An Indian Perspective on How We Lead the Charge for Gender Equality
I was born and raised in India, where my startup UMA was born out of, and where a majority of our workforce — primarily female — operates. To me, India has always been a paradox when it comes to the social treatment of women. Historically, India has celebrated women in positions of power and leadership — there is no dearth of powerful Goddesses in Hindu mythology or legends of great female rulers in India’s monarchy. India — the world’s largest democracy — also elected its first female premier in the 1970s, a mere two decades after gaining independence from British rule.
And somehow, gaping inequalities still exist.
UMA is a brand by women, and in many senses, for women. We’ve had the honor to serve a very thoughtful base of customers, with whom I believe it is important to share the nuances and complexities of building a woman-centric company in India. I also think it is important for us to understand the different natures of inequalities that we, as a gender, face in different parts of the world. Unlike some countries in the middle east, Indian women have enjoyed equal rights as men in the eyes of the law: We had a vote as soon as the country gained independence; I can’t think of any activities — such as driving — that are limited to men; abortion and birth control have largely been left alone as indeed a woman’s right to choose.
However, laws can only go so far in a culture — especially in rural parts of India — that systematically favors men as superior. Birth of sons is celebrated, and female infanticide is still a problem in certain parts of the country. The government has outlawed gender scans during pregnancy, but families still find ways around it to abort female fetuses. Dowry — the tradition of giving money to the groom’s family at a wedding — is still common, and many young brides are still tortured — even killed — for not bringing in enough. Sexual harassment and abuse run the gamut, and I don’t think any woman truly feels safe venturing out by herself in the evenings.
While these specific challenges may be unique to India, gender inequality sadly isn’t a thing of the past even in many developed parts of the world. How are we going to break this cycle?
I believe it starts with education and challenging traditional career paths. In India, it may mean ensuring that young girls receive the education and support that their brothers do. Here, I think it means fostering the confidence in girls to shine at STEM disciplines and fearlessly pursue engineering and finance — traditionally considered male disciplines and not surprisingly, often better paid. Don’t forget to tell your daughter she’s funny because you know we need the next generation of Tina Feys and Mindy Kalings.
Culturally, I think it’s important to break down stereotypes about providing, and expectations to be taken care of. We can’t fight for gender equality, and shy away from going dutch on that first date. Or demand equal pay without taking equal degrees of risk as men. Professionally, we must embrace different management and leadership styles. Why is aggression at work tolerated, while a single teardrop at work can get your career compromised? (Even many women I know cringe at any show of vulnerability at work).
I believe that financial independence will form the backbone of our fight for gender equality. It will mean better representation with lawmakers and corporate boards. It will mean different leadership styles to learn from. It will mean having hundreds of role models that have found success with our unique set of gifts. And it will mean the mentoring of thousands of young girls into successful, equal leaders of the future.
In our own microcosm, we try to live and breathe these values at UMA every day. Our India team employs over 50% women and proudly supports their goals of financial independence through creating an infrastructure that they can sustainably thrive in. Our all-woman US based team pushes boundaries of creativity and analytical excellence every day. Our phenomenal base of supporters — led by our enlightened customers — inspires us constantly to believe and persevere on this incredible mission.
Women will change the world for women, and there’s no better time than now. Because, “I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself” — Simone De Beauvoir