Women’s Equality: Right Intention, Wrong Execution
Feminism is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
According to the CIA World Factbook of 2018, the world’s ratio of male to female population is 101 to 100 — essentially as close as you get to an “even” distribution. Yet, the fact that women have to “fight” for equality is a sign of a whole host of fundamental flaws with how society has shaped up over time.
The fact that “feminism” is such a widely misunderstood term and is often perceived as some sort of a fight against men, is a cause for alarm on how much ignorance there is on the issue.
While there is much talk and also some action around addressing women equality via government policies, workplace policies, more awareness and discussion, and a variety of measures, the results have been far from commensurate with the perceived efforts.
My personal view is that the primary reason for this is a flawed approach that focuses on short-term wins and results. While what is needed instead is a fundamental change in behavior that would lead to long-term impact. To that end, I will address the issues on three broad levels — Household Behavior, Governmental Policy, and Workplace Measures.
Household Behavior — Change Begins At Home
True, long-lasting change can only be made at scale if the seeds are sown at an early stage i.e. at home.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
- Education and Sensitization — It cannot be stressed enough that the key to equality of all forms lies in awareness and sensitization around an issue. And the sooner this happens, the more deep-rooted and beneficial it is. The biggest change that can be effected on gender equality and all other forms of equality is raising kids with a socially aware upbringing.
Additionally, in some economically backward countries, this may include education and sensitization of the parents, who for lack of education and awareness, have a significant bias towards a male child.
- Get Rid of Gender Roles at Home — Children learn what they see — make sure they’re raised in an environment where both parents share all kinds of responsibility. Don’t have the mother be the one cooking, cleaning, feeding, and the father the one earning for the household. Mix things up.
- Sensitize the Boys, Empower the Girls — Men and women in certain ways are created differently. But that does not by any means make one lesser or greater than the other. Teach your kids to respect and embrace the differences without a sense of superiority or inferiority of any kind. Be mindful of the unintentional biases we have — dance and music classes for the girls, and sports and karate for the boys.
- Address Inherent Patriarchal Structures — A majority of cultures and societies are patriarchal. But in today’s modern world, where a lot of other “legacy” structures have changed, there isn’t a reason why this aspect shouldn’t.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean going up in arms against the men of the household, there are little changes that can be made.
The next time a financial decision is made in your household, make sure everyone has equal say. The next vacation you plan shouldn’t center around the work schedule of the man of the house. Forget the belief that a girl marries into a guy’s family — consider it a union of two equal families.
- Once Women Truly Lead, Men will Follow — There are certain behaviors seen more prevalent in women than in men. The desire for a male child, the age-old conflict with the daughter-in-law, raising daughters a certain way to conform with societal norms, lack of freedom to daughters compared to sons — these are all behaviors seen in women as much as in men, if not to a greater extent. This needs to change.
Government Policies — Support from The Top
While there is a general increase in awareness and willingness around tackling the obvious inequality, certain unwilling parties still need legislation to be forced to act. Also, policy support always helps institutionalize the change, if done right.
- Education & Access to Resources — Access to education is just as much a fundamental right as is a right to food, shelter, and other basic necessities. This probably leads us to a whole other topic of how much governments can do, but education should be made one of the top priorities. Robust policy and transparent implementation remain key as with all such issues.
- Parental Benefits — Maternity (or in general parental) leave should be made mandatory and extended to a minimum of 6 months across jurisdictions. Medically, that is probably the minimum reasonable recommended time for both a mother’s recovery and a newborn’s initial nourishment and care. And these have to be part of paid benefits. Penalizing employees for having a family is criminal, to say the least.
- Compensation & Benefits Transparency — The gender pay gaps are at appalling levels globally. According to the International Labor Organization’s 2019 report, the mean monthly gender pay gap stands at over 25%, with large, developed economies like the UK sitting at over 35%. The only way this can end is by making compensation transparent and adding legal accountability to unexplained gender pay gaps. Unfair pay can have a hugely detrimental effect on women’s labor force participation.
- Implementing Woman-friendly Workplace Guidelines — Workplaces in most places aren’t designed to be fully inclusive. What should be basic facilities such as nursing rooms, flexible work arrangements, extended parenting leaves, should all be gradually made mandatory. The fact that these are an exception rather than the norm is not acceptable.
Workplace Measures — Institutionalize Real Change, Beyond Mere Lip Service
- Don’t Talk, Act — Flexible work arrangements, more diversity in the workforce, focus on women in leadership positions — these are all topics raised by leaders of large corporates time and again. But most often, these become mere public relations campaigns, and CSR Reporting statistics. What we need is the actual implementation of these measures and a corporate world where these are all fundamental requirements and not luxuries.
- Don’t have Diversity Policies that Fundamentally Discriminate — While the intent of companies is often correct, they end up enacting policies that promote discrimination more than gender equality.
“Period Leave” is one such term I recently came across. While it may be a novel idea, it fundamentally discriminates against the female gender by its very name. The stigma attached to a woman asking for “period leave” and the implied suggestion that women require special treatment for a natural phenomenon is more discriminative than empowering.
The same could be easily implemented as via flexible work arrangements for both men and women, so anyone who may need to use the same could do it without singling it out.
- It’s Not Always About the Policy, but the Implementation — While most global firms have maternity leaves and flexible policies, are they doing that extra bit to make women feel comfortable in utilizing these? Are we ensuring that an employee that takes a parental leave is assured of their career not taking any setback as a result of it? Are we taking measures to make the transitions as seamless as we can, and leading by example?
- Stop Treating the Symptom, Treat the Cause — Lack of women in leadership positions isn’t a problem cured by hiring more women leaders or promoting more women to leadership positions, sometimes even at a compromise of merit. The solution is addressing the WHY?
While most companies enjoy higher women participation rates at junior levels, these sharply fall at senior positions. Women, clearly, at some point in their careers are choosing to, or are forced to, pick their households over careers. For the former case, it is perfectly their choice, but the latter should not happen. And if we make the workplace truly inclusive, we’ll probably not need them to make that tough choice either.
Again, this is a combination of workplace solutions and fundamental mentality change. Invariably the one giving up a career for children is the mother and not the father.
- Guard Against Casual Sexism — Sexism can often occur in the most seemingly harmless of ways, but it is not OK. Whether it is just workplace banter or guy talk, unintentional (or is it?) sexist remarks in the guise of humor, or even non-inclusive practices such as planning team outings not considering the dynamics of a group, or leaving out that one female team member, or assuming things that shouldn’t be assumed.
And often this is kept in check only by nipping it in the bud — speaking up when you see it. This is easier to do for a person in a position of power or leadership, but making everyone feel empowered to raise their voice is important, by setting an example.
This is a topic that can’t be addressed in a matter of a thousand words, and each of these points is much more nuanced than what has been addressed here. But hopefully, this does put some things into perspective and gets us all thinking about ways we can bring real change.
And hopefully, we will someday see a world where equality isn’t a topic of discussion because it isn’t an option anymore, it is the only way.
“Men and women have roles — their roles are different but their rights are equal.”
— Harri Holkeri