Print Edition - 2015-02-14  |  On Saturday

All about the attitude

  • The Nepali government has already created workplace policies that should help women in the workplace. But unless the men who run organisations willingly implement them, working women will continue to be treated unfairly
- Chahana Sigdel
All about the attitude

Feb 13, 2015-

A few years ago, I landed a job interview at an international non-government organisation that works towards gender empowerment, among other issues, which was why a particular question by one of the interviewers struck me as odd.

“So what are your plans on getting married?” he asked—after a brief chat about my strengths and weakness—to which I almost chortled, and I said half-jokingly, “Life is so uncertain, you never know.”

I wasn’t sure if that was an interview question or just an icebreaker, but the man’s solemn expression for the rest of the interview made me feel that he was pretty serious about whether I was thinking of getting married soon. Men don’t get asked this question and when women do—directly or indirectly—it’s not to break the ice. It’s about how many prospective employers in the country view married women, and whether they will have to make accommodations for them if the women decide to have a baby during their tenure at the company.

It’s not that we don’t have policies that are supposed to address this issue. “We do have fancy rules and policies, but they only look good on paper,” says Lily Thapa, founder of Women for Human Rights, an organisation that works with single women.  The Civil Service Act has provisions that calls for 90 days of maternal leave, the allotting of breastfeeding rooms and hours to nurse a baby, along with a policy whereby any organisation with more than 35 women workers should have a daycare center for children. “There are a lot of provisions, but there are   few places that are following them. And except for a small proportion of the working women population, the rest of them are unaware of this,” she says. “Furthermore, organisations don’t give too much thought to implementing the provisions, to begin with.” Only when the attitudes of employers align with the policies will we see change in the work environment, she says.

A report released a few months ago by the World Economic Forum shows that Nepal is ranked quite high in the subset ‘labor force participation’—one of the four gender-parity criteria. It comes in at number 16, among 122 countries. “Within the economic-participation category, Nepal, Botswana and Nigeria have had the most absolute gain in terms of increased rates of female labour force participation,” the report states. Despite elaborate policies and plans, women in the country—from all strata and occupations—struggle to find an accommodating workplace, one that does not only hand out perfunctory benefits but genuinely cares for the empowerment of its female employees.

Astha Sharma, a 26-year-old,

who had her first baby a month ago, didn’t think things were going

to be quite so difficult once she became a mother. “It sounds clichéd, but women already have to work twice as much to prove themselves. And when we decide to have

babies, we are sometimes accused of not pulling our weight in the company,” says the human resource manager at an INGO.

Sharma is entitled to over four months of maternity leave, along with flexible hours, a breastfeeding room at the office.  Despite all this  it is still difficult for her, due in part to what she calls the prevalence of a patriarchal mindset at her workplace. “Even if there are all these accommodating rules, it doesn’t matter when your direct supervisor who is a male doesn’t grasp what you are going through,” she says.  “They put you in a guilt trap and make it seem like they’re doing a huge favour by letting you take a break from work.”

It’s probably because of such unquantifiable, but nevertheless material, impediments in working women’s lives that the World Economic Forum report suggests that Nepal and the rest of the world will have to wait until 2095 for gender parity in the workplace. It also probably has to do with the lack of women in decision-making bodies. In the corporate world around the globe, only four percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. One can imagine how things are in the rest of the non-liberated, non-Western world. While there are some policies in the public sector, private enterprises in Nepal need to treat working mothers much better, according to Mridhu Pradhan, an employee at a bank who is expecting her first child in a few months.

Pradhan says she will get around two months of leave, without any other kinds of benefits. “The general attitude is that they are doing us a favour by letting us work,” she says. “We can sense how the companies regard married women. It’s like they’re counting the days until we’re going to leave,” says Pradhan, who is determined to prove them wrong.

It’s a challenge that working Nepali women in urban areas will have to increasingly struggle to overcome. A study titled Knowledge and Practice on Breastfeeding among Mothers of Infants found that while 52.6 percent mothers from rural area practiced exclusive breastfeeding, only 20.8 of mothers from urban areas—many of them working mothers—fed their child only breast milk for the first six months after birth.  “Working mothers in developed countries can use  techniques such as pumping their breast milk and feeding their babies during work-breaks and such, but this not happening here in Nepal because of lack of awareness,” says Tulashi Adhikari, who is a member of the Nepal Breastfeeding Promotion Board and a co-author of the research paper.  “Pumping milk or breastfeeding rooms are still not accepted ideas here,” she says.  

“We need a genuine plan that will keep women in the workplace, not just tokenism,” says Renu Sijapati, founding member of the Federation of Dalit Women. The government recently launched a workplace harassment bill, and a safe-motherhood bill is underway, which will address maternity leaves in detail, but unless there is awareness and a comprehensive way to integrate policies to change mindsets, it is going to be just another document, says Sijapati. “At the very core of our society we are guided by strong patriarchal roots and it’s important to address that in order to help women fully utilise their potential and at the same time nurture their personal growth,” she says.

“I mean, I think we have come a long way as far women’s rights go in the country. The policies that have been drawn up on our behalf are testament to that. But how do you change the mindset of the men who wield the power in the workplace? The subtle digs at pregnant women, the way they make working mothers feel as if we are lesser employees—sometimes outright calling us unproductive—that attitude needs to change,” says Astha Sharma.

Published: 14-02-2015 09:21

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