Why I am not a son to my parents?

“So you don’t have a brother or a sister?”

If I had a penny for each time I have shrugged my shoulders , shuffled my feet and blown bubbles through a straw into the Gold Spot bottle in my hand, at this question as a child I would have been able to buy personal chalet in Switzerland by now.

As every Army brat worth his/her father’s CSD card will tell you,childhood is about being on the move constantly and consequently making newer friends and smiling at and wishing newer adults. Conversations with adults is a sine qua non if you grow up with your father in the army. Social events, people coming over to welcome you (well-your parents actually) to the new place are commonplace. If you spent a greater part of your childhood in a cantonment you probably have had your head petted a number of times by an avuncular officer and his wife while answering the umpteen questions on “which class-which school-favourite subject and favourite game”. In my case this questionnaire would dissolve at  a defiant”I AM AN ONLY CHILD” reply.

Officers’ wives at the army ladies’ club would pause between scratching out their “two little ducks ; twenty twos” on the  perforated pink and yellow tambola tickets look down their patiently powdered noses at me and then questioningly at my mother as she sipped her drink and looked for her “any line” without a hint of concern at the apparent vacuum in her world. Some older women were more direct in voicing their concern. “you don’t have another child? No  son? Aren’t you planning on doing something about it?”

My parents, my mother in particular was largely unperturbed by the barrage of questions, suggestions and advice that came her way regarding the discernible “lacuna ” in her life created by the presence of only one child-and that too a girl.There was an inherent problem here in the eyes of all the well-meaning people-not only was the family a little incomplete-the greatest void here was the absence of  a son.At times the persistent prying by the ladies would make me get cranky and teary eyed by the time we got home. My mother however, would dismiss all the suggestions of “you-must-have-another-child-but-a-s0n-is-a-must” with a pointed “she is all we need”

As I grew older and was fortunate enough to do well academically and in a competitive exam that enabled me to get into the government, the well-meaning advice to my parents grew into an understanding” oh-it’s-wonderful-your-daughter-has-done-so-well-now-she-is-just-like-the-son-you-never-had”remark. I have often wondered why most people I meet tend to use a son as a benchmark for anything that a child should be.

They love their daughter just like a son.

Their daughter is awesome, they’ve never needed a son.

There is something fundamentally odious about this comparison. Have you ever heard it said for a boy who is an only child- his parents treated him like the daughter they never had?! Laughable isn’t it?

My parents thankfully chose to bring me up without putting me into the pigeon-hole that often comes pre-built for daughters in this country.There were no pink sheets and pink frocks when I was born. Nor was I clothed in blue to be a stand-in for a son who was not there. Instead there were mauve and orange sheets and frills and lace and a kaleidoscope of colours.  In fact my mother chose to dress me in every single colour in the palette. Sunshine yellows, soothing lavender, fuscia pinks, baby blues,creams, whites- my wardrobe was a testimony to all hues and vibrant shades that would make the Asian Paints shade card wince with a feeling of inadequacy. My toy shelf was the same. Cabbage patch dolls and bunny rabbits fought for space with dinky cars and battery operated airplanes. Once when my father arrived home with a set of toy cars for me he was severely admonished by my mother for spoiling me and replied that a friend had been buying toy cars for his son’s birthday so dad had decided to do the same-although my birthday was a few months away. I played with dolls and kitchen sets just as much as I did with lego sets ,board games and doctor sets. Knees were meant to be scraped and holidays were about running races with friends in the morning , cycling in the evening and putting the dolls to bed at night. There were no clear lines between what was meant for the “boys” and what was territorially mine. Friends included boys who also liked playing with my dolls and then  start a spirited game of cricket which ended with everybody aiming the ball at each others shins.

There were no references to what”good girls” do and what normal behaviour for a girl was. What was important was being well-behaved and a good human being. At a social event when her sons cheekily swore and yelled back at their mother as she admonished them for something; the exasperated mother despaired the fact that her son were a little “boisterous”. I  recall her congratulating my mother for having a well-behaved daughter . The praise was peppered with a disclaimer, “girls are not as wild as boys- you are lucky-boys just refuse to listen to parents”. It smacked of an unpalatable explanation for the boys completely obnoxious behaviour. My mother who listened politely and followed it up with “it has nothing to do with her being a girl,I would expect any child of mine to do the same”

Thankfully my parents did not treat me like the son they never had. I am and always have been the daughter they doted on, pampered and were proud of.

I am often asked if I have to work harder to prove myself in a career which is largely male-dominated. My reply is always,”harder than what”. The underlying premise behind this seemingly innocuous statement is the rather loaded stereotype that being a girl places on me, of not being competent enough to get a job done well. Is it possible to be a good officer despite being a girl? Does one need to be more masculine to be taken seriously in organisations that are dominated by men? Do emotions like sensitivity or empathy get taken as a given when the manager/leader is a woman? I don’t think I have all the answers but I have realised in my workplace that there is no point being defensive about my gender. I work for the government. I worked long hours in difficult circumstances and not because I am trying to act or be like a man, but because the professional exigencies of my career call upon me to do so.

During my tenure as District Collector I recall an event when  a group of angry men and women had marched into the water supply office and thrown a pile of bangles at a rather bemused official claiming that he was incapable of resolving their water supply problem. This is actually a common affliction in India. “Chudiyan pehan lo“( go wear bangles) a euphemism for incompetence . After showering the glass bangles on the official, the group came to me as District Collector and requested me to ensure regular water supply in their area. As I wrote out the order for them, the bangles on my own wrist jingled and I pointed out to them the irony of the situation, I was sorting out the water supply problem for them, despite wearing bangles myself!

(Needless to say in the district there were no further attempts at berating officers by throwing bangles at them)

There is much talk of girls equalling the boys, out doing them perhaps, of stereotypes in the media and in our lives , of the tough times girls face in their workplace and out of it. I too am one to post and retweet any and everything on gender equality. In the midst of all that noise I sometimes pause to think and say a mental thank you to my parents for allowing me to be their daughter and not a stand-in or replacement for someone who was never there.




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.