Marginalisation of Women – Recent Perspective
In the previous blog post, I had examined 13,000 years of psychological and sociological developments that marginalised women. I had closed it with the glimmer of hope that appeared in the mid-20th century AD after the two World Wars. Has that glimmer of hope materialised and grown on to become a beacon of opportunities for women? Yes and no.
We take it for granted that vocations like office administrators, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists, doctors, bankers, diplomats, marketing professionals, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officers were open to women, even 100 years back. The truth is: Not at all. You would not have found even isolated examples of women in these vocations. This argument is not to establish that we should be satisfied with the progress. This merely illustrates how in a very short span of 7 decades, women have asserted themselves and broken free of the yoke of 13,000 years. Any failure to recognise the magnitude of this achievement by women will be indignifying to the pioneers who have led this amazing charge.
What caused this partial emancipation of women from the dark ages: A combination of astounding socio-political changes! Starting with the French revolution (1790) and culminating in the many freedom movements against the colonial forces, a new ideal of equality, freedom and independence was sweeping through the world. The concept that someone can be the belonging or property or another human was repudiated once for all, when the abolition of slavery was proclaimed in USA by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The Marxian ideal of overthrowing serfdom and rejecting inequality amongst classes was the subject of fascination all through Europe. The Asian and African lands challenged the colonial powers with the argument that if the “Third Reich” was monstrous, why should their brand of oppression and imperialism be morally acceptable?
Did these movements remedy the thousands of years of inequity perpetrated against women?
Why is the representation of women in social and commercial institutions still grossly dis-proportionate to their proportion in the population?
Why are so few women in positions of leadership in social, political and commercial institutions?
Is there a closed shop in these institutions? Is there a glass ceiling?
Let us examine this carefully and again in a non-partisan manner. The fact that even after 13,000 years of institutionalised blackout, women have not lost their hunger to learn, develop and build ability is remarkable. Lesser periods of inclusion or exclusion, history tells us, have changed human ability and motivation dramatically. Women, when they re-entered the main stream society in greater numbers, demonstrated that person to person, on every aspect of human ability, they were on par with men. The testimony to this is the remarkable achievements of women in politics, industry, diplomacy, bureaucracy, science, sports, literature and law. An ideal illustration of this is Marie Curie who pioneered research on radioactivity in the early 1900’s. She rivalled in scientific thought both Wilhelm Röntgen who in 1895 invented the X-ray and the physicist Albert Einstein.
Over thousands of years, some vocations have garnered a higher share in the overall share of vocations and jobs in any society. The hunter, herdsmen, soldiers, traders and social intermediaries always ended up in leadership positions. Any vocation, which had the higher share of jobs, increased the probability of employment to a social group, gender, caste and class. Jobs do not get crafted for citizens nor do jobs go where people are. The history of migration of people is many times larger than migration of jobs. Because when jobs migrate they create socio-political upheavals. So to demand for women-friendly jobs and jobs to come to women is like going against the grain of stone. The tool will beak and not the stone.
Unfortunately, many women have over the years become prisoners of the stereotyping which men have imposed on them. Only in the marginalised classes and castes the stereotypes are rejected. In the case of genders, the stereotypes are blindly accepted. This works against women because they voluntarily exclude themselves from many roles in society. Men use this stereotyping cleverly to keep women out of socially influential jobs.
In my experience, in India, I see nearly 40% of the women who enter management positions drop out between the age of 28 and 35 years and a very tiny proportion re-enters, no matter what the encouragement is. 25% of women in the non-management levels opt out too. When the average rate of unemployment in most countries is around 5% and when women exclude themselves out of jobs which are seen as influential, it does not result in punishment for the society, economy or industry. It hurts the women more than the economy. It is a delusion that the punishment society will suffer for excluding women will force them to include women. In a competitive world, men are not going to step aside for some egalitarian ideal, especially when unemployment is high and socially an unemployed man is seen as a pariah. This door will not open on its own.
