The Paradox of Gender Neutrality

All forms and traces of misogyny can be traced back to patriarchy. However, studying gender culture of organisations reveals that culture of gender neutrality in egalitarian organisations can be equally insensitive to women. 

One of India’s oldest law firms, with a strength of 5,000, has an 70-30 gender ratio in favour of men. In earlier times, women would primarily be recruited as secretaries and associates and partners would be exclusively men. However, over the last two decades, young women have joined as interns and associates, coming out from the top notch law universities of India and other countries. The founding member of the firm was a very kind, compassionate gentleman, a husband and a father, who was sensitive and very understanding to the people in the organisation. If any one of us had a personal crisis in our families, near or even extended, all resources of the organisation - starting from contacts and influences, financial resources and just our presence would be deployed for the employee in crisis. So, that we were a family wasn’t just lip service’.

The culture carried on over the years, even after the founding member passed on. The old management had old school ideas about the nature of membership of employees, hierarchy and power. For example - the management did not necessarily believe that it had to be transparent or accountable for its power and privileges to people lower in hierarchy. Or the currency of seniority in age, rank and association had lot more value than competence and efficiency in law or business. Although it did not have any articulated positions on gender diversity, the management seemed to acknowledge and operate from the following beliefs:

a. Women have more responsibilities at home, towards childcare, elder-care or even caregiving towards the ill. And therefore, they may have greater demands from their families for the same as compared to the men in their families. And therefore, it was accepted that women could legitimately demand leave or time-off to take care of these responsibilities without compromising on the work-product, and could legitimately demand support and help from colleagues for the same.

b. Most, not all, male employees in the organisation are principal/ primary bread winners in their families, and therefore they carry much more anxiety around job security as compared the women. This data would carry implications in certain situations when people had to be laid off and how the company would manage retrenchments.

c. HRD of the system observed that women considered this firm to be a better working place than other legal firms, particularly women who are married, have children. They also observed that the legitimacy of demands of support and cooperation was not held in any resentment who saw this as a part of their gender role and responsibility, also having grown up in families where male-responsibility towards women was taught to boys. They observed that this privilege or leeway given to women did not reflect adversely onto their performance records and therefore did not affect promotions.


There were cases where there would be departures from this norm, and that was particularly when managers held a different map of gender roles, relations and the idea of meritocracy in organisations. For example, managers who believed that there should be no differentiation between women and men in a professional space, that an employee’s contract with an organisation has all to do with merit, performance, skills, competencies and nothing to do with the person’s personal context, families, role demands in their families, found it difficult to subscribe to these beliefs. But they were in the minority.

Years later, the management changed hands, and the new firm owners tried to bring in a different cultural orientation. The new culture they wished to usher in had certain implicit beliefs:

1. The workplace is a space of confluence for people of different skills, competencies, ambitions and desire for growth, and the psychological contract between the organisation and the employee is a transactionary in nature.

2. Gender, personal context are personal issues and should have no bearing on one’s work and work obligations.

3. There should be no differentiation of policy between women and men. People should be gender neutral in their workplaces. A manager should be gender agnostic while dealing with his team members.

Women who experienced the transition found this change to be disadvantageous to them. But they found difficult to articulate or examine the principles that were claimed as modern and pro gender equality, and how it may not work for them. They felt guilty that earlier ‘leeways’ that they could claim to respond to their familial responsibilities did not fit the equality grid of this matrix. How would you explain this phenomenon? Does this sound familiar to you? This can be explained in the following 5 ways:

1. The equality grid of this organisation is based on a belief that all domestic and familial responsibilities should be equally shared by women and men. However, in the living experiences of their employees, this was not the case.

2. The employees have gender differentiated social and psychological roles and labour in their primary systems/ families and communities, wherein the scales tip in favour of women taking on larger share of household work as well as caring roles. So, a gender-equal grid in the workplace that did not wish to take into account of that meant that women were in a disadvantageous position as a result of this culture shift and policy change.

3. Men had a false notion of equality, and now started to believe that demands of support from their women colleagues was taking undue advantage. ‘Women should decide whether they wish to work as equal professionals with men, and take the risk and responsibility of asserting gender equality and equal division of labour at home… they cannot/ shouldn’t expect their workplace to compensate for the patriarchal gender stereotyping at home’, was the new argument.

4. Because of the strong personal professional separation policy at work, the organisation did not wish to check with the men in the organisation how they may be applying the equality grid at home with their wives who may not be employees of this organisation.

Now with the COVID-19 triggering lockdowns and working from home, and many companies now deciding to shift to a WFH policy even post COVID, a number of CHROs interviewed for a research reports that women employees have reported more exhaustion and a stronger demand to return to office than their male counterparts. On the other hand, increase in domestic dispute and violence has also recorded a spike, including divorce applications. ‘These issues, of domestic conflict and abuse, are personal issues which we do not wish to intrude upon, and our employees have not reported any of these to us, to avoid embarrassment and shame,’ says a senior HR manager of a global tech startup with a medium sized workforce in India.

So, the questions that emerge from the experiences of people and organisations are:

a. Who does gender neutrality benefit and how? Does anyone ever really feel gender neutral?

b. Is there a difference you see between differentiation and discrimination? Do you think taking differences of men and women’s realities, in their personal and social context, should be taken into account while building organisational culture?

c. How do you experience work-home separation in your organisation, and how connected or disconnected are the two in your experience?

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