November 5, 2020
Our Lived Experiences as Women Navigating Equity and Equality in India

This piece is part of a series under the theme of “Elevating Underrepresented Voices at ANDE.” As part of ANDE’s ongoing work in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and acknowledging our platform as a global organization, we have extended an invitation to all staff to express their own reflections on the subject. As our diversity task force chairs noted in their introduction to the series, “The articles included in this series come from ANDE staff and are not part of an editorial strategy, but rather an organic initiative led by individuals who want to contribute their unique perspectives to our collective understanding of important diversity-related topics.” We hope they prompt reflection and conversation.

Diversity and inclusion.

As these two issues take center stage in workplace conversations, we believe it is worthwhile to share our story. Here we share experiences and observations from our collective lives as daughters, mothers, wives, students, corporate employees, and impact sector professionals.

When we talk about our challenges as women, it is important to acknowledge from the beginning that we still write this from a place of class and caste privilege. Diversity is a multi-layered conversation. Thus, in addition to our truth, we are also mindful of how we can be an ally, reflecting also on how to responsibly use our privilege to help spark conversations, change mindsets, and eventually trigger action.

Through this article you will see the viewpoints of three women who have been navigating the complicated maze that it is to be a woman in India, and more specifically, a working woman in India, for the past 20+, 6+ and 2+ years, respectively. As is the case with any wicked problem, the way society views and treats women is not mutually exclusive from the treatment meted out to working women in office spaces, public or private. The short reflections raised here could be the subject of entirely independent articles of their own, we think they are worth mentioning as part of this common narrative here — they are all complex cross-generational issues, blurring boundaries between the personal and professional.

Women in the workforce

As working women, we have experienced firsthand the impact that patriarchal mindsets and accepted gendered roles have had on our professional lives. This is something that women across sectors and economic strata experience, albeit with varying intensities.

As a case in point, while one of us had their husband take a year off of work to look after their seven-year-old child so she could pursue a dream Masters course, her friend from a very similar socio-economic background had to drop out of a premier B-school as her husband decided that he could not manage the home and kids by himself. The abysmally low and falling female workforce participation rate points to the challenges facing working women, and in recent years women have been deliberately opting out of the workforce as their household incomes permit.

A major food delivery service in India recently announced ‘period leave’ for their female employees. Immediately swords were drawn, and the debate became a trolling match. While some men proclaimed the move as a positive step in the right direction, there were also men and women who challenged the need for additional leave for women, taking the view that one cannot fight for ‘equal rights’ while also accepting special treatment.

Violence against women

There have been many pivotal moments in India over the past few years that could have led to groundbreaking change, but have made only a marginal difference, if any. For instance, a horrific assault in December 2012 shook the nation and shone a spotlight on what women in this country deal with every day.

In 2018, India was ranked the world’s most dangerous country for women, a statistic that continues to haunt women in this country, working and non-working alike. The #MeToo movement was another turning point, but as time passed, it has become increasingly evident that by sharing these stories of abuse and mistreatment, many women have been the ones to suffer the consequences, while accused male colleague’s careers have been largely unaffected.

Macro- and microaggressions

At least 20 million Indian women have left the workforce since 2005. Ill treatment at work is a major contributor. Macroaggressions such as unequal pay practices continue to plague the corporate and development sector. One could argue that these men were a product of their times, but it is now that change must begin if we are to have any hope of moving the needle on gender equality. Nobody should get a pass because of their age or gender — women certainly do not!

There are also many subtle everyday issues and microaggressions that we, as women, have become all but indifferent to that need to be thrown out of the window. Often these clearly sexist behaviors are deemed acceptable and the norm.

When one of us was working as a teaching fellow in a government school, the challenges in communicating with male counterparts in public service roles were insurmountable. Even though the men concerned were much less qualified to objectively decide what was best for children in the classrooms, all of her conversations on the subject forced her to navigate a flood of male viewpoints that drowned her voice and ideas. It was no surprise then that the female government teachers would shun such meetings and fail to be present at forums where critical decisions regarding school management were made. Sadly, the story remains the same in workplaces across sectors.

We have had certain tasks such as taking minutes of the meeting being allotted to the woman in the room (us).

We cannot count the number of times we have been asked to ‘man up’ and be tougher at the workplace, qualities attributed to a stereotypical man.

Most of us have a story of when we were interrupted by male colleagues in meetings, only to have them make a similar point and receive validation.

Smoke breaks are an all too familiar example of ways in which women get left out of informal networking opportunities with their colleagues, as men outnumber female smokers by a huge margin. Longer smoke breaks indicate longer working hours, which again make it harder for working women, who likely have a larger share of domestic work waiting back home.

It amazed one of us that what many of her male colleagues in a previous senior management corporate role remembered best about her was her excusing herself from meetings that were thoughtlessly scheduled to start late in the day, preventing her from getting home in time to look after her young child!

Bringing about change

So where do we go from here? We believe conversations like this are one place to start.

However, these conversations need to be had with everyone, especially the men. One cannot have a conversation about gender equality without men as active participants. And it moves beyond just a conversation, because working men and women, in their roles as parents, are the ones who will be crucial in changing the mindset of the generations to come. Children learn by example. When fathers start sharing responsibilities in the kitchen and in the home, when mothers don’t unconsciously signal to their daughters that they just have to learn to be homemakers and depend on husbands to look after them — that is when true shifts in attitudes will begin to take place.

We feel that the two important levers that can help address change would be to start with disaggregated data collection by gender and affirmative action policies that can provide equitable opportunities to women in the workplace. Of course, these are mammoth undertakings and each deserve an article of their own, but data disaggregation will begin to hold a mirror and help us see if the policies, rules and regulations being put in place are working and that’s a good place to start.

Finally, we believe it’s important to note the need to dissect these issues from the lens of different communities. If we view women as a homogenous group, we risk losing the perspectives and voices of varying communities neglecting other intersecting identities. Within the development sector specifically, there has been renewed commentary on the field’s diversity problem. Being aware of this issue helps us take the first step, as organizations that create positive impact in our society, to be better within.

We hope to continue having these conversations and grow and evolve together. As we gain momentum, we would love to learn more from other perspectives, while creating a safe space for healthy dialogue in our shared goal of building a genuinely diverse, inclusive culture.

In this series:

  • Elevating Underrepresented Voices at ANDE
  • Development and Power