Changing gender roles across professions in India

As the UN challenges gender disparity within its ranks by seeking possible women candidates for the post of secretary general, a position traditionally held by men, a look at the changing role of women in some professions in India.
As the UN challenges gender disparity within its ranks by seeking possible women candidates for the post of secretary general, a position traditionally held by men, a look at the changing role of women in some professions in India.(Illustration: Malay Karmakar)
As the UN challenges gender disparity within its ranks by seeking possible women candidates for the post of secretary general, a position traditionally held by men, a look at the changing role of women in some professions in India.(Illustration: Malay Karmakar)
Updated on Jan 05, 2016 03:21 PM IST
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Poulomi Banerjee, Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

In Fe-mail 2, Egyptian author Amy Mowaki adds her voice to the many who have spoken of and against gender disparity, when she writes “...if I have a daughter I will tell her she can do anything, and I will mean it, because I have no other intention of informing her otherwise. As my mother did with me, and my mother’s mother before her, I shall simply hide the truth from her… I will tell her to work her hardest and try her best. And that if one day she looks around and finds that, despite her very best efforts, lesser men have superseded her, then she probably could have done better. These words may not be true, nor will they be fair, but I would hope that they ensure she never becomes a victim of her own femininity.”

Read: How children are smashing gender stereotypes

Across the world, gender disparity at the workplace is so obvious that it is almost too easy to miss. It is so often and so hotly debated that it has almost ceased to move and it is so politically correct to condemn that it has become almost unfashionable to touch upon. Occasionally though, there comes such a sincere attempt at challenging the male hierarchy, that it gives real relevance to the dialogue. In one such attempt, the United Nations (UN) in December 2015 invited member countries to recommend women candidates for the position of secretary-general, a post that has been held by men for the past seven decades. Though the UN has been vocal in its attempt to provide equal opportunities for women across the world, and lent its support to ending violence against women, promoting leadership and participation and the cause of economic empowerment for women, the move to correct the imbalance within its ranks, turns the focus onto the position of women in professions that have been traditional male bastions. Especially in India, where the accusations of patriarchy and gender bias are common.

The first woman to join officer rank in the Indian police service in 1972, Kiran Bedi remembers how in 1997 a male colleague two years her junior had been chosen as commissioner instead of her. “It was a clear case of preference. And by and large the police force remains a male bastion even today,” she says. While the number of women professionals is increasing across sectors, industry insiders feel, their numbers start to thin at the top. “Of course there is a glass ceiling. It ranges from subtle discrimination to creating an outright hostile environment, including sexual harassment of women workers. Labour laws are openly violating of the rights of woman employees. Most of our professions are so sexist and the bias is so denied, that often women themselves are forced to play along,” says Kavita Krishnan, secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association.

A voiced preference for a male candidate is rare. Rather, recruiting agencies feel, most corporate houses today would prefer to have a healthy balance at the top — either in an honest recognition of merit, or simply to maintain a gender neutral image. “About 70 per cent of clients looking for candidates to fill the top three levels in the company ask for women applicants. But we are able to place women in only 15 per cent of those roles. There is a serious shortage of women who are able to fulfil the requirements of a senior position. One of the problems they face is that they don’t have an uninterrupted career. Most of them suffer a break when they start a family,” points out Chiranjit Banerjee, managing partner of People Plus, a recruiting agency with its headquarters in Bengaluru. Women professionals across sectors, however, complain that the career break in itself is a reflection of a patriarchal mind-set that first thrusts on a woman the traditional duties of a homemaker and then uses it as an excuse to find her lacking in her professional capacity.

