Preferential Treatment in the Workplace?

Recently, Shefaly at the Indian Economy Blog, had a piece on the need for Indian workplaces to become more inclusive of disabled people as employees. I wrote in a slightly tangential comment, that,

…The issue is really how to make our institutions more inclusive. For this, I think the first thing is attitude to be inclusive. Unfortunately, we are still in a situation, where in certain jobs, for eg, I have seen managers decide that they won’t even interview women, having decided that “women can’t travel”, for instance.

So inclusivity for disabled people is still a long way off…

To which, Shefaly replied with a remark –

..But this sort of special treatment can work both ways. When I worked in India, and travelled often, I was allowed to stay in hotels beyond my level’s entitlement simply because the organisation did not want any responsibility for my ’safety’ resulting from my being a woman and my entitlement being an unrealistically cheap hotel of some sort in several cities in India. I share this here with the full cognizance that the ’special’ treatment upset my male colleagues as well as the fact that although it was not right, I managed to negotiate it and well that is business, is it not? But at least I did not have to fight for the job!

Now this set me thinking. As a feminist, can I really demand any special treatment at all in the workplace? Doesn’t equal mean the same? We, in this generation, are really sitting on the shoulders of countless women who fought the battle before us – the battle to be allowed to study, to work, to choose your partner. So in a sense, educated, reasonably affluent urban women like me have it relatively better off because of those who suffered before us. Is it not letting them down now if we demand special treatment? That was my first reaction.

I more or less feel like this. Except. I also started thinking of other points of view.

Women’s entry into the workplace itself is only 50 years or so old. (By workplace, I mean organized workplace, not to discount in any way the generations of women who have worked on farms and so on). In some industries, probably only 20-30 years old. The rules then, were framed for a different generation where the default worker was male. These rules have over generations become institutionalised in workplaces across industries. Take the issue of transfers. Why did companies at one point of time, transfer employees at whim all over the country every 2-3 years? The policy was formulated assuming a male audience who could move their families with them at any time, wives largely staying at home. If you look at private companies atleast today, transfers are much rarer, and almost always discussed/negotiated. So the first issue is, that while I am uncomfortable with women asking for exceptions to rules, in many cases, the rules themselves are the rules of a man’s world. They are not the rules that an egalitarian world would have framed.

Then, I started thinking more specifically about Shefaly’s case, and wondered – why is it that the company feels obliged to ensure the safety of its female employees, and not as much in the case of men? Isn’t it strange – after all, much of the corporate world has been male, shouldn’t it lookout for men as well? Its not as simple as that. Rather, it is in a way related to the notion of a woman’s value being tied up with her “honour”. If one looks at it realistically, a man travelling on his own may be slightly better able to defend himself against an assailant when compared to a woman. (Though this is increasingly not true, as women become more athletic, more well built with better nutrition.) Even if we assume that, what chance does a man on his own have against a group of muggers? About the same as a woman?

The difference ofcourse is that men are not raped, while women are. And while companies may not exactly phrase it like that or even consciously evaluate it , thats the crux of extending better protection to women. It also acts as a deterrent against employing women – Jobs that involve frequent travel are sometimes quietly closed to women for this reason. In a utopian world ofcourse, (or in a more litigation loving society than India), employers would need to extend protection to everyone, or face huge penalties if employees were hurt in the course of doing their jobs, be it men or women.

In the meanwhile, while I would be uncomfortable asking for any differential treatment, I wouldn’t blame anyone who did so, in cases where issues of safety are involved. The workplace ofcourse doesn’t afford men this privilege, though inversely, it allows them greater opportunity. Like most things, unless men too see the payoffs in changing the rules of the game, I believe that there will continue to be confusion and resentment over issues like these.



  1. Apu, I came to this following the track-back.

    My specific case dates back to early-1990s when women managers in the IT industry were rarer than gold dust (probably still are but I do not work in the industry or the company I mentioned any more). Besides 2 junior women employees and 1 secretary, whose privilege it was to go home by the 5:30pm staff bus, I was the only female manager in the entire head office. In 1996 I even wrote an article about it in Cosmopolitan’s India edition which at least then was not about sex and fashion alone.

