I recently had the pleasure (add good fortune) of attending the orientation for a top B-school in the country. While the statistics were being read out to validate its top spot, the erudite gentleman noted how the batch consisted of a mere 28% women. He went on to state, of the total students giving the CAT, one of India’s favourite exams (after UPSC and JEE), only 1/3rd are women. The numbers seem disappointing when you think of the idea of India’s famed “demographic dividend”. It also presents a conundrum. You look at school performance reports of Pratham or Class X and XII board results; girls seem to be dominating boys. So where and why are they disappearing from the top echelons of companies, boards, startups, the Indian Parliament?
What is it that still holds us back? Our rearing, the work environment, lack of support, or all of it? Simone de Beauvoir in ‘the Second Sex’, often regarded as the Feminist Bible, rightly says, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one”. This act of “becoming” often ends up shaping not just what is expected out of girl but also boys. Reshma Saujani in her TEDx talk put forth an interesting point, “Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk - To smile pretty, play it safe, get all As. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars, and then jump off head first. By the time they’re adults and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, men are habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.”
It gets hard for women (and men) to break out of these moulds being constantly imposed by the society. My parents have two daughters, and my mother herself was one of five sisters. It was often that aunties would blame the faulty genes and bad luck (given the limited scientific knowledge, and common sense in general), given the obsession with sons in most parts of India. Appallingly for them, my paternal grandmother would not just shoo them as well as their comments away (unlike the Ekta Kapoor mother-in-law archetype) but make sure her grand-daughters did whatever they chose. Women have come a long way, but with growing independence and public engagement, load for women has doubled. They are expected to manage both home and work (the “perfection” syndrome continues), while it is the men who are looked at as the primary bread winners. In case of role reversal, the man is declared hen-pecked if not emasculated.
‘We are all Wonder Women’. It seems like a battle cry but also comes with a host of expectations. To be equal, to deserve to walk in step, we have to be more than ordinary. ‘Open-minded’ mummies and daddies of marriage-eager men seek a daughter-in-law who works (preferably with a 6-figure salary in conventional domains or corporate sector) but at the same time can dish up a five-course meal, change dirty diapers in her sleep, as well as massage the ego of a deeply entrenched patriarchal system. These role expectations force men into a pigeon-hole as well. The heterosexual, protecting, primary bread winner man is a stereotypical image that boys from cradle are taught. Boys don’t cry, they don’t paint, dance or cook, they are emotionally unavailable, and the rock of the family that may occasionally beat or abuse. And if they don’t or end up making a cup of tea for the wife on a lazy Sunday, you’ve hit jackpot. Bow to that demi-God and spend your entirety devoted to the needs of the man and his spawn.
Women, not just in India, but across the world are forced to pay the gender tax. Imposed by societal expectations, it impacts all women regardless of caste, class, colour, creed, though the slabs may vary. The very idea that gratitude/recognition is due to a family for treating their girls equally points out the underlying patriarchy, which manifests itself in different forms. To be treated equally is not a favour, but a right. The families are not being benevolent, but doing what they are meant to in the first place. Women and girls deserve an equal place in the world, so it becomes problematic when reports have to attach an economic value for letting girls participate in the labour force. While there may be obvious material benefits, one feels the need to assert that women don’t have to prove their worth to exist along with men. They deserve it just as much. And this rule applies not just to the accepted gender categories, but whatever group one tends to identify with.
They say women have come a long way. We have. But the society has miles to go before it can even take a nap. Men, women, transgender, cis-gender, gay, bisexual, asexual, single, married, divorced, educated, illiterate, parent or not, we get a right to define ourselves, what we seek to be and become. Wonder Woman is amazing. But I can choose to not be Wonder Woman, but just a woman with flaws, bad cooking skills, and lack of ability to befriend birds, babies and butterflies, or fit into a bodysuit. And that is good enough.
Prerna Trehan (Author)