Gender diversity: An Aspect of Multi-cultural work systems


Dear friends, I am very glad to be present here this fine morning to deliver my address on Gender Diversity. I must thank Mr R S Maker, Director General of Employers’ Federation of India (EFI) for having invited me to share my thoughts on this wonderful topic.

Today’s work environment is very complex. It is quite understandable. As economy gets complex, so does the work culture that supports that economy. Traditionally, (and when I use that word, I mean, say, about 250 years ago, or before the industrial revolution), the scope of work among people in the society was clearly defined. For instance, in India, we had an entire system of Caste to dictate which person could do which type of work. Only the Brahmin or Kshatriya caste person could handle political power in India. Or in America, a black man could only work in the cotton or tobacco field. Or take Saudi Arabia. If I am not wrong, until recently, women are not allowed to hold a driving license in that country! Women cannot drive in Saudi cities!

How is it today? Caste is today history. Some may say that caste is still present because caste considerations still determine the outcome of elections in India in many parts of the country, but then, we will all agree that if a person in India really wishes to do something, his caste will not stop him from rising to whatever height he wants to achieve. Similarly, everywhere in the world; a black man can become the President of United States. And he can even win a second term as President! And Saudi Arabia; recently we all heard the news that a new city is being built there, which will be completely run by women! Only women will work in that city! Saudi Arabia now recognizes the right of women for working, although they won’t allow the mixing of genders in the workplace. That is one experiment I am interested in following-up.

Thus, all over the world, our perspectives regarding gender, regarding race & caste, in fact, regarding work as a whole, are undergoing a sea-change. We will have two other speakers after me who will handle this topic from the point-of-view of physically challenged people and the socially underprivileged people. I will try to dwell on the gender perspective of this issue.

You will notice that my topic is ‘Gender diversity’ and not ‘Gender Equality’. That is significant. A few decades ago, the whole discussion was around the issue whether men and women were equal; whether women could do everything that men could, and whether women were really as capable as men. Today, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that women are indeed equal to men in every respect and that if women wish, whether men allow them or not, they can do whatever they want. Today the question is regarding handling gender diversity in the workplace.

I do have a couple of points I need to highlight regarding equality between men and women. All through history, human society has been male dominated. When I say society has been male dominated, what I mean is that the ‘thinking process’ that has given shape to our society has been predominately the male thinking process. Some of you may object saying ‘what is this male thinking process’? Is there really such a thing as male and female thinking process? Well, even at the risk of being controversial, I must admit that there is a very clear distinction between men and women. They are not equal. They are unique, no doubt. But not equal. Most of you may remember the funny incident when Tom Sawyer runs away from home, wearing a girl’s dress in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He is staying in somebody’s house. He and another girl of that house are playing ball. The grandmother of that house is watching. When the girl throws the ball, Tom Sawyer brings his legs together to catch the ball. Immediately the Grandmother exposes Tom Sawyer and asks him why being a boy he is wearing a girl’s skirt. Tom is surprised. He asks her how she had found out. Grandmother says, ‘If you were a girl, you would be accustomed to wearing a skirt by now. When we girls catch ball, we find it easier to spread out legs so that out skirt will increase the chances of catching the ball. Boys on the other hand, accustomed to wearing pants, have a better chance of catching the ball if they bring their legs closer. That action of yours exposed you as a boy.’

No matter how much we cry ourselves hoarse about the equality between men and women, we must acknowledge that our cultural stereotyping of the genders renders all such arguments useless. Girls are brought up completely different from boys. Unless this idea of gender equality gets translated into social customs, it will just remain one of those controversial issues that will forever remain unresolved. This translation of an idea into social custom is a very important process. I will come to that later. Suppose we try to impose such changes on individual cases in our homes, when society does not support such changes, the result will be disastrous. Let me tell you a real life incident I came across.

