Women in the Workplace

In the last century, women’s rights and opportunities have grown dramatically in the United States and other countries around the world. In very few areas are these changes as pronounced as in women’s role in the workforce. Cultural, political, and economic factors all push and pull social norms and contribute to these changes, and their relationships are complex. Gaining a basic understanding of the role gender plays in workplaces around the world is a vital step in the successful navigation of the global marketplace. The articles in this series will aim to present a basic picture of what the workplace looks like for women around the world primarily on the basis of access to education, labor force and industry participation demographics, and wage gaps.


One fundamental cultural factor that helps determine how women participate in the economy the quality and quantity of education they are able to attain. The quality of education available to women and the level of education they complete has a major impact on their quality of life and that of their families. Women who complete lower secondary school are more likely to earn more, be healthier, and make better decisions than women who do not. According to a study done by the World Bank, the estimated cost of not educating girls (in lost human capital) is between $15 trillion and $30 trillion US dollars. (World Bank) The costs and benefits surrounding women’s education shape the cultures and economies those women live and work in.

Workforce Participation

Where do women around the world work? Decisions are never made in a vacuum, especially career decisions. The choices that anyone makes about what career to pursue are powerfully influenced by many factors, from the psychosocial like stereotypes, family patterns, and industry subcultures to legal and practical factors like occupational segregation, childcare options, and the laws surrounding sexual harassment. The outcomes of all these factors are often reflected in whether women choose to work outside the home (labor force participation rate), industry demographics, and what opportunities they encounter throughout their careers.

Wage Gaps

The definition and causes of gender wage gaps are widely debated, but they do exist in many places around the world. Suspected causes of wage gaps include lack of access to education, occupation and industry choices, lack of experience, and social expectations and perceptions. These gaps have a significant impact on women’s economic power and help shape the way women interact with both their workplaces and the economy as a whole.

The aim of this series is to illustrate how women influence and are influenced by the economies and cultures they participate in. In addition to the indicators listed here, many of the articles in this series also include other cultural factors unique to the country or region considered. The cultures surrounding women and their workplaces will have lasting influences on not just the women themselves, but their families, their communities, and their societies. To successfully navigate business in these settings, one must have a sound understanding of both gender dynamics and the cultural shifts that are changing those dynamics.

Hindu Undivided Families

For the most part, businesses in India look a lot like businesses in the United States. General partnerships, corporations, limited liability companies, and sole proprietorships all exist, although some go by different names. One unique structure that India’s culture has fostered is the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF). The strong value placed on relationships, hierarchy, and top-down decision making are all distinctly apparent in this Indian business structure, though its role may be changing.


HUFs generally consist of “all persons lineally descended from a common ancestor and includes their wives and unmarried daughters.”1 Under this system, a karta, or a manager (often the patriarch or oldest son of the family) is responsible for managing the assets of the HUF. The HUF is a distinct taxable unit, and so members of an HUF are not subject to individual taxes on the amounts they receive from the HUF. The tax benefits don’t always outweigh the costs though.

HUFs are relatively easy to set up but can be difficult to break or modify. Because they are designed to keep property and assets together, HUFs can’t be partially dissolved, or rather, individual members can’t withdraw their interests without completely dissolving the HUF. Partitioning HUFs can lead to heavy taxes. The karta also can’t dictate who gets shares in an HUF, or how big those shares are; those elements are dictated by law.2 The challenges of new members, differing lifestyles, unclear lines of succession, and simple family conflict all take their toll on these businesses. Most family businesses in India last for about three generations before splitting.3

Cultural Implications

Hierarchical. Compared to many other countries, especially the United States, India is far more hierarchal than egalitarian.4 These values are clear in an HUF, where having a karta act as the boss helps to limit the consequences of conflict that might arise between members of the business. For a business that can’t always limit its number of members, respect for the leader becomes increasingly important. The reluctance of younger members to voice disagreement with the karta, or even older members, can also hurt a business facing modern issues.

Decision Making. Along a similar line, India follows a top-down decision-making approach.5 This cultural element allows HUFs to operate more easily because decision-making authority is centered with the karta. When conflict arises between members, the HUF could have a difficult time completing the simplest of transactions.6 However, having a single decision maker can help the business act decisively and move past issues that could prevent it from operating.

Relationship Based. In India, personal relationships are essential to business relationships.7 This is especially true for family businesses, where personal relationships are business relationships. Because family members can do very little to shut each other out of an HUF, maintaining positive relationships with each other is critical to the survival of the business. Sorting out HUF membership interests can take years to unravel if interests are transferred unexpectedly.8 Having strong personal connections helps prevent these complications and makes business transactions smoother.


Historically, sons and grandsons would receive an interest in the HUF equal to their father’s, but daughters would only receive a portion of their father’s interest. The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act of 2005 made daughters’ inheritance rights equal to sons’, and a 2015 ruling confirmed that women could serve as kartas by virtue of birth order.9 John Ward, Professor of Family Enterprise at the Kellogg School of Management, believes that the shift to include women will help reduce the rate at which Indian family businesses split. As he states, “A family that only has brothers at the helm is the most unstable form of business enterprise. Brothers often end up with ego issues. If you involve daughters and other members then the bond is stronger.”10

Many HUFs turn to their younger members to solve new and complex issues. This makes sense—the younger generation is often more educated and open to new concepts. However, respect in these organizations often means remaining silent rather than disagreeing, so members of the younger generation may still remain silent on issues they have ideas about. The younger generation is frequently responsible for executing the decisions of the older generation, especially regarding succession. If the participants don’t agree with the plan, they won’t act on it, even if a legal document exists.11

Although HUFs may continue to be used as a family business structure, they are less common than in the past. Evolving business environments will undoubtedly lead to changes in how these businesses are run, but they continue to highlight major characteristics of business culture in India.

The Indian Nod – Yes, No, Maybe So

In the United States, we don’t use head movement in our gestures very much. In India, however, head movement conveys important information. The most unfamiliar movement to foreigners is the Indian nod, or the Indian “head bobble.” To perform an Indian nod, sway your head from side to side without turning, giving the appearance of a “bobble head.” The meaning of the Indian nod depends on eyebrow placement, speed, and duration.

Eyebrow placement can indicate the enthusiasm of the gesture. If eyebrows are lowered, it means the person agrees, but isn’t totally convinced. If the eyebrows are neutral, it means he or she feels fine about what you’re saying. If the eyebrows are raised, it means the person enthusiastically agrees.

Speed indicates intensity. The faster the nod, the stronger the feeling. If someone is nodding quickly with lowered eyebrows, the less certain his or her agreement is. Because saying “no” isn’t as socially acceptable in India as in Western countries, this “maybe” is probably a “no.” A slower, neutral nod can simply indicate understanding. A short, quick nod is generally used to say yes. Moving your head while someone is speaking shows respect and attention for the person who is talking. By nodding your head, you are showing the speaker how well you understand what he or she is saying.

By paying attention to the gestures people use in a foreign country and how they use them, foreigners can avoid misunderstandings and ask for clarification when they need it.