As the world celebrated international women’s day this week, several organizations ensured they had ticked the box when it came to gender diversity. But more than that several others have sincerely attempted to move the needle towards removing age-old constraints in having more women employees in their workforce. Some have successfully traversed the journey from diversity to inclusion, while others have been unable to go beyond the former; meanwhile several are still struggling to translate their intent to reality.

Whatever may be the difficulties in treading the gender diversity path, compliments, especially to the traditional manufacturing industry which has made the right noises in driving the intent. While organizations may be across the spectrum in the actual numbers their workforce may comprise, the issue of gender sensitisation remains. And perhaps is the single most deterrent in organizations which despite all attempts have failed to make a visible difference.

The lack of sensitivity towards the female gender is not an intended one, in many, though not all cases. It is in fact, that behaviour which most men do not realize is being perceived as derogatory or hurtful or disrespectful by the other side. And in many cases, despite any of the negative emotions that it may unearth in the woman recipient, it is at the most discussed in closed circles, if not plain simple parked in a dark corner of the crevices of a woman’s mind, to be excavated at another time when a new experience finds its memory in the last.

The question to ask is not so much on why women don’t speak up against it as and when it happens. Neither is the question on why it is only discussed in closed, confidential circles. The question that needs answering, is HOW can women manage this deep-rooted gender stereotyping, that in the best of organizations, and in the minds of the most-forward looking male colleagues, continues to lurk unabated.

In my opinion, there are four possible approaches which women can use to manage such situations. Which approach one uses will depend upon the situation as well as each woman’s comfort level in using it. Hence, while one woman may choose to use a particular approach for a certain situation, another may find it more appropriate to deal with it by using another. Irrespective of which approach one uses, the idea is to firstly, help the opposite gender understand that which does not seem right and hence enable improvements over a period of time. Secondly, it is important for one’s own peace of mind.

The first, and seemingly simple approach is to “Eschew”. In other words, to deter the menfolk from making comments, or gestures that seem to hurt women’s sensibilities. Very often women, for example, are told to take the lead in planning team celebrations- the assumption being, having organized everything for everyone at home, it is the woman’s bastion and hence best undertaken by them. Whether by directing politely to the administrative department or the human resource department, one perhaps could try to highlight that there are people, irrespective of gender which may be best suited professionally for the job. The point is, whether one has the courage and confidence to push back or perhaps, answer back to a male who most likely is a supervisor or at a similar level. A witty response, or for that matter a quirky one, is easier said than done especially depending on one’s presence of mind and command over their language.

The second is to “Expand” perspectives. For several men, the idea that a woman could be the bread winner of a household or have the responsibility of taking care of elderly parents is unknown or unheard. Hence, on several occasions are women reminded on why an increment or a promotion should not be given to a more “needy” (if not deserving) male patriarch who may be carrying the burden of financial support for his family. While it may be right to expand the perspective in case of such an issue, equally important is to bring the professional perspective of meeting expectations, that is generally used as a yardstick to determine performance and hence the subsequent deserving opportunities.

The third “E” as women look to managing stereotypes is to enable men to “Explain” their perspective. It is about pushing an individual to explain that which he may not have until then, explored. On several occasions, stereotyping and the resultant actions and gestures – verbal or non-verbal- are the result of age-old assumptions of how one needs to act. It is helpful to be able to understand whether what was thus far assumed to be the right way or the only way, is actually so.

The fourth “Empathy” is perhaps the most difficult to practice but the most effective. It is what helps a woman put herself in the other person’s shoes and understand from where they are coming from. In fact, it helps her accept that which is deep-rooted and will not be easy to get rid of, overnight. Decades and centuries of mindsets thus built will take a while to be dismantled or shall we say, moulded to accept women in the workforce at par with men.

Meanwhile, organizations have increasingly become aware of some of the insensitivities which are lesser of the reasons quoted in exit interviews, but generally that which provides that final nudge to an already-disgruntled employee. The assumption that “it is okay” is no longer okay. One needs to ensure, whether by communication or training or feedback, that men in organizations that are trying to move the needle are aware of that which matters. Sometimes the assumption is that women are being over-sensitive or perhaps they are not sporting enough to take a joke.

The issue is not about being tolerant, the issue is that traversing the zone between insensitive and harassing may not be discernible to all. It is the reason why its important to manage the former, so that we don’t end up being forced to deal with the latter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.