August 31, 2010

Empowerment begins at home?


THE RECENT Michael Arrington post on why women mustn’t blame men for their lower numbers in technology is eliciting reactions, fast and furious. While I don’t think Arrington’s tone helps, I am not going to get into the subject here. Instead, I’d like to refer you to Shefaly Yogendra’s excellent post, “Women in tech: What gives?”, where she puts forth many actionable ideas on what we can do to get more women into science and technology.

In India, interesting women in science and technology per se is not such a difficult problem. A lot of women study both the basic and applied sciences, and at entry level, the number of women in these professions is not poor, even it is not equal. Yet, as we move up the organizational charts, fewer women are in the picture, until, when one comes to the highest levels such as CEOs and board members, few women are left. A big part of the reason is of course that a large number of women drop out of the corporate world in their late 20s and early 30s – to have children and raise a family.

Few companies make it easy for women to rejoin and most workplaces are structured in such a way that women have to “choose”. So, yes, one of the systemic changes that is needed are more flexible workplaces, attuned to the needs of a diverse workforce.

But, career empowerment is not going to happen only through systemic changes. Empowerment needs to begin at home. While we can ask governments to ensure fair working conditions and suitable maternity leave, while we can ask companies to have more flexible workplaces, what are we doing at home?

As Shefaly says in her post, “For women already in the workplace, it is important to recognise that before we can negotiate harder and better deals for ourselves at work and outside our homes, we first need to negotiate better and fairer deals for ourselves at home. With the men in our lives.”

Not all the work on inclusive workplaces will help if women still bear all the burden for housework and childcare. In conversations with many new mothers, one of the things I’ve observed is that if she wants to get back to work, finding suitable childcare is still “her” problem, as though the husband had nothing to do with the baby being there! Studies innumerable show that women, including those who have a career, do far more than their fair share of housework. I also know that many women opt out the informal networking that helps further careers. While I respect that mothers want to spend time with their children, career growth requires such networking. Why is the idea of a man watching over his kids alone still so alien to us?

Unless this changes, unless the men in our lives start accepting equal responsibility for children, workplace efforts will not help. Taking off time for PTA meetings and doctor’s visits, staying home with a sick child, getting home early because the wife has a networking event that evening, doing your share of household chores – unless men take up all these seriously, companies will continue to see women’s needs for family time as “special needs”.

When 70% of the workforce, men, start demanding the space to do these – that’s when truly inclusive workplaces will happen. Why would men demand these? Current definitions of masculinity do not really place a premium on nurturing, so only a few men will demand them spontaneously. Many others, who are fundamentally decent people can perhaps be brought to realize the importance of their spouses’ careers. In the Indian scenario, where few people really know much about their spouses before marriage, can women negotiate such fairness?

That remains to be seen, but it is empowerment at home that will drive the empowerment at the workplace.

6 comments to Empowerment begins at home?

  • debi

    “In the Indian scenario, where few people really know much about their spouses before marriage, can women negotiate such fairness?”

    Maybe this is the main thing to be looked at when career-focused Indian women are choosing husbands then, instead of family, caste, income, etc etc. I think it’s essential to negotiate such fairness if one gets married, and negotiate it BEFORE getting married if at all possible. And you’re absolutely right, without equality in the home there is no way that changes in the workplace can help women gain equality with men in the workforce.

  • I agree with you that the change first needs to begin at home. Even if a family does not have a daughter, parents need to set up an example for their son(s) about gender equality at home. Boys also need to learn from the start that it is ok to help mother in the kitchen, it is ok do some household chores etc and this has to be done in practice by the father….he needs to set a good example. The onus normally falls on a woman/girl to fight for her rights but then boys fall far behind when it comes to understand the issue of gender equality as it is percieved by them that it is girls who need to fight for their rights, we don’t need to change.

  • @debi – Agree. such negotiations are almost impossible to do if the person one has married is of a fundamentally different mindset, and given the stress of constantly fighting it out, most women would be likely to buy peace at home by giving in.

    @Gauri – yes, those at home are the first role models that we learn from, and if children constantly learn that it is dad’s job which is important, while mom’s job (whether outside or at home) is of no account, or that some chores are women’s chores, there is more work to be done in changing those perceptions.

    • I have heard, read about “Supermoms/superwoman” balancing superbly between work and home.They are walking on a tight rope…and no they can’t, should not, must not, dare not fall. Have you ever heard of “Superdad”? “Look how well he balances between work and home?Taking care of his children and wife?” I have never. Sadly, the onus is always on a woman. If she chooses to stay at home and looks after her family then she is called”a typical woman” and if she chooses to work, then “what a career oriented woman”.

      In ref. to your last sentence in your article, yes the seeds are sown at an early age but we just cannot wait for each and every family in India to create an atmosphere of gender equality and understand the notion of gender equality and then start the process of bringing changes at workplace. Both things must and need to go hand-in-hand.

  • Balaji

    Good points! I personally don’t consider the increasing women workforce as a sign of ‘Progress’ or ’empowerment’ of women. What they suffer in the hands of their husbands, they start suffering more or less the same in the hands of their male or worse, even female bosses! In my experience in corporate world, I have seen many instances of women employees being paid less or denied promotion for various reasons. Those women who appeared gentle and humble suffered the most too!

  • apu

    @ Gauri – agree; we cannot of course wait for it to literally happen in every home; but yes, the broader point remains that women can further their careers by negotiating fairer conditions at home.

    @ Balaji – interesting. perhaps it’s precisely because many women are taught to be humble/gently that they are more easily taken for a ride at the workplace? (Refer Krish Ashok’s article in this regard –

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