It is more than a hundred years since the early observance of women's days by workers' unions, and it is nearly 50 years since the United Nations began commemorating International Women's Day on 8 March every year; yet a lot still needs to change before women can actually have the human rights as envisaged for all and not have the obligation to fight for their freedoms, rights and status every step of the way.
While more than 140 countries of the world guarantee equality to women in their constitutions, political and economic participation and power remain disproportionately low for women. Only a quarter of parliamentarians in the world are women. A more telling data in the Indian context is that less than a quarter of Indian women have an income of their own.
International Women's Day is an occasion to review and rethink the objectives of the women's movements and reimagine the idea of equality for women in society, economy and polity. It is a day to celebrate the fact that women are more visible and influential in every civilizational activity than ever before and it is also a day to note the still intact barriers to women's sovereignty and address the fundamentals.
While equality and empowerment have been the battle cry of women's movements over the past century, the struggle has reached a stage where it needs to graduate from wanting to have the same privileges as men to freeing women to pursue ideals and aspirations without reference to men or their own gender. Women's movements over the past century have largely been about demanding and getting basic social, economic and political rights that men previously reserved for themselves. The adversarial gender politics has produced enormous benefits for women, as the movements for women's safety, dignity, freedoms, claims and choices have improved their status and opportunities. However, the identity politics has also subjected women to exaggerated prejudices and patronizing.
Empowerment is a contradiction in terms. Fundamentally, power cannot be granted. It can only be claimed at the risk of scepticism, criticism and outright subversion. Similarly, respect cannot be circumscribed by compliance. Patriarchy is built on favouring the compliant among women, and it thrives on offering women controlled liberty and suppressive veneration. The key to equanimous equality is to see, project and treat women as humans and not merely as women. So long as biology continues to be the introduction and positioning of a person, women's struggles and attainments will continue to be qualified by their gender identity and they will continue to face prejudices whether they are victims or victors.
In a corporate set-up, women continue to be a minority and the recent quantitative approach to equality has been a qualified success. The quota compulsion has forced boards to open the doors to women, yet there is a persistent refrain that finding even one or two 'qualified' women for boards is hard. After nearly a decade of board quota regime, women company directors in India still add up to less than a third of the total.
What is even more counter-intuitive is, as observed by the union finance minister, that it is hard to find women who are interested in becoming company directors. She has said that her own efforts to convince women have mostly failed. This is indicative of the limitations of top-down channelling of women. It suggests that time has come to go beyond optics management and resort to a cultural liberalization so that it is up to the women to claim roles and positions rather than providing women a menu of what is available to them.
Another facet that requires overhauling is the ghettoization of women in particular jobs, roles and sectors. The division of labour based on gender essentialism, or associating particular capacities and traits with men and women, is a major barrier to women's free choice and attainment at work. Over the past century, women in offices have moved from assisting the boss to facing the customers and now an overwhelming proportion of educated women are employed in the so called soft sectors such as finance, education, healthcare, hospitality, tourism, media and entertainment. They are still few and far between in the engineering-centric or outdoorsy sectors, be it manufacturing, technology solutions, transportation, or armed forces. Also, a lot of women still aspire for careers in the 'soft' functions such as HR, PR and CSR. Often, those subjected to coercion and constraints come to accept those as reasonable and even frame their aspirations around those. Again, there is a need to prioritize women's right to free choice over their options. Equanimous equality would require women to choose their jobs, sectors and roles without guidance or pressure.
There is a popular notion that women in general are not keen on studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This idea has serious implications for equality in the future, as the jobs, incomes and business leadership are gravitating towards the technology proficient. The disproportionate impact on women's jobs and incomes during the covid pandemic was a preview of what is to come if women give the tech skills a pass. Better late than never, women are catching up fast. Also, women are appreciating that if they do not step in now, the machines too would inherit the past prejudices.
The key to full and proper equality is to treat women as people first and ensure that status and power are earned through ideas, performance and behaviour and not influenced by their gender identity. Instead of improving optics and appeasing women with defined share of presence and influence, organizations need to adopt cultures where women can be whatever they want to be rather than what they should be. Sovereignty is equality.
Author is the director general in All India Management Association, the national apex body of the management profession in India.
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