“Politics demands unidirectional focus and undivided time and attention. An electoral representative or even an unelected local political leader has to be available for the service of people 24X7. Whereas men can leave all the household responsibilities to the ‘lady of the house’ and devote themselves to their constituencies, I am afraid, I cannot say the same for women politicians. Also, women are bound by certain biological necessities, most importantly giving birth. Some of my fellow Congress women who happened to get pregnant while they were elected members of municipal bodies faced a peculiar problem of pregnancy discrimination,” says Ragini Nayak, national media panelist, Congress. While many in organised sectors, especially those that will like to be seen as a caring workplace, are coming up with child care facilities in office to allow women to balance the demands of her professional and personal lives, the positive impact of that will take at least 15 to 20 years to be reflected at the top, feels Banerjee.

Much depends on the will of women. And the spirit instilled in them in childhood. Coming towards the very end of last year, a social media post echoed Mowaki’s intended lesson for a daughter to challenge stereotypes. “Teach your daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings,” it said. While change needs to come in all sectors, HT takes a look at a few that have borne the tag of ‘men’s club’ for years.

(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)

In February 2015, Hindustan Times had quoted official Armed Forces data to show the small percentage of women that make up the rank of officers. While only four per cent of officers in the Army were women, the percentage in Navy was five per cent. The number of women officers in the air force had been 1300. Since then, the Air Force has taken a major stride towards achieving gender parity by allowing women in combat roles. “Indian Air force (IAF) ensures equal opportunities are given to all men and women. Now since the fighter stream is also open for women, it completes all branches of the force where women are allowed,” says IAF spokesperson and woman officer, wing commander Rochelle D’Silva.

Read: It is time for a gender-neutral India

A woman officer in the Navy sounds similarly positive. “Gender Parity in the Navy is unquestionable. Granting Permanent Service Commission to women officers in few cadres was a landmark decision, which has been in effect from 2008,” says Lt Cadr Radha Singh. According to a media report the Supreme Court had criticised the Indian Navy for “gender discrimination” and “unreasonable classification” in November 2015. The court had said that it was in favour of permanent commission of women officers in all wings after they complete their short service stints, and not just only under education, law and naval architecture branches, as decided by the Navy. No woman has till date held the position of chief of any wing of the armed forces. But women officers seem accepting of the status. “If found suitable at that stage, women can be considered for that post,” says D’Silva. Agrees Singh, “I firmly believe that change has to come gradually without upsetting the ethos or fundamentals of an institution. In this context, it will not be long before women officers are seen rising up to the higher echelons of the Navy, not on the basis of ‘right’ but on the basis of ‘merit’.”

(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)

There’s never been a woman Chief Justice of India. Only one of 27 judges at the Supreme Court is a woman. And only three high courts in the country, Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, presently have women chief justices. “There have been studies that show that people often tend to appoint people who look like themselves,” says Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy, talking of the gender disparity at senior positions in the legal system.While most women lawyers agree that the number of women coming in to the legal practices has increased over the years, the numbers at the top remain few. “The gender dynamics operating in the legal profession echo societal relations,” says advocate Vrinda Grover.

Read: Gender roles stay traditional

Pointing at the disproportionate ratio of women judges vis-a-vis male judges, she says, “The Delhi High Court perhaps has a higher number of women judges in comparison to other high courts, but they are still less than 50 per cent on the bench. Yet, in the legal fraternity in conversations on appointments of new judges, it is commonly remarked that there are already many women judges in the Delhi High Court. It is never said that there are too many male judges, because in our minds the norm is that a judge will be a man, ” says Grover.

The advocate, who has often been associated with cases of rights violations says, “A concern that the Supreme Court Collegium needs to address is to rid itself of the charge of being an all boys club by having a fair representation of women in the judiciary and perspectives that respect equality.”

Adds Nundy “Sometimes women self select out of the system by not applying, regardless, I do think there needs to be active outreach to seek worthy women represented at the top of the bar and on the bench. Maybe if the courts set a goal to have women in 50 per cent of positions on the bench, we will reach a more equitable 30-40 per cent in a few years,” she says.

