INDIA FAR FROM ACHIEVING TRUE EQUALITY
When we celebrate women’s equality day on August 26, we must pledge to end discrimination at home and offices. Gender equality is not just about money or respect, it goes beyond that
I was in a funk because I felt like I was not a good mom.” So said ace tennis champion Serena Williams, a woman whom we associate with great accomplishments, the power of privilege, relevance as a creator of wealth and a benchmark of individual excellence. Yet when it came to motherhood, she slipped into the perennial guilt syndrome of readjusting her life around her child despite the fact that she could afford an alternative support system, an extended family and the comfort of workarounds. Still she felt that the time she gave for her child was not enough.
Working women around the world are debating the same question as Serena and given the added issues of gender pay gap, the lack of paid maternity leave and the struggle to claim reproductive rights, they have decided to step off the ramp. A survey of 1,000 qualified women in Delhi/NCR found that only 18-34 per cent of married women continued working after having a child. Some other estimates indicate that nearly half of urban working women quit their jobs mid-career for maternity leave or to bring up children. In fact, the career dropout rate of urban educated women is higher than that of their rural counterparts in cases. Even in successful and high profile double income units, once the “achieving” threshold is crossed, it is the woman who is stepping back, succumbing to the genetically conditioned mindset of a nurturer and care-giver, giving the necessary thrust to the domestic economy as it were by some extra-constitutional power and then slipping back to the normalcy of expectation. In the process, women tend to strengthen the stereotype of a man as the bread-winner and an architect of a goal-oriented career. Though a man is equally responsible for fathering a child and is emotionally capable of being the protector, he has the mantle of a career performance lumped upon him. Even when mid-retiree women develop a sense of stability with their young ones growing up, they scarcely make it back to their original trajectory but take up some part-time ventures or develop a passion-oriented home business. “Women who have family support or can afford to pay for child care have a lot of guilt. This is because of social conditioning,” says leading businesswoman Anu Aga. The biggest decline in employment has been among two groups — illiterate women and post-graduates — according to a 2017 World Bank report. Most successful male CEOs have spouses who are complementary CEOs in home management. Yet given their multi-tasking and adaptive abilities, working women could give a boost to the country’s GDP by about 30 per cent if certain policies are in place and a mindset changes. Even when they have exited corporate jobs to forge out on their own, transit professionals have helmed boutique enterprises and start-ups with handsome turnovers.
The first of the stereotypes begins at home. Without taking away credit from metrosexual men, “fathering” is yet to develop as a concept equivalent to “mothering,” the former limited to a biological function, the latter encompassing multiple and undefined role responsibilities. Even childless women are assigned the “mothering” role in team management roles at work. It is both prized and abused at the same time. Till mothers, and most of them are educated and enlightened enough today, tell both their sons and daughters that nurturing a life is genderless and a necessary and purposeful human activity, there will be no change in the home dynamics. Till the grandfather, who revels in child care simply because he is at home after a perceived “successful” career run, asks his son to pick up the tab at home, there won’t be a change in mindset. Till fathers spend an equal time with their kids, they will no longer complain that the children naturally gravitate towards mothers. Here is a factoid: Though mothers are intimately bound to the babies physiologically for nine months, dads can bond with them even before they are born as they recognise both parents’ voices from 32 weeks. As for skin-to-skin contact, warmth has no gender and the child recognises that first. Mothers, too, admittedly in their rush for perfection in role-playing, must cede that territorial space to fathers, who will be willing if allowed to. Also, emphasis should be laid on double parenting. Neither the mother, nor the father needs to step back. And there is no need to glorify what need not be a sacrifice, be it of a stay-at-home mother or a house-husband.
Next come workplace policies, which continue to be shaped by traditional mindsets. Malini Saba, a corporate herself, has found that on an average, women today earn just 78 cents for every dollar that men earn, an increase of only 17 cents on the dollar, and that pregnancy discrimination, more than guilt pangs, has pushed women out of the queue. Pregnancy taboos are the reason that most corporate women are bypassed for a promotion or a special project simply because employers think that a maternity break reduces the woman’s ability to maintain continuity of functions or bounce back to original efficiencies. Fact is, most new mothers, given the flexibility of home operations, manage not only to deliver but make the perfect pitch at the workplace when required to stand in. Career women are multitasking themselves, juggling between family chores and deadlines, an ability that empowers them with adaptability, innovation, change, fluidity and creativity, mantras that every corporate aspires for. Few employers realise that women, as much as they cherish moments with their new-born, do not want to give up what they have invested their self-worth in — their careers. The same pregnancy/motherhood concerns have become barriers for women in physically-oriented jobs like factory floors while there is some headway in the armed forces.
Yet for all demonstrable abilities, companies become sexist and archaic when it comes to the muscularity of a given role. They would rather employ a man in his 20s and 30s over a woman of the same age for fear of maternity leave and family roles. They usually think twice about hiring a woman with a child for a senior role, assuming she cannot give her 100 per per cent. If she works reduced hours, they tend to equate it with a financial cost to the company rather than counting the efficiency she packs in her limited hours or that she can be more productive if allowed a bit of flexibility. In fact, more women opt out of jobs because of the sluggishness of their career progression and the assumption that they will be passed over. They may be considered super operators but will always be a step behind the big chair. They yield to the unhappiness at work rather than the imperatives of home duties.
Most importantly, if all offices introduced child care services or crèches where mothers could check in on their young ones, the immense relief would automatically lead to more focus at work. We must realise that this is a tiny cost to pay considering that societally care-giving or home-making is an unpaid acknowledgement.
Couple this with balanced education; for example women continue to figure extremely low, not higher than 20 per cent, in engineering and other disciplines of merit and excellence. Far too many girls are still making a “manageable and practical” choice of humanities rather than tough specialties. We don’t need role models of women fighting against the odds and conquering the unthinkable in unheard of circumstances. We need everyday examples of girls challenging prescribed choices and mainstreaming themselves instead so that they can stand shoulder to shoulder on the factory floor.
It is a myth that a woman’s biological processes or a familial orientation is an impediment to a realization of her many talents. Women never bring their family issues to work because they have always had to prove they can do as much as a man if not better. Which is why they are more committed, sorted, detailed and specific. If corporate India wants to acquire the edge, then it must help rid mothers of their guilt syndrome, consider them assets and creators rather than liabilities and pro-creators.