‘Tis the time of the year again!
..when Facebook bombards you with its Year-in-Review to let you relive all the clichés you uploaded this year – the ‘placing diya in the middle of rangoli while smiling coyly’ picture from Diwali and the ‘comment below and I will assign you a cartoon character’ picture to spread awareness about child cancer. (How is a picture of Tweety making you more or less aware about child cancer? Someone please tell me how this works)
So we’ve decided to go ahead and do a year -in-review ourselves, but somewhat of a different kind – How was 2016 for women across the globe?
There were a lot of women who made the news this year. No, it was not (just) Kareena with her maternity wardrobe or Jolie calling it quits with Brad Pitt. This year, for the first time in history, a woman ran for the post of the President of United States of America and lost. The election itself was heavily mired in sexist rhetoric and allegations of sexual assault.
This year also saw the death of an iconic woman Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The story of the rise and fall, and rise again of Jayalalithaa, attained almost mythic proportions. The aura surrounding female political leaders such as Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee is in part due to the fact that female political leaders of their own making are so few and far to come by. Most female politicians in India take on after husbands and fathers – Sonia Gandhi or Mehbooba Mufti, for example. The low number of women at the helm, in executive roles is not unique to politics but something that we observe even in the corporate world.
On October 24 this year, female employees in Iceland left their workplaces early, protesting against the 14 per cent gender pay disparity. Indeed, the so called ‘glass ceiling’ effect, unequal pay and promotions are contentious issues even today. Let’s take a moment here to discuss this.
The dominant narrative is that women are victims of a misogynistic society that refuses to treat men and women equally. I will, however, steer clear of this contentious argument and instead focus on a different question: Are there other factors which make women less productive as compared to men? Can this explain why they earn less and why they move up the ladder much slower?
To try and put this in perspective, let’s focus on a very specific issue – pregnancy. The Maternity Benefit Act was amended this year to entitle women to a full paid leave of 6 months. Does this tip the scales in favour of women? Not quite. Consider a 25 year old woman employee in an organisation who gets pregnant. Even if she works until her 8th month, her inability to walk around as much or pregnancy related illness means that her productivity is diminished. She then goes on a leave of 6 months only to return and deal with the stress of recouping with all the missed work while simultaneously worrying about a baby back home. Her contribution to the organisation for a prolonged duration of time is much lesser than that of a man at the same career level. This is not to suggest that women can’t get ahead in their careers after childbirth or that men have it easy all the time. But this is probably one reason as to why organisations tend to view male employees as more valuable compared to women.
Let’s now look at happenings closer to home. In December this year, the in-time for girls in our campus was extended to 2 am. This event did not generate a lot of buzz. And why would it? This was no hard fought victory. And whom would it even benefit apart from the odd couple who wanted to spend more time out in the night? But maybe there is reason to be a little more optimistic about this.
Consider this. This campus has never seen a woman General Secretary or President, and is no closer to seeing one in the near future. The fest-organising-body every year is also heavily populated by men save the odd woman or two. A facile explanation could be that it is simply a matter of numbers – a gender ratio of 1:6 is not helping. But the restrictions to in-time also merit a mention here. An in-time of 12 am means that it is not possible for girls to work or organise meets after 12. Add to this the fact that first year girls and the second and third years live in different Bhavans, and movement between these two Bhavans is also not allowed after 12. No one denies that ensuring safety for women is a legitimate concern. But restrictions to in-time tend to limit productivity. In other colleges, the situation is much worse, with some of them having an in time as early as 7 pm.
The issue of pregnancy and the restrictions to in time are similar in the sense that both of these do not fall into the bracket of explicit sexism that gives less credit to a woman for the same work as a man. Rather, these indirect factors limit the productivity of a woman and the opportunities available to her vis-à-vis her male counterparts. It’s time we started thinking of new and better ways to equalise the playing field. That could be a resolution for the New Year!