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September 21, 2016

What’s the Fuss about Gender Equality?

A woman is human.
She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man.
Likewise, she is never less.
Equality is a given.
A woman is human.

I believe these words by Vera Nazarian resonate with most of us. Is this true? Yes. Is this how the world feels? No. 

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Twenty four years ago, the day the foundation of my house in Dhanbad was being laid, my young-and-naive eyes opened up to an interesting fact: women labour came cheaper. While I cannot recall the exact difference in wages, I remember it was significant. 

Is this distinction limited to the worker class?

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Once, 25 years ago, on-board a state-run bus in a remote village in West Bengal, our family was looking for a seat for my 65-year old ailing uncle. The women occupying the ‘reserved for women’ seats refused to part with theirs. One of them offered a seat to my then 48-year-old mom who insisted that the seat be offered to her brother who needed it more. How preposterous was the suggestion that a woman’s seat be given to a man?  He travelled standing.  Exactly 55 years ago, my mom had travelled with her family on the same route. When her fragile 60-year old father did not get a seat because of the reserved-for-women seats, the 18-year old took a seat and travelled the stretch with her petite, pale dad on her lap. 

Are literal and figurative reservations the solution?

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I was 12 when I first realised that the world was different for women and men. I came back home, violated and distraught, after the first unpleasant encounter that most women go through every day. Besides lending a patient ear and a padded shoulder, my mom offered me a bitter but probably the most useful advice of my life. She said, “This is not going to be the last such experience. These are the things that you have to brave against if you want to move forward. It is not going to be easy.”

Should we really be setting the same expectations for our future generations?

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It was the first day of a series of exams. I had reached the exam venue early and saw hundreds of children, some anxious, some relaxed. I was 19. And this was the beginning of my life in a way. All of us fidgeted till the inside gate of the exam centre was opened. With no regard to rules or logic, everyone rushed to make an entry through the narrow, one-person gate. Crowds are unkind to both the meek and the mighty. And thus there it was. Another bad experience. Identifying the perpetrators was impossible. And it was not the time either. This was a test. And I had another one to take on paper. Within minutes, I was at my designated seat, sharpening pencils and arranging pens. In a couple of months, I found out that I was among the toppers. Of course, I had passed another test with flying colours, the results of which were not published anywhere.

Is it really a level playing field?

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When I stay late at work, the sense of urgency to close a discussion shows only on my face. My male colleagues would probably get judged if they were to indicate that they needed to be home to attend to a two-year old or an ailing relative. I have it easy, some would say. Wouldn’t it be just though if they and I are treated the same? Wouldn’t it be great if my husband could excuse himself early from his meeting, without guilt or judgement, so that his wife wouldn’t need kid-glove treatment and could stay late at work?

Isn’t it time organizations focus on family-oriented policies and not women-oriented ones? 

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Decades ago, a now elderly cousin of mine took up his wife’s name as his second name and established a media house in Canada in her name. While a Kareena Kapoor Khan and an Aishwarya Rai Bachchan are widely accepted and praised today for the perceived balance of traditional and modern values, I wonder what kind of a response Umesh Vijaya's gesture invited in the early ‘80s.  Many women I know who disapprove of taking their husband’s family name often cite the excuse of paperwork to resist the change. They fail to do much though when it comes to their offspring’s surname that is conventionally the father’s. 

Isn’t it time we question subtle inequality?

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A friend of mine, a very promising journalist and writer, moved to the US when his wife, a nurse, landed a good job there. It has been ten years since that move. I find people around me roll their eyes in disbelief on hearing this. Such exceptions are not accepted without a hint of judgement. Look who wears the pants in the house. 

Isn’t it time we move on from societal stereotypes?

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Early in my career, a few days apart, I came across two amusing observations by my colleagues. The first was about a lady manager. Her ambition and toughness were attributed to her having been widowed early and being childless. And then there was a man – a colleague’s husband – who left his job to pursue his passion of painting. Our colleague was in the family way, and her husband became the subject of scrutiny and was labelled irresponsible. 

Men colleagues of mine have tremendous societal pressure to succeed. My men friends have often been subjected to the #LikeAGirl rebuke when they become emotional, take a break, or not take up certain responsibilities. Women colleagues of mine have the pressure of being a superwoman – super mom, super cook, super host, super employee, and super boss. And even if they were to succeed, very rarely do they get treated with warmth. We know about the negative correlation of success and likeability when it comes to women. A Harvard Business School’s experiment called Heidi and Howard tells how ingrained it is in us to judge harshly a successful woman. 


On one hand, we offer pedestals to the devis of the earth or indulge them with kid-glove treatment. On the other, there are constant reminders of what a perfect woman is – obedient and balanced. 


If we want a level playing field for our sons and daughters, let us create a fuss about gender equality. Let us make our children aware that they all are #differentbutequal


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