Invisible Women by Ahilya Mehta: Women and the power of choice

Published on Nov 19, 2022 02:41 AM IST

My alma mater, Wellesley College, is an all-women’s institution

Simply put, having more options puts a woman on a more equal footing with men
Simply put, having more options puts a woman on a more equal footing with men
ByAhilya Mehta

My alma mater, Wellesley College, is an all-women’s institution. It was my home for four formative years. Of all my learning there, what I remember best is how to raise my voice, even when others prefer I stay silent.

As a woman, how can I not be motivated to help other women the way Wellesley helped me? My experience convinced me to narrow my career focus to women. Ultimately, I discovered my passion: women’s wellness. This focus came after years of frustration over gender inequality. However, inequality is not limited to health. It is pervasive across all aspects of our society. An unambiguous problem that still lacks an actionable solution, it is why women are held back in our diverse and democratic economy. 

The reality of ambition

There is no dearth of ambitious women in India. In 2020, according to a research study, the ratio of women attending university out of the total eligible population was 27.3 per cent, compared to 26.9 per cent for men. I’d argue that decades of gender-based repression have sown seeds of ambition rooted in something far deeper than personal success. Alas, women constitute only  4.7 per cent of CEOs in India. Gender diversity in the job market is uncommon in most industries. Consequently, gender injustice exists even in the formal sector, where diversity is mandated. 

Our laws and institutions are putting in place checks and balances to ensure women are given equal opportunities. However, the structural changes required to make our society more equal mean more women need to be in decision-making rooms. Men cannot fathom the magnitude of discrimination faced by women. No matter how progressive, a man does not have to carry a child or bear the societal responsibilities of managing a household. A New Yorker cartoon depicts this succinctly. The image is of a man proposing to a woman who is carrying groceries. The cartoon is captioned “Would you do me the honor of taking on even more responsibilities while my life remains largely unchanged?”

Societal expectations have normalised women sidelining their careers for marriage and family. Let’s be clear, not everyone wants an intense career. But those who do should be given the opportunity to pursue it with the same support from their families as a man would receive. 

A time for growth

I do not let cynicism hide my gratitude. It takes a generation to see real change. I believe that the conversations we are having today will have a compounded effect. In 2013, for instance, the updated Company’s Act mandated that at least one woman must serve on a company’s board. Consequently, the number of women in boardrooms in India today is 17.1 per cent, up from 7.7 per cent in 2014. The final figure may not be worth a celebration, but one cannot deny the speed of growth since the law was put in place. This growth is significant, but it is not enough. Our strategy for empowering women in business primarily caters to the formal sector, even though women across the socio-economic spectrum are at a natural disadvantage. 

Ideological change, something all genders believe in, cannot be accomplished without strategic thinking and definitive action. However, surveys have shown that younger men may be even less committed to equality than previous generations. Perhaps some men choose ignorance, or perhaps they are actively choosing to pursue inequality in order to avoid inconveniencing their lives. In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article titled, ‘If you can’t find a spouse who supports your career, stay single,’ the author writes about “the rise of women“ during the 20th century, and “the adaptation (or not) of men to the consequences of that rise” in the 21st century.

Women are not awarded the same opportunities as men for more complex reasons than one opinion piece can summarise. Moreover, writing this made me realise the impact of having agency over our lives and the ability to make choices. When we have options, it becomes easier to fight inequality.

Therefore, it is upon women to empower other women by educating them about their options. This education is not limited to academia, but also those things that women should know but society deems taboo, such as sex, finance, marriage, menopause, et al. Who knows, we may be able to witness the changes we wish to put in place in the generations to come. 

Ahilya Mehta, 27, is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Nua, former co-founder of Aara Health, and has been in women’s wellness for three years.

From HT Brunch, November 19, 2022

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