Can India ever achieve Gender Equality?

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5 suggestions through a collaborative approach

by Prachi Laddha, Mumbai Consultant

Starting with the fundamental issue of gender roles wherein women are seen as child-bearers and men as breadwinners, my first solution is – Redistribution of Responsibility. Indian women do 90% of the housework, which is highest of any large country – house chores and childcare that doesn’t get accounted in the National Income of the country and is therefore not seen as “work”. Moreover, a survey of men and women who entered skills training programmes show that family pressures and responsibilities whereby far, the most common reason women didn’t accept jobs or quit them. Here’s a statistic for you – according to a World Bank study, if men spend just two hours a week doing the dishes or putting the kids to bed, it would translate into a ten-percentage point increase in female labour force participation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

The issue of women being seen as caregivers brings me to my second solution – Impactful Legislation. Over the last few years, India has seen an increase in legislation that impact gender equality, such as the Amended Maternity Benefit Act, Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, Nightshift work protections for women, and so on. But, are these laws impactful?  India’s Amended Maternity Benefit Act stipulates that employers must provide pregnant women with 26 weeks of paid time off. But the fact that there is no corresponding law for new fathers perpetuates the gender stereotype of women being the primary caregivers. The law also covers only formal and large-sized firms which, overall, employ only a small proportion of the country’s female workers.

There has also been significant progress in increasing access to education, through government programmes such as free schooling for girls. But it’s naïve to assume that things are fine because there is an equal number of girls in schools. We need steps towards increasing gender sensitivity of the education system, including ensuring that textbooks promote positive stereotypes. This is critically important for girls and boys to complete their education and graduate school as citizens who can shape a more equal society.

Although, it is important to understand that legislation at the national level mandating gender equality can go a long way. For example, according to Duflo and Chattopadhyay’s 2016 study [PL1]  on a village-level governance that mandated one-third representation for women in positions of local leadership, when women are elected as leaders due to reservation policies, they are more likely to invest in policies that are more closely linked to women’s concerns, such as drinking water. More importantly, they found that exposure to female leaders reduced gender bias amongst the villagers. Thus, a woman’s voice and her ability to become a leader in her community are fundamental to empowering women.

A lot of women prefer starting a business on their own, instead of looking for jobs, as that provides them more flexibility of work. Therefore, other impactful legislation that will make the system more conducive for women to succeed in would be the removal of barriers to entrepreneurship and better childcare facilities.

This brings me to my third solution – Workplace Policies. There is no doubt that as much as “push” to the labour market is required for women, a “pull” is as important. Better labour market prospects, such as recruiters that have a favourable work environment for women in terms of safety and better toilet facilities among other things can go a long way in attracting women to workplaces.

It is not very uncommon for peers and managers to assume that employees who spend long hours in the office are high performers. Moreover, managers expect employees to be ready to work at any place and at any time. This, undoubtedly, makes it more difficult for women to succeed. Therefore, workplaces should make an effort to have more flexible working policies, better childcare facilities, and more importantly sensitisation programmes that help tackle these assumptions.

It is important for companies to help women during maternity, both during pregnancy as well as when she returns to work after maternity leave. Mentoring – both for managers of women who are returning to work, as well as the women themselves, can help immensely.

My fourth, and dare I say, most crucial solution is – Shift in Attitudes, both at the individual and societal levels. India, as a country, suffers from very deeply ingrained cultural norms that hurt women indescribably. (To know more about what I mean by this, you can read our previous article.) Even though I have mentioned laws and policies as a solution, I sometimes wonder if they will ever be enough.

Indian Human Development Survey (2011) showed that a very sizable fraction of Indian women say that they require permission from a family member even to go to the local market or a hospital. Imagine asking for permission to even look for a job! Especially when, 70% of Indians believe that when a woman works for pay, her children suffer.

A “mindset change”, no matter how abstract it sounds, is the only way I think we will really be able to tackle this issue. Numerous studies have shown that though many admit that women are equal to men at a conscious level, at an implicit level, many tend to hold biases towards women. The plague and power of biases are too consequential to let them go unacknowledged and unchecked. While increasing representation of women in the public spheres is important and can potentially be attained through some form of affirmative action, an attitudinal shift is essential for women to be considered as equal within their homes and in broader society.

Community-based work with all members of the family is one of the most fundamental steps towards this – whether it is through the government, NGOs, educational societies, or the more woke citizens of India. These organisations and people need to wake up and collectively work towards educating the Indian Family of the biases, prejudices and stereotypes they hold, why it’s necessary to tackle them and how they can do so.

Furthermore, educating Indian children from an early age about gender equality could be a meaningful start in that direction. Especially, bringing up boys to be people (who are as equal as girls) and not princes (that are entitled to be served by girls) would be a great idea. Additionally, girls should be taught to worth themselves more – they should be taught to look above society’s expectations – and strengthen the way they view themselves. Schools and other educational institutions can perhaps do more to push forward a narrative that female students have the capabilities to decide their own futures as much as male students.

I will end this with the final solution, or rather, an imperative – Men as Allies. You cannot achieve gender equality if the men in the society, home and workplace are not part of the narrative. Additionally, men serving as advocates for women can go a long way in changing norms and biases. They can be an ally by doing little things such as not mansplaining or not share sexist jokes to doing bigger things such as share house chores equally and speak up for women, whether at home or outside, when they are being discriminated upon, harassed at or even mansplained.

As a small-town Indian girl, I have experienced the societal and family mindset first-hand, from being asked to serve food to the men in the house (be it grand-dad or even my brother) to being forbidden to travel with boys to being looked down upon because I chose to study abroad (as, according to a random uncle I met at a function, young men in small-town India don’t get girls to get married to because girls like me choose to study and settle in the city. Sigh– the priorities!)! Therefore, I strongly feel that unless the change comes from within the Indian Family System, it will be very difficult to advance in terms of gender equality.


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