    Surviving in a workplace – with its considerable emphasis on long (and may I add needless or fuelled by the promise of free food at 7 pm from the office canteen) hours, a lot of drinking and generally respectful male colleagues who were not always able to include me in their socialising – needed special negotiations all the time. I worked long hours but scheduled them to meet my wish to study German for 9 hours each weekend. I did not drink, something where I had my boss for company in. Much as I liked my colleagues, I was not always up for smoky-valley-cafe style entertainment. Our travel allowances did not even allow us to stay in 3-star hotels and my work took me to places B-towns like Pune and Coimbatore where availability and quality of hotels was even more restricted than say in Bombay or Chennai.

    As part of all that negotiating, I negotiated special terms for hotels too. I did not rationalise it as something to protect my honour etc nor did I think I was betraying some sisterhood. In the workplace as in life, one gets what one negotiates. So I did.

    And the only way I could get away with it was that I was a star performer. Nobody makes allowances for crappy employees. Is that what feminism should be about?

    Also by the way at that time, all the few senior women managers in my company worked on their own terms – negotiated ones. One left at 6pm for home and played every day in the park with her girls, come hell or high water. She is still one of the most senior and well-respected women leaders in the Indian IT industry. One chose to drink the men under the table every day but when she rang (she had a CFO job), I have seen regional directors stand up and take her call.

    I would have thought you would see it as an early victory for high performing women managers in a male-dominated industry rather than an issue of betrayal!

  2. whoa! please dont take this as an attack on your case at all. like I said, that was my gut reaction. as i said, however, i understand the reasons why individuals would want to negotiate – part of it being that employers cannot assure a “safe” environment for everyone. infact what i want to highlight is really not whether or not “you” should have asked for an exception. It is about what seems like preferential treatment (hence the question mark in the title), but is actually a reflection of the realities in the workplace, including rules that have not been framed to suit eveyone’s situation well.

  3. Apu, yes I know it was not an attack on me. I only outlined the detail so as to provide more context as to why an otherwise fair-minded person like me would push for preferential treatment.

    I think this is more about the society than about the firm. The asymmetries mean there is scope for negotiation.

    The asymmetries also mean that hotels can often offer a safety based USP and capture a niche market. I think I recall correctly when I say hotels are increasingly offering women-only floors and wings and sometimes entire hotels. These are not in India – yet – but they reflect on the universality of the issue of a woman travelling alone being seen as ‘ready’ and ‘available’ for misbehaviours..

  4. true. thank you. infact its interesting how markets open everytime there are underserved opportunities. i am so thankful though that you didnt perceive it as a personal thing – i was afraid of setting off a blog-war which is the last thing i wanted 🙂

    its just that your specific incident set me off thinking. infact this thing of male colleagues being able to drink together and socialise (something which would have been more exclusive of women in the 90s) was also something that I wanted to touch upon – the workplace has subtle means of leaving women out, in the event of which, yes, we have to find our own ways to get ahead. thankfully, the power of buddy-buddy networking etc is now becoming more inclusive.

  5. Ah! There is an old rule on the internet. Flaming only goes on so far before someone invokes Hitler. I live in Europe where we are very touchy about Hitler, so no flaming except to cook burgers 😉

    As for the rituals of bonding over drinking: Nowhere is this more ingrained in the culture than in Britain. In India, on my last trip I noticed that young women are now able to keep with the ‘tradition’ very well now. There are other ways to exclude too and within our own gender. In an episode of ‘Friends’ Rachel finds that her smoker boss (a woman) confers and makes major decisions with another smoker peer of Rachel’s (another woman) in the smoking room. Rachel tries in vain to start smoking to get in on the act.

    That said, I just spent 5 years in a women-only college (1 of 3) in Cambridge. I have to say some women do not wear being women lightly. It is possible to engage productively with all kinds of people without bringing up gender in everything. Someone just forgot to tell some women that this was possible. Equality is not the same as enmity – a middle ground is possible and I say this as a person who is not tall, blonde, or any other stereotype which even women say gets ahead easily with men…

  6. yes, its not necessary to ‘bring in’ gender, but, gender unfortunately informs so many things indirectly. I don’t think its an issue of enmity at all. I believe that patriarchy is harmful to men as well in some ways, even if they don’t (all) recognise it.

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