If we want to build inclusive workplaces, then some things need to change

Organisations that pay proper attention to women’s needs stand a better chance of hiring and retaining a more diverse and happier workforce.

Gender inequality in the workplace is high on the global agenda right now and many organisations are putting systems in place to build a diverse workforce, promote more women to management positions and close the gender pay gap. But while these initiatives are laudable, what is also becoming apparent is that in order to retain women employees, efforts must also be put into transformational aspects that enable women to feel comfortable in the workplace and ultimately succeed in the work environment.

What is often ignored, is that women have specific embodied needs as a result of their biology and this has led to a lack of basic facilities and infrastructure in the workplace to support these.

For example, a recent study in the UK found that there is a stigma around menstruation in the workplace that causes many women to lie to their managers about their reasons for sick days. The study also reported that one-quarter of the women surveyed do not have sanitary bins at work, almost one-third do not have constant access to a toilet and over 70% have no way of getting sanitary products at work.

Nadya Okamoto, founder and director of the PERIOD charity says “menstruators in the workplace do not feel that they can ask for the things they need, whether it is a tampon or a sick day because of the belief that having a period makes women weak or inferior in some way.” This belief is pervasive – I know women who adjust the dose of their birth control medication in order to miss their periods so they can function better at work. Their biology is experienced as an inconvenience which they cannot afford as it may cause them to miss paid workdays.

So, where does that leave employers who are trying to build more inclusive workplaces and address gender issues? My own research suggests that if employers are serious about inclusion, they need to accept that some things have to change – starting with facilities and infrastructure – and that this change needs to be more than skin deep.

Infrastructure is a barrier to inclusion

Basic infrastructure has an impact on women’s comfort, and potentially on their performance within the workplace. If there are not enough toilets provided for the number of women in an organisation, not only is this inconvenient, but it leads to misunderstandings around time management. Women have reported being reprimanded for taking too long on a break, or being made to feel that they are wasting time or being inconsiderate of others, when the fact is simply that going to the bathroom may take women longer than it takes men.

In some organisations there may be a discrepancy in the facilities provided in different areas – for example, more accessible, better equipped and cleaner facilities at head office level and fewer toilets, to service more women, which are not as well equipped or cleaned in other areas such as a warehouse. A simple issue of upgrading infrastructure can make a huge improvement in women’s lived experiences of their workplace and their feelings of inclusion.

Policy is not enough

While policy regarding inclusivity is important, the policy itself may not go far enough in addressing women’s needs. It comes down to understanding agency and what is required to truly include women in the conversation. A manager who says she has an “open door” policy may be underestimating what it takes to actually broach a personal and stigmatised issue with one’s boss.

If women feel they cannot speak up, any efforts at inclusivity are undermined. As the UK study suggests, societal stigma restricts important conversations and prevents women from seeking the support they need – ranging from maternity leave and sick leave to discussing whether sanitary products can be made available at work or the condition of the women’s toilets.

Organisations need to examine how they can validate their intentions to make sure women receive adequate support. A homogenous or blanket approach to improving all employee’s conditions at work may miss an opportunity to engage and make meaningful changes specifically for women. This is increasingly important as organisations look to address gender issues by hiring and retaining women at all levels of the organisation.

It takes courage and perseverance to get this right

Change requires courage, and it needs to come from everyone in an organisation. It’s also not about villainising an employer by pointing out what they don’t offer, but about opening respectful channels of communication – and keeping communication and engagement opportunities open over time.

Essentially, gender inclusivity is never a fixed point. It’s not a box-ticking exercise that can be done once and then forgotten about. There are always going to be things to improve upon, for organisations and individuals. We all like to think we don’t have prejudices or blind spots, but we need to keep examining these, and to keep learning and evolving. The future of a truly integrated, diverse and successful workforce depends upon it.

Nyasha Chimhandamba is a Bertha Scholar on the MPhil in Inclusive Innovation programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Part of her research at the school focuses on the lived experiences of South African women and how their needs can be addressed in the workforce.

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