On March 8, 2016, women all over the world celebrated the 106th International Women’s Day – a global day marked for celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all over the world. More importantly, the day also marked a call to action for accelerating gender parity. For an event that originated way back in 1911, at a time when oppression and inequality were the key factors that urged women to become more vocal and active in campaigning with regard to discrimination, gender bias, better pay, shorter hours, better working conditions and effective labour legislation, women have indeed come a long way today from where they once stood.
Yet, an overwhelming majority of women believed that beyond the fun and the frivolity of the celebrations that has now come to mark this day, it has not made any impact on their lives.
They believe that very little has actually changed for them, as they continue to fight gender bias, discrimination and unfair laws that threaten their individuality and security both at home and at the workplace, thanks to the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy thriving across all levels of society. In spite of the best intentions to highlight the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women in the various spheres of our activities, the day also ends up as a grim reminder of how way behind we are, when it comes to gender parity, which incidentally happens to be the theme for the IWD campaign this year.
Growing up, I was fortunate that my parents gave me the freedom to be ‘me’, encouraging me to be my own person, at every stage in life, be it in choosing which stream to opt for at high school, deciding what I wanted to specialise in for my higher studies and when and with whom to settle down in later life and so on. I consider that as the biggest blessing for me without which it have been impossible for me to stand my ground and do all those things that I did differently, in the later years.
And yet, I have had my fair share of experiences where my thoughts and beliefs came into conflict with that of the outside world that thrived in stereotyping women. One of my earliest memories as a child was of being questioned by a neighbourhood lady as to why I indulged in playing outdoor games with boys, instead of playing girlie games indoors. I suppose I never really bothered to answer her as the question was directed to my mother. But I do remember mother telling her that since she too loved climbing trees and being a tomboy as a child, I was only following in her footsteps. That became my first encounter with gender stereotyping, one that came to be followed by many more.
It was not just that one incident which made me think. The more I looked around, the more it left me baffled. What really bothered me was not merely the issue of the balance of power between the two sexes, but how men and women lived through very different realities. With the sole exceptions of a few, men generally allowed to live their lives the way they wanted to, on their own terms, whereas women were expected to give up their careers, their individuality, their rights to the family property, their self-esteem and even their self-worth in the course of keeping a happy marriage and a happy home.
The question was – was it really making the women happy? No.
All this caused havoc to my tender mind. I had decided early on, that I was certainly not headed that way.
Whenever I spoke out against gender bias, well-meaning relatives always reminded me to conform, in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways i.e., marry within the caste, be docile, follow every tradition as expected of you, do not question things and never speak up to criticise elders even when they are in the wrong. I listened to what they had to say, but went ahead and did everything differently, because none of what they said agreed with my basic tenets of equality between men and women, something I had always believed in, right from the very start.
Fighting on home turf was still relatively easy. But, the workplace was a different ballgame altogether! I have had numerous experiences of discrimination at the workplace. One such instance was at a job interview I went in for, as a trainee. The manager was extremely patronizing. Apart from quizzing me on the details of my father’s job and about every other member of my family, he kept persistently asking me if I had a boyfriend, or if I intended to get married in the near future. I wonder if he’d have asked me that question if I were a man. Of course, I never took up the job but it left me insinuated and humiliated and I vowed if I ever encountered such people again, I’d immediately walk out of the interview room.
Gender discrimination is everywhere, all over the world, but more so, within our Indian society.
Historically, power has been held in a dominant/subordinate paradigm, with women in the subordinate posture, which explains their exclusion from education, wealth and policy- making, all of which pivot around the questions of how human beings share and wield power together. In most parts of India, patriarchal norms have relegated women to secondary status within the household and workplace. This has drastically affected women’s health, financial status, education, and political involvement and have so far prevented women from accumulating substantial financial assets, making it difficult for them to establish their own security and autonomy. Things are certainly changing today but the pace of progress is still very slow. We need to see the change affect the lives of hundreds and thousands of women and the time to do something is right now.
At the individual level, lessons on equality between the sexes must begin in the formative years of every child, to leave a lasting impact on their academic, professional and personal lives. Boys and girls need to see each other as equals, working together with common goals and shared responsibilities. In the same way that girls are taught to be financially independent when they grow up, boys ought to be taught housework so that they learn to share the load of housework and appreciate the work that goes unnoticed all too often and almost always taken for granted.
At the workplace, women need awareness of their employment rights and work conditions, that covers specified working hours, leave, paid holidays, protection against harassment, social security and access to equal pay and benefits, in order to be on par with men with the same qualifications and experience. This, despite the fact that equal pay remains a distant reality for many even in the organized sector today.
Today, we have plenty of research that validates the strength of collaborative models of leadership which suggests how it is easier to unlock the human potential much more effectively when we recognize the strength that we have, where men and women share, cooperate, and collaborate.
