Behavioral Change to Achieve Gender Equality at Workplace

By Deepa Narayan, Former Senior Advisor, The World Bank


Deepa Narayan, Former Senior Advisor, The World Bank

Deepa Narayan is a former Senior Adviser at the World Bank, a Ted speaker and author of 17 books. A recent book written by Deepa Narayan is Chup - Wonderfully nomadic! Based on 600 interviews with students, educated, working women and men in New Delhi and other metros, the book shows why current approaches to women's empowerment, entrepreneurship and leadership are unlikely to succeed.

The least researched question in the world is the most pervasive idea in the world, the idea of manhood, men, masculinity, and maleness. There will be no gender equality in the world until we explore what it means to be a ‘good man' in today's world. Why?

Let's use the metaphor of poverty and poor people. Poor people cannot solve poverty in the world because they did not cause poverty. Talking to women cannot solve gender inequality in the world because women did not cause gender inequality. The causation lies in the relationship between the two, the rich and poor, men and women and the unequal systems that continue to generate inequality of power, social, political, emotional. In most cultures, power is bestowed in men and morality in women.

"We have underestimated the power of culture and our early learning about what it means to be a good girl and good boy and consequently how good women and good men should behave"

My book `Chup: Breaking the Silence About India's Women' is based on 600 detailed interviews with educated women and men, including college students in Delhi and a few other metros. I conclude that the force of culture is stronger than the impact of education, employment and incomes all the things we promised would lead to women's empowerment and gender equality. But it has not.

We have underestimated the power of culture and our early learning about what it means to be a good girl and good boy and consequently how good women and good men should behave. This early training and men's and women's expectations keep women culturally invisible.

I highlight 7 habits in my recent Ted talk that has been translated into 17 languages because the behavioral patterns of women in India resonate across cultures from the USA to India to Poland and Indonesia.

This does not mean that all women are good and men bad, but it does mean that our early expectations continue to run our lives and reproduce inequality despite our beliefs in gender equality, despite our education and despite our wealth.

How can we change? It isn't that complicated or difficult. What is difficult is acknowledging that we are all biased against women by the mere fact that we have all been raised as cultural creatures. Once we acknowledge that we are biased, we can change. Till then we sit in denial. But this will not happen unless entire systems of relationships change.

Let's take a corporation. It isn't enough to establish guidelines about no sexual harassment in the workplace. Or nominate a gender equality coordinator at a junior level without any power. Or celebrate women's day, or paint the nursery or women's restroom pink. Male leaders have to take the lead at every level for men to change.

The culture of a corporation can change very quickly if its leaders equate gender equality with human dignity and assume that all their systems have built-in gender bias which is usually against women and agree to sweep away everyday gender bias. The entire company through the participatory process develops a behavioral protocol, a gender promise that operates all time while people are at work. These everyday behaviors are self-monitored and those who shift the most are rewarded. Those who break the protocol are not punished, but their peer group supports them to change. Make it fun to change. Create Chup Circles, safe conversational spaces for men and women to talk. So the system of norms and values and incentives is positive, not negative, is rewarding not punishing and is energizing and not `eye-rolling'.

Let workers come up with suggestions for systems change, small tweaks can make a big difference. For cultural shifts, three suggestions for men. First, listen deeply and do not interrupt. Second, do not assume to always know the answer. Third, do not make fun or ridicule women. For women, you are not defective, your voice is important  women are stronger together than women alone.

At a recent workshop with young students training to be lawyers, a six hour session, led to a behavioral redesign of the entire legal system so that rape victims are not automatically, unknowingly categorized a ‘bad women' or women who have fallen from the good woman moral category. Groups of students first uncovered their own expectations of womanhood and manhood. They then worked together in groups after listening to the experience of a rape victim and developed a behavioral protocol for treating women with respect, what questions to ask and what questions not to ask, what behaviors to exhibit and what behaviors not to exhibit in dealing with a rape victim. They developed behavioral protocols for the family, for the police, the doctors/nurses, the judge, and for the prosecutors.

Every organization can develop its own behavioral contract, a gender contract, so women who come to work do not have to drop out because the work environment and the transport environment is so toxic to them, so every time a woman steps out of her house, ‘it is not guerilla warfare out there'.

India has many progressive laws supporting the constitutional commitment to gender equality. What we now need is behavioral change, everyday behavioral change to achieve gender equality and show the world that it is possible to achieve equal representation of women and men and celebrate their different approaches problem solving and leadership to create a gentler kinder world for all.

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