(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)

Speaking to Hindustan Times in September 2014, Vineeta Bal, a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi had shared how a majority of research applicants and marketting professionals who write to her, address her as ‘Sir’ even though her name is clearly a feminine one. ‘We are not used to having a woman in a senior position in science,” she had said. More than a year later, she rues there has been little change to speak of. “May be we have one or two more women in senior positions across institutes and councils, but there has been no policy change or change in mind sets,” she says. Data forwarded by an officer at the science and technology based Societal and IPR Research Fellowship for Women scientists showed that of the total scientific manpower in India in September 2014, the percentage of women in full-time employment at research and development organisations was only 17 per cent. “Science thrives on being able to have peer group discussions. But women often find themselves excluded from this group. It is this little group of men who go on to make the committees. So when a senior position opens or there is discussion for an award, very rarely does the name of women scientists come up,” says a senior Bangalore-based woman scientist who doesn’t want to be named. “We need more women in decision-making roles in science. There needs to be a change in mind sets, of seeing women scientists as peer and not in traditional societal roles,” she says. The demands of this traditional role is one reason why women find it difficult to sustain a career in science. “Figures show that in schools, colleges and till the PhD level, girls keep up with, and often do better, than boys. But the pressures of marriage and having a family make many suffer a break in their career and they find it very difficult to make a comeback and catch up,” she explains.

(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)

Politics is no different from any other profession. A typical situation is when a woman is not even considered for a responsibility in a political set-up or distribution of work or for a post on a committee, leave alone discussion on merits regarding capacities and capabilities. Its almost always a “natural “ exclusion because she was not considered eligible in the first place. But with women in most parties asserting themselves these things are changing,” says CPI (M) polit bureau member Brinda Karat. According to figures available on the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) website, as in November 2015, 12 per cent of Lok Sabha members in India are women. The percentage of women in the Rajya Sabha is 12.8 per cent. The country is placed at 106 among 140 countries based on female representation in the lower or single house. Pakistan is placed at 65 with 20.6 per cent women presence. “There may be several reasons but I would say the main reason is the secondary status of women in society in general. Politics reflects this social reality and the utter failure of development models to deal with the gross gender inequalities which exist still in all fields. There is a domination of male networks in positions of power in parties when such matters of ticket distribution are decided. But I think it is all the more unfortunate in India where the two decades of experience of reservation for women in the local bodies has produced so many highly capable and talented women leaders and administrators at the grass root level. It is a step away from being elected to the Assemblies, but that is not happening,” says Karat. Young women politicians who have made an early mark, sound more positive. “We must appreciate that there are eight women ministers in the present government,” says BJP parliamentarian Poonam Mahajan. But Ragini Nayak, national media panelist, Congress, feels change may be slow for, “men are reluctant in sharing power with women.”

(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar and Vijay)

I think there’s been a change in the industry since 2012. We have had many successful women-centric films in these years — Piku, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Mary Kom, Highway, Kahaani...” says actor Richa Chadda, whose film Masaan was one of the most acclaimed releases of 2015. Change has not come only for actors. Women are increasingly storming traditional male bastions and making their mark as producers and directors. Ekta Kapoor, Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar represent this growing tribe. “And the best male actors are queuing up to work with them,” says Chadda. But any change, she feels, is slow and can’t be achieved overnight. “It is a patriarchal system. And the film industry reflects the biases that are there in the rest of the society,” she says. One of the challenges that remain for actresses in the industry today is that of career span. Age and marriage impact an actress’ life more than an actor’s. “Why is it that every time Madhuri does a film it is called as her comeback film. But even here, things are changing. Aishwarya, Kajol, Vidya Balan, Madhuri are married, raising children and doing good films. But yes, their career span is still shorter than an actor’s,” says Chadda. The difference in years matter when it comes to the kind of money that one commands. “Producers decide on an actor’s pay depending on box office following and the kind of business he or she will bring. How can an actress with only five-six years of experience compete with an actor who has been working for decades. Naturally therefore, there is a disparity in the earnings,” she says.

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