourself in 5 years, not on a professional level?” to know if you’re thinking of having children.”
Neena Jayraj*, 30, who works as an assistant manager in HR, has been in situations where panels have directed similar questions to female employees. “We took the necessary steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The perspective of an organisation is simple – they want to be sure that their employees are utilising their resources well, and it can be counterproductive to have an employee who has no intention of staying.
But male employees are not asked the same questions, which complicates matters a little. “They don’t ask men the same questions because it’s assumed men’s lives don’t change after marriage,” says Neena.
It starts with the perception that marriage is a major change for a woman, not for a man. “The burden comes on the woman. You have to entertain the in-laws, or focus on the child. The primary caregiving work comes on women, while men don’t feel that stress,” says Ruchelle.
Company Cultures Are Biased Against Women, And Women Bear The Brunt
The above-mentioned experiences of sexism force many women to sometimes be dishonest about their plans during interviews or in the workplace which creates a vicious cycle of mistrust between companies and employees.
What doesn’t get addressed? The company’s policies and culture that are inherently biased against women.
Kritika Singhania, a 30-year-old assistant manager at an e-commerce company, recalls her initial days in the workforce. “Married female bosses would leave on time every day, and others would blame them for pushing the work to their juniors. But some juniors would be happy because they got to leave early too.”
While we have our stipulated 8 or 9-hour workdays, companies expect employees to work extra hours to show their dedication. Women – especially married women – are at a loss because they are expected to juggle work and home expertly.
This proves hard on men too – when women are expected to sit at home, men feel burdened to earn. This not only results in long work hours and mental stress, but it also limits men from spending more time with their families. The burden of caregiving falls on women, which makes it difficult to break the patriarchal binary.
Married Women Vs Unmarried Women
Marriage is seen as a deterrent in a woman’s career, which it can be, in the wrong organisation. But while they are less valued professionally, they gain cultural recognition and respect – something older, ‘unmarried’ women in the workforce struggle to get.
“Sometimes, the treatment is borderline exploitative,” says Shalini Kalra*, who works as a Content Lead in a media company.
“You’re expected to put in more hours because it’s assumed you have nowhere to be after work.”
It is implied that a woman must be married once she reaches a certain stage in her career; not fulfilling it or challenging it raises eyebrows.
Just as married women are assumed to be less dedicated, unmarried women are seen as neurotic and all-consumed by their work.
This unconscious bias is dangerous, especially for unmarried women in leadership positions in the workplace. While male bosses can be temperamental too, a snappy female boss is considered bitter because she is single.
Regardless of the situation, it is clear that in many cases, women’s status in the workplace is largely determined by her personal life.
So, What’s The Solution?
This experience of sexism is common, but isn’t necessarily rampant. With more youth entering the market with their start-ups, with younger leaders taking over, and with existing hierarchies dissolving, there’s a larger scope for an egalitarian outlook to prevail. “I think start-ups are more open than corporates,” says Ruchelle. Kritika, who works at a start-up, concurs to a certain degree. “It helps to have younger leaders.”
Neena says that she has been lucky to not have had this experience. “My bosses were very supportive when I told them I needed to take some time off for my wedding. They take inclusiveness very seriously.”
A strong solution is to identify the root cause of the problem – the patriarchal mindset around marriage and women.
When organisations and leaders accommodate women and their needs, change can happen. Speaking of the judgement around married women in the workplace leaving work early, Kritika says,
Neena, who has spearheaded mental wellness workshops at work, says that they can be drivers of change when done right. In her experience, many men would also seek counsellors to talk about home-related issues that affected their performance at work. “Men also go through domestic troubles; many are silent about it.”
Unconscious bias training and gender sensitisation programmes can also help improve the situation. It also helps to have more women from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions. Shalini suggests having forums where employees can post their experiences anonymously, to make others more conscious of their behaviour.
And if nothing else, calling it out can do it too – “Why do you say that?” “What did you mean by that?” can bring unconscious bias to the surface.
The workforce is gradually changing – women are climbing to the top and making their mark in industries far and wide. But we still have a long way to go, and structural changes are imperative.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.
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