Let's unlock the potential of our women

Every woman needs access to quality education, as well as entrepreneurship skills and training.

Earlier this week in Tamil Nadu, a domestic worker, who served at a judge’s home, was issued a memo asking why she had refused to wash his undergarments. Degrading as this situation was, the woman concerned simply apologised — humbly, at that — saying she would do as told. She had an ailing husband and couldn’t afford to do much else.

There are countless women like her being made to do demeaning work because they have sick or alcoholic husbands, who need looking after and children to feed. Domestic violence and marital rape are things countless women everywhere must deal with on a daily basis and sadly, these women have no voice in our society, largely because poverty is a universal oppressor. The economist, Amartya Sen once famously declared that about 100 million women are missing globally. They are killed before they are born or soon after, sometimes out of sheer negligence. Child marriage, dowry, prostitution, trafficking, sexual harassment and rape happen all the time, but little is done about them.

Still, we cannot assume that gender discrimination takes place only among the poor; all of us as women deal with it every day in one way or another. I like to think of myself as a relatively ‘enlightened’ person, so to speak, because I see people as beings, or souls, not as men or women. I believe that life is a journey to be experienced with all that it has to offer, whether good or challenging, because all of it has its part to play in helping me develop and become a better soul.

That said, however, the very fact that I am setting out to write this piece proves that there is inequality that needs to be dealt with, for we live in a society that is inherently gendered. That women need one day in the year to be celebrated indicates that we are simply not on par with our male counterparts. And I ask, why must it be a competition? Why can’t we be valued for what we have to offer as women? Instead, society strives to put us in boxes — mother, sister, wife or female working professional — that make us easier to comprehend in a completely patriarchal setup.

I consider myself privileged in many ways — in terms of the family I was born into and the opportunities to which I have always had access. Still, when I think back to my early days as a 22-year-old fresh out of college, I remember life as being a nightmare, really. I joined a Fortune 500 company at that time and among the least of my concerns was that women were paid significantly less than men. We had to work twice as hard to prove ourselves and when we did, we were called ‘aggressive’. Female staff were propositioned by colleagues and clients alike and the men in positions of power took great pride in being socially deviant.

Back then, I would call my mother and cry, desperately wanting to quit all this. She said to me, “Grow up, little girl, this is the real world. It doesn’t matter if you’re in politics, the corporate world or the media. The names and faces of the men will be different, but that’s about it. Learn how to deal with it.” So I did. I’m happy to say that I emerged stronger for it and I feel like I can now work with anybody, in the environment of my choice.

Can we say, then, that women are more empowered now? At least the women reading this piece are, or should be, in a position to make better choices. Right? If that’s the case though, why didn’t I fight the system instead of learning to deal with it? What choices must we make? Why should we make choices at all? Can’t we have it all and be superwomen? I think of my mother, who became a minister in the Congress government between 1999 and 2004. Her recipe for success included dreaming big and working towards it. She married the right man and had two children early, which allowed her to focus on her work. I think I have the best parents in the world, but still, as a child, I felt my mother’s absence. If you were to ask her, she would tell you that her success came at a cost.

I also have a sister, who did all the right things. She is ‘settled’, having married the love of her life, who happens to be from the same community and has two lovely sons. As for me, well, I travelled, bummed around for a couple of years, worked at Fortune 500 companies for about a decade and set up a successful school in Bengaluru. It sounds good so far, but hey, I’m still single! My parents wish I had personal life and my sister, a professional one!

Much is expected of women today, no matter where they come from. We are required to have successful careers and ensure that they don’t get in the way of our personal lives. We are defined by our labels —daughter, sister, mother, wife, working woman — the fact that we are human too, just like men, seems to be forgotten. If we were men, however, we wouldn’t be expected to become super beings, who are successful both professionally and personally.

Is this possible, really? Let’s look at the number of women in leadership. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, but she is part of a paltry 15% of women in corporate leadership positions. Only 5% of the heads of state are women and 13% occupy seats in parliaments. Is this because we aren’t committed or intelligent enough? No. The bottom line is simply that men continue to be perceived as breadwinners, the role society appreciates above all else. Women are homemakers, meant to take care of the family and remain submissive to the men who call the shots in their lives.

Are equality and empowerment choices that we can make? Yes, but only if we recognise the very real differences between men and women, instead of pitting them together all the time. We need to value what women have to offer and the choices we must make if we are to develop a system that allows us to take advantage of the opportunities made available to us today. We need to start by perceiving ourselves as valuable and striving towards being economically independent. Every woman needs access to quality education, as well as entrepreneurship skills and training. Women need to be given the chance to pursue a career that they are passionate about and which gives them control over their schedules. When this happens, living and working become inseparable.

Organisations should, as a norm, make sabbaticals compulsory for people every few years, value working smart rather than hard, change school hours to match work hours, offer six to 12 months paternity leave, have creches at work and use technology for things like video conferences. By having women occupy leadership positions in significant numbers, we can push for the women’s reservation bill in the Lok Sabha and vote for a female candidate when the opportunity arises.

What will this mean for us? As a nation, we talk about the youth demographic dividend. Imagine the double dividend we could achieve if, like China, we unlocked the potential of our women! A quote by Mark Twain springs to mind and sums all of this up perfectly — “What would men be without women? Scarce sir, mighty scarce!”

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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