I served in a school that we run in the Himalayas. It is in Along, Arunachal Pradesh, near the Indo-Chinese border. I had a problem girl in class IX. None of us could understand what was wrong with her. The other girls used to tease her about her boyish nature. She naturally leaned away from girls her age. But she was averse to spending time with boys either, which is again understandable, since a single girl in a group of boys that age will feel like a cat among a pack of hyenas. She was very foul-mouthed too, uttering what are known as ‘gaalis’ very freely. I called her father and discussed about her. He was himself a teacher in a Govt school, a fine gentleman. He had four daughters and this girl was his fifth child. He had however wished to have at least one boy child. Not to worry, he had tried his utmost to raise this girl up as if she were a boy. Even her hair was fashioned in ‘Boy-crew cut’. He lamented that off-late she was becoming very restless and that he had tried all kinds of pujas and stuff but she was becoming more and more unmanageable. I understood the situation. I told him, ‘Look here, I will give you some instructions. Follow them. Allow her hair to grow long. Burn all these T-shirts and pants and get her a whole new wardrobe of good churidhars, skirts and such stuff. I want to see her nails polished in one of those awful colors when she comes to school tomorrow.’ The father looked at me quizzically, but he respected me and did all those things. I kept a watch on the girl. Six months later, I again called a meeting of teachers and that girl’s father. I tell you, when the girl entered my office, her very demeanor had changed. While previously she would look me in the eye, now, there was a distinct bashfulness all around her. The teachers too were very surprised that complaints about her behavior had almost stopped and that her grades were picking up. So, you notice what had happened here? The father was imposing his desire to have a boy by forcing a girl to behave like a boy. It simply wasn’t happening. And neither the girl nor her father understood what was going wrong. So, boys and girls are not equal. They are unique.

Anyway, coming to our main topic: Things have come to such a pass today, all over the world, that men and women will have to work together. They will have to share the same workplace. This does create certain uneasiness in both men and women. One thing that comes to my mind immediately is the male dominated language that we all use. The present day language, especially if it has to be forceful in the workplace, is highly inappropriate when women share the workplace. You all know what I mean.

Let me ask you all a question. Why do we need women in the workplace at all? Why can’t it be like it was 200 years ago, men in the workplace and women in the households? There is a very strong reason why we need women in the workplace today. They bring certain competencies which have a tremendous economic value in today’s scheme of works. So, there is no question of not having women around or having only men in the workplace. However, this entry of women into the workplace in a big way has increased the communication overhead of organizations. The way men and women behave in the workplace has to be designed specifically for better output or else, having both the genders share a workplace could be detrimental to organizations. I mean, an organization is meant to optimize its resources and make as big a profit as possible in a legal way. Instead of doing that, the energies are spent in handling harassment claims and setting up Committees in Visaka guidelines! How useful is that? If that is the case, it would have been easier not to have a gender-diverse work force to begin with in the first place. Despite all such overheads, organizations still prefer to have women for certain activities since they do not find men qualified enough or competent enough to perform those activities. So now, the priority is to find a viable means of training both men and women in such a way that their interaction will be at a level that is beneficial to the organization.

Unless we give serious thought to this training, all the negative measures we take of having statutes and laws and committees will not prevent the rising complaints that arise in the workplace due to sexual harassment. Let me tell you a story: There was a zoo in a city. There was a fruit-garden adjacent to this zoo. One day, the owner of the fruit-garden complained to the zoo authorities that the giraffe in the zoo was eating all the fruits of his garden. The zoo authorities held a meeting and decided that the compound wall would be raised to 20 feet. That would prevent the giraffe from sticking its neck into the garden. After some more days, the owner of the fruit-garden again complained that the giraffe was still eating the fruits. This time, the zoo authorities raised the compound wall to 50feet. There was no chance of the giraffe sticking its neck even by jumping now! But, after some days, the owner of the fruit garden again complained that the problem was still not solved. This time, a committee was formed to study the giraffe day & night to determine how it stole the fruits. Do you know what the committee found? The gate between the zoo and the fruit-garden used to be kept open. The giraffe would simply walk into the garden, eat whatever it wanted and would come back! So, the problem that could be solved with a hundred rupees lock could not be solved by spending lakhs of rupees on increasing the height of the compound wall! Similar will be our wasted effort on the checks & balances with respect to sexual harassment at the workplace compared to training our gender diverse work force.

How serious is the difference between the two sexes? How far does it go? Some schools of thought hold that everything in the world can be categorized into the two sexes. A boy commented once that there were three female flies and two male flies in his house. His mother was surprised. She asked him how he could tell the gender of the flies. He said, ‘Three flies are sitting on the dressing table and two are on the cigarette pack.’ Some others hold that gender mores are culturally ingrained. A boy had accompanied his father to a nude beach. When he came back, his mother asked him, ‘What did you see there?’ The boy replied, ‘I saw many people on the beach.’ The mother asked, ‘Were they men or women?’ The boy said, ‘How could I know? They had no clothes on!’ This is however not an exaggeration. Small children, say below the age of 5 or 6, are unable to recognize even the primary sexual characteristics in people around them. That faculty dawns in them as they grow up. Their knowledge about their own bodies helps in this differentiating knowledge, coupled with and augmented by the gender specific cultural training that they get from home.

