As the psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Branden puts it,
The first step towards change is awareness, the second step is acceptance
From being relegated into the kitchens and the darkest corridors of households, to sitting at the boardroom tables as some of the top-rated CEOs, WE have come a long way. While we still have miles to go, the attempts by our predecessors to give us an equal say in the society has definitely made it easier for our generation to tread the path of gender equality. Personally, my exposure to women rights primarily stems from my own experience growing up, my observations, and books - the latest one being, 'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. I could very easily relate to the focus areas in the book like 'bill like a man' or the 'impostor syndrome'. Sheryl helped me realize that I myself had fallen prey to these issues as part of my relatively short career. But the fact is, you don't realize that these are issues unless someone points them out. This awareness through reading and listening to great speakers has helped me immensely to understand the invisible elephant in the room that is, 'gender inequality'. Knowing that there are others like me all around the world helped me maneuver through my own issues more easily. Growing up in Kerala, I've grown up listening to admonitions like 'girls don't do this', 'girls don't behave that way', 'you have to get married and go live with another family, so stop your shenanigans' etc. Remember, Kerala is one of the most literate states in India, boasting close to 94%. So you can imagine the state of affairs in other states. Asking a girl to behave properly is a valid thing, but telling her that she has to stop doing something because that's not something expected from a "girl", is preposterous!
Most of the families, at least in India, do not expect women to focus too much on her career. After 2 years of my marriage, when I wanted to pursue an MBA through a residential program, it invited some amount of dissent from both mine and my husband's families. As relatively progressive families, they did not want to admit to themselves that they are deterring me from pursuing my dream, but they did try to remind me the importance of settling down, having a baby at the right time, etc. Thankfully, my husband was extremely supportive. It doesn’t stop here: even as I went to college, I continued to get weird frowns and comments from some of my class mates who thought that leaving my husband at home to pursue higher studies doesn't conform to their concept of a perfect wife! Not to mention the adulation I got from some of the girls who thought that I had done a remarkable feat!
Why can't my attempt at pursuing my goal be treated as normal? Apparently it isn't, at least in India! When you read about women who have succeeded in their careers, all of them mention a strong support system in place at home, be it from their parents or their spouses or even good and trusted domestic aids. Balancing work and familial responsibilities is hard - we need to be aware of this. As women, we often try to take on everything single-handedly - we try to be perfect, both at work and home. We don’t ask for help, we don't tell our spouses or parents that we are burning out, and when we finally do, we end up in a really bad shape. This happened to one of my closest friends, but just before she completely obliterated herself, we got her help and now with ample support from both their families, is leading a comfortable life. So as my opening statement says, after awareness comes acceptance; we need to accept that we can't be superheroes at two places simultaneously - after all, we are human beings; just like our husbands and brothers and fathers. Understand that you need to prioritize things. For example at this stage of my life where I feel I need to concentrate on my career, I keep my household chores to a minimum. I have a maid to support me and I don't regret it a bit! To tell you the truth, initially, I used to feel a little guilty that I am not complying with the duties of a typical wife. But who wants to be 'typical' these days. I am more happy now as I get more time to work on my skills and spend quality time with my husband.
Even in the corporate sector, there is now a stronger push to tackle gender inequality at workplaces. This makes me think that now is the perfect time for women to flourish and move up the career ladder. A recent Harvard Business Review1 article suggested that feminine values can give tomorrow's leaders an edge. Just like men and women are physically different, their brains are also wired differently. A research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2 analyzed almost 1000 brain scans of men and women (428 males and 521 females aged 8 to 22) looking for signature differences and similarities between them. It found that the brain circuitry between men and women appear to be different. According to the research, women are better at intuitive thinking and remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved – they will listen more. Men on the other hand typically perform better on spatial processing, motor skills and speed tasks. If this research is to be believed, then we can assume that a good dose of both masculine and feminine qualities are needed to succeed in today's corporate world. Of course in some cases, peoples' mindsets have to change. For example, one Harvard Business Review article3 says, 'For Women leaders, likability and success hardly go hand-in-hand' - when men become assertive, they are called bosses and when women do the same, they are called bossy! In most cases, these mindsets are not consciously made; they are just reflections of society's perceptions about an ideal woman. Being aware of these 'Unconscious biases' is the key to avoiding such negativity; there are executive sessions happening on this topic these days, which is quite encouraging. At the end of the day, understanding the opposite sex and emulating their virtues would bring forth a very conducive work environment for both men and women.
As women, we need to take charge of our own lives and not be bogged down by the society's expectations from women. We need to be vocal about our concerns and issues without worrying about what others would think about us. Be a 'Bold and Beautiful' you, and people will love you for who you are and not who you are expected to be!