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.