But, seriously, how far does this difference between the sexes go? Vedanta says that reality is asexual. There are no men or women, in reality. But then, can we use this assertion of Vedanta in our daily life? Further, unless we are able to practicalise this assertion, how else are we going to deal with the problems that gender diversity brings up?

In the Vedanta tradition, there are at least two distinct methods that have been passed down the ages. The first one is – do not recognize the gender of a person. Try to perceive the person as a principle. You see, the whole psychology is like this: first of all I perceive that I am a man. Then I perceive that the person before me is not like me, is different, and hence a woman. And then, man starts dealing with a woman. That has to stop, says one tradition of Vedanta. I am not man, nor woman. Neither is the person before me a man or a woman. I am a center of consciousness, a principle. So is the other person before me. Now, based on this concept of self-identity, a whole new set of inter-human relationships can be developed. I am not speaking about something highly idealistic. Such things have been explored and experimented with and found to work in our own work-a-day life. I will tell you about an incident in the life of Swami Vivekananda. He was once spending some time in Thousand Islands Park near Chicago. He had taken twelve of his disciples there for a six weeks training in Vedanta. One day, he and his disciples went hiking in the nearby hills. There was a brook. He crossed over and found that some lady-disciples of his stayed back, expecting him to hold their hands and pull them over. Any gentleman would have done that. Chivalry calls for it, doesn’t it? Swami Vivekananda immediately understood the situation and said, ‘No. I am not going to help you. You are the same eternal principle as I am. How can you expect help from me? And how can I presume to help you?’ You see, if you and I are on par, who shall make concessions for whom? Isn’t it ridiculous? Well, that is one path.

There is another path that Vedanta prescribes. It is not very easy to develop a self identity based on a conception that I am the spirit. In that case, if you cannot remove the idea that you are a man or a woman, then you can enter into an asexual relationship with a person of the opposite gender. If you are a man, and you have to work in close proximity with a woman in the workplace, you start seeing her as your mother or your kid sister or as your daughter. Similarly, the other lady too will have to develop some such mental construct, for all relationships are mutual and have to be nurtured. This is something that is possible for most of us. You see, in such a case, there is no danger of the interaction slipping into a sexual mode. We have innumerable examples in India where this tradition has been successfully followed.

Now, either of these traditions has to be followed in our workplaces. And the training for such inter-personal relationships has to be imparted to our young boys and girls in right earnest. If that is not done, we will only keep compounding our problems in our workplaces. And our organizations will get mired in inefficiency. Men and women will have to work sharing the same workplace and for that training has to be imparted so that their interactions will be beneficial and not detrimental to the company.

I represent a monastic organization, the Ramakrishna Mission. Only males are allowed to be members in our organization. It is today a well known and highly respected organization in India and all over the world. But one of the lesser known facts about our organization is that this all-male organization was headed by a lady for the first two decades of its existence! Sri Ramakrishna’s wife was Sri Sharada Devi. We revere her as our Holy Mother. She governed this organization during its nascent days. In due course of time, a separate organization for women was also established, the Sarada Mission. It is an all female organization, run entirely by women nuns. Although we are an all male organization, we have innumerable women visiting our Ashrama and mission centers as devotees, volunteers and employees. Each of us monks is giving rigorous training to deal with women with whom we may have to interact during the course of the day.

I will end my lecture by raising just one more point here. You see, apart from Vedanta, there is nowhere else a time-tested, proven method of safe, sane and healthy man-woman interaction anywhere in the world. No one has bothered to give much thought to this controversial and explosive issue. You will recall the case with Buddha himself. Ananda, one of his chief disciples, impressed upon Buddha that women too should be allowed to be members of the Buddhist organization. Buddha was not very comfortable with that idea, although later on he relented. He was of the view that if untrained men and women are allowed to mix, even in the most professional circumstances, it would be detrimental to the organizational goals of the Sangha. I guess the future will slowly start seeing the common sense involved in the Vedanta approach to this issue of gender diversity in the workplace and start adopting it at every level of human interaction.

With these words, I bring my lecture to a close. I thank you all for a patient hearing.



Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

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