We are told that women are not suitable for technical shop-floor work in factories. It is laughable because women broke free off the chains by entering factories during the second World War. But have women challenged this by demanding technical work? The unfortunate truth is no. Do many women seek technical education? We only need to examine the statistics. What is the proportion of women in customer facing sales jobs and do women seek such jobs? Once again the answer is in the negative. We know that these two domains contribute to more than 50% of the jobs in any commercial establishment and are default paths for senior leadership positions.
Less than one fifth to one fourth of the women, who complete graduation, enters the workforce. This is not because the rest are seeking post-graduation. Is it because greater numbers of women, who seek employment, are rejected by the employers? The answer is maybe.
Men, as in the past, adduce the argument that they need to protect women from dangerous and risky jobs like being on the shop-floor as a skilled worker or engineer or being in the market as sales personnel. We are also told that most women are reluctant to travel, so men want to help them by excluding them from jobs which require travelling. This is a repeat of keeping the vocations of artisans and traders away from the women. Most women accept these patronisation and some even argue that social institutions should create women friendly jobs. It is ironical that when we examine the unorganised workforce, once again the representation of women in higher skilled jobs like, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, drivers, etc. is marginal.
If women want all their jobs to be office based and in service organisations, it will impede their march to equality. A victory here will be pyrrhic and only serve the purpose of reducing the number of jobs available for women and the socially influential jobs catchment shrinking. This will lead to one more epochal opportunity being squandered by women.
Should we not support women during their child bearing and rearing phase with extended leave? We absolutely should. Yet in my experience, I find close to 50% of the women, who avail this extended leave, opt out later. So starting with anaemic enrolment into education, followed by opting not to be employed, and finally not staying employed, the catchment of women for senior leadership positions is seriously depleted.
Let us for a moment focus on the state of affairs in Asian and African nations which contribute to more than 65% of the total women in the world and where fertility rates are the highest: The more structural issues facing these societies centre around the way we treat our girl child: Female foeticide, malnutrition and poor enrolment into education.
If we continue to excessively focus on the glass ceiling to the exclusion of what causes it, we will not even seriously attempt to redress the situation. We ask for women-friendly social and commercial institutions. Those, at best, will be necessary conditions but not sufficient. As an argument, if men are the sole cause for the glass ceiling then nations and institutions with women at the top should find it easy to reverse it. Unfortunately, we try to find facile and sometimes even over-simplistic solutions to historic and structural issues.
If we do not focus on the following key issues, we may squander one more historical opportunity to deliver fairness and equity to women:
- War on Female foeticide
- Removing malnutrition among all children
- Girl child enrolment into education and sustenance of the same through to livelihood
- More women electing for technical vocational skills and demanding jobs on the shop-floor and sales
- Reducing the proportion of women who do not opt for employment after education
- Reducing the proportion of women who opt out between 28 and 35 years of age
- Increasing in large numbers the return of women who have opted out as careerists and not part-time and flexi-time employees and yet expect to break the glass ceiling
- Social and commercial institutions punishing males who stereotype women and exclude them from core organisational roles
- Making work places secure and harassment free for women and encouraging them to aspire for all the roles in any institution
Not one of these is something special that I have discovered. I state them because the collaboration between social and commercial institutions is abysmal to address them in unison. The many well intentioned isolated efforts on one or more of these, will do very little to change substantially the position of women from their marginalised state.
If in most organisations, to start with less than one fourth of the membership is women and it depletes to less than 10% at the senior levels, then no matter how much we scream, the ceiling whether it is glass or not, will remain forever. Initiatives such as extended leave, working out of home and flexi-time will be silly placebos. Women manifest all the human qualities and abilities, both positive and negative. Claims that women are more empathetic, sensitive, emotionally balanced and nurturing will only imprison them in gilded cages.
More important than all these is the state of women in our societies. They may have progressed from being voice less to challenging their marginalised state, but are no closer to having their rightful share in the social power structure. The last 70 years have thawed the 13,000 year old deep frozen winter. There surely is a ray of light and hope. But the bright summer of equality is still a bridge too far and many miles to go.