Obviously, there is a definite need for men and women to share a common perspective and a common understanding on the issues that are bothering women. But, is it really happening? Are women on the same page with men, on this? Studies, surveys and opinion polls all seem to suggest otherwise.
Men and women see things differently.
How? Our lenses create our unique perspective through which we see the world. In all cases, this is shaped by experiences, unconscious beliefs and more importantly, our personal filters. When we cite gender bias, this challenge of reconciling the two opposing views becomes a considerable challenge, especially in the interest of improving the situation, in this case, giving women their equal place in a world dominated and ruled by men.
Studies have often shown how both sexes react in quite the opposite ways towards women’s career progression and gender parity. In fact, men always tend to agree that much progress had been made towards women’s empowerment and career progression while women remain in vehement disagreement.
An interesting example of this is found in a Harvard Business Review article about Harvard Business School graduates, which looked at career expectations between graduating husbands and wives. The study found that half of the men thought their career would take priority as against all the women who thought their careers would take equal priority to their husband’s. When asked about major caregiver roles, 75% of the men believed their wife would take on most of the responsibility; while 50% of the women thought they would take on most of this type of work. In reality, it was observed that 86% of the women took on the major caregiver roles, exceeding men’s expectations!
It is the same ratio of disagreement in the rating given to diversity effectiveness among men and women, which proves that men and women are not seeing things in the same light.
So, what causes this discrepancy of world view? And who is right?
In fact, both men and women are right, based on what they are observing and what facts they give weight to, for their differing conclusions. The reasons for this are many. Men assume policy leads to positive impact. Women see that these policies as not leading to positive outcomes.
In many organisations, there is a wide gap between the formal programmes and the informal work culture, thereby creating the gap between what is espoused and what is practiced. So if men think progress is being made for women, they will place more weight on the facts they see and pay less attention to the impact of the impediments. Women will similarly focus more on the facts that confirm lack of progress and less on the advancements.
Who minds the gap?
Needless to say, the impact of this gap is always on the women whose gender identities continue to shape them, knowingly or unknowingly.
Both men and women are looking for similar things at work, which includes supportive colleagues, mutually acceptable values and challenging work that is commensurate with the role within the workplace. Based on their experiences, men might be more likely to achieve those work goals; women, on the other hand, may have experiences that create a diminished sense of satisfaction.
The onus is thus on effective leadership within the organisations to probe deeper in order to look for the possible reasons for bridging this gap between appearance and reality.
At the organisational level, working for parity is not just about bridging the gap. It is an economic imperative. Women’s advancement and leadership are central to business performance and economic prosperity. It therefore makes perfect business sense for organisations to use focus groups and internal workforce surveys to assess if hiring programmes, evaluation and feedback, career development and promotions, access to critical assignments, mentoring and sponsoring, and other inclusive practices are being reflected in the day-to-day processes and getting implemented properly.
Clearly, it is not enough to have effective policies and mechanisms if different groups see and experience the outcomes of these programmes differently.
Looking beyond: Changing mindsets
Policies and legal mechanisms alone cannot help in curbing the problems faced by women at the workplace –the bigger challenge is to change the mindset and the overall attitude and acceptance level of the people. Just letting women work outside home does not mean that society treats men and women equally. We need women to be more vocal and men to pro-actively support the issues and problems that face them at home and in their workplaces.
But, even more than that, we need a shared understanding of each of our experiences if we are to ever close the gaps in our world-views and make the changes needed to improve everyone’s lives.
Why take the #PledgeForParity?
The pace of progress in gender parity is so slow today, that given the present rate, the World Economic Forum predicts that it could well take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity. There is an urgent need for all individuals to commit to this initiative as parity cannot be achieved otherwise. To take this initiative beyond mere lip-service, the #Pledgeforparity campaign organised by the IWD 2016 is keen to see us get our act together by making a pledge to actually do something about it.
Let us do our bit to achieve gender parity more quickly – by helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, calling for gender-balanced leadership, respecting and valuing difference, developing more inclusive and flexible cultures or rooting out workplace bias.
I have taken the #PledgeForParity?. It is your turn now.
As you are already aware of, we are a couple of bloggers at Write Tribe, who have decided to do something special this Women’s Day Week. Between March 6 to March 12, we are writing about women and for women in our blogs. We are hoping that this might be small step but a sure one in the right direction in creating awareness on the issues and concerns facing women today and by doing so, become the voice of change that will hopefully inspire others to follow.
Anamika Agnihotri who blogs at thebespectacledmother tagged me yesterday and the next post goes out tomorrow at Parul Kashyap Thakur’s blog happinessandfood.com with her take on the issue, through her looking glass.