Unshackling the Sterotype

“This Junior Engineer is motivated, diligent, hardworking, responsible and dedicated. All the  targets of the sub-division have been achieved, consumer complaints are promptly  redressed, electricity theft has been controlled considerably in the area , the sub-division is very well run” the Superintending Engineer pointed out the Junior Engineer  to me, “all this has been achieved by her despite being a girl”, he went on to add. I looked at the Junior Engineer being pointed out to me , the only other girl in a roomful of men. She blinked back at me, half smiling, a little taken aback at the praise from her immediate boss.  We were at a review meeting of the Discom in a district in Western Rajasthan. In a largely male dominated organization, her efforts had been lauded, approved of and appreciated, with the disclaimer related to her gender of course. I turned to the beaming Superintending Engineer, “I am glad to know she is doing a good job ,but does it surprise you that she has done it inspite of her being a woman? ”

The mindset I encountered in that meeting is not unusual in most workplaces in India today. Success achieved by a woman is usually appended with a footnote that alludes to her having achieved it despite the odds stacked against her, the biggest being her gender. Women have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling across careers and assumed leadership roles across sectors. Post the liberalization era and with the opening up of the economy women have been able to take up diverse careers breaking the myth of them excelling in the traditional careers requiring them to be care givers and in a nurturing role as teachers and nurses. Today with increasing opportunities of education and training available to young girls the sky is the limit as far as achieving financial independence is concerned.

While the last few years have seen a sea change in employment patterns and brought women into fields hitherto thought to be the sole prerogative of men, there is still a lot to be done as far as altering the stereotype. A well known riddle illustrates this concept.  A man and his son are in a horrible car accident. Both are rushed to the hospital, and the son is immediately sent to the operation theatre for a life saving surgery. The surgeon enters and, horrified, exclaims, “I cannot operate– he is my son!” How can that be, if the father was injured?

You may have spotted the answer straight away, but most people don’t. The answer is simply that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, but many people get confused as they make the assumption that the surgeon will be male. This is because of the biases engrained within us that are deeply embedded in our psyche.

The journey of women’s empowerment has crossed several hurdles and milestones. Women have come to a point where they neatly juggle various roles as care-givers, home makers, tutors to children, experts on interfamily relations as well as those in the board room or workplace with aplomb. This has required them to overcome various challenges personal, professional, social and still be comfortable in their own skins with their new identity. Yet for every Naina Lal Kidwai and Chanda Kochhar there are hundreds of women who have faced discrimination at the workplace due to their gender or an inability to rise to their true potential because of social and family pressures.

As part of a study conducted by Catalyst Research in Europe, senior managers were asked to rate leadership attributes they associated with a man or a woman. The study showed that “taking charge” was perceived as a male trait, while “taking care” was associated with women. The gender bias that is reflected here is reflected across careers and countries. The truth is that there is a greater likelihood of there being greater differences between men and their male colleagues and women and their female colleagues than men and women per se. But the assumption stems from the engrained stereotype  that often pervades organizations and becomes instrumental in preventing women from taking  on a larger role in the organization.  We have become  so steeped in the patriarchal premise that toughness and strength are male attributes and ultimately necessary for leadership in any organization that it is hard to visualize otherwise.

While the 21st century has seen women breaking out of the moulds of patriarchy, there is still a need to create a mentality that encourages economic participation by women. For too long, women have remained under-valued and under-paid dominating the informal, unorganized sector doing unskilled work. Globally greater economic participation by women has driven economies to do better. So there is no argument against ensuring greater involvement of women in the economy. Women are not just drivers of the economy through greater aggregate demand creation; they are more likely to spend on health and education leading to incremental changes across the economy. Education remains the springboard for women’s empowerment. Along with being an enabler for women, education needs to expel the flotsam of gender stereotype that pervades the mindset of a large majority of people.

While unshackling women from the patriarchal stereotype is necessary for the true empowerment of women, the route can only be travelled once women unburden themselves from their own doubts and fears. All too often, women hold themselves back from excelling in their chosen avenues and careers due to a sense of under-confidence and lack of self belief. This too needs to change if we truly want a more empowered society.

More than the glass ceilings, many of which have been broken to smithereens over the last sixty years, what needs to be shattered and broken are the beliefs and compartmentalized labels we place  on men and women. Women are donning the mantle their careers throw at them but it is time society breaks out of the conventional mold so that we can make sure that nobody ever again will doubt for even an instant that a woman can be an effective engineer or a top notch surgeon.

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