“Yeh mera beta hai!” my father once bragged with pride about me to his friend, with an intention that she's the one who is shouldering responsibility with me. It made me wonder—Is it only the sons who are responsible?
For a long time, I’ve heard chatter around me about how it would be wonderful if the first child is a son. He can be a strong big brother to his little sister—the typical idea of a protective man and a meek, supportive woman.
So when I was carrying my child, I was looking forward to having a girl child. Even my spouse shared my sentiments. And when my daughter was born, we’ve inundated her with stories about how we are grateful to have a girl child.
One day, she came up to us and asked us, “What if I had been a boy?” She was worried for the other gender!
I narrate this now as a funny incident. But I am completely aware of how rare this is.
So often we begin the differentiation right at birth. Even if the girl child is allowed to be born, we differentiate by asking to distribute Pedhas instead of Ladoos. (We distributed Ladoos to celebrate our baby girl because that was our favourite sweet!)
This is why gender equality is such a complex issue. Often, the biases are so deeply ingrained that they show themselves in subtle ways. For example, in my first organisation, one of the senior leaders used to chide us when we—either just me or a few words—gathered to talk either during a break or even for work. It was subtle; he used to merely comment, “Why are you chit-chatting?”. But the implications were far significant. It was perceived that when men gather and talk, it’s a discussion. When women talk, it is gossiping. We ended becoming very conscious and used to talk only when he wasn't around.
And then there are instances where assertiveness and aggressiveness in a woman is looked down upon, but celebrated in a man. Confidence too is often mistaken as over-confidence or a very strong opinion.
These are but small examples of everyday sexism—inconveniences that every woman learns to take in her stride if she aspires to reach the top.
Many surpass these speed-bumps and stick around. Far too many, however, give up.
Without the encouragement and motivation of the family, it becomes difficult for them to come back to work. Yet many others come back, but start compromising—they give up growth to balance both work and personal life.
In our recent ‘Women Leadership Programme,’ we interacted with 30 women in the middle management. Some of these women—who have all the potential to climb up into senior management—voiced the same concern: “I may not be able to give so much time”. I told them all the same thing: “It’s not about time. Work at your committed hours if you want with full dedication. As long as the work is getting done, the organisation will always encourage you.” Remember, though, that at every time you have to make a choice, and keep deciding to stick with it.
Of course, a lot depends on the organisation too to motivate her to come back. In my journey, many of my senior leaders (most of whom were men, of course) encouraged me to come back and egged me on. They were the ones who spotted the potential in me.
I also realised that by being the only female in the senior leadership team at Kotak Securities, I unwittingly became a symbol of inspiration for the younger women, who saw what was possible for them! We should have more direct and structured mentorship for them and we are working to make it happen. It helps that Kotak as an employer leverages women’s capabilities as much as it does with its male employees.
But making a difference requires more—further smaller but firm steps designed to solve basic issues and encourage a culture of care, concern and comfort. Only when the smaller changes get institutionalised will change happen. After all, if you are facing the right direction, all you have to do is keep on walking.
Here are some of the initiatives we have introduced for moving towards this change: women employees are eligible for an additional Rs 10,000 per month in their last trimester so that they can comfortably travel to work without worrying about the expenses. Plus, we have initiated small events to celebrate her motherhood with her team to make her feel at home and motivate her to come back. Additionally, we have a sabbatical program wherein our employees can take two years off to pursue their commitments, secure in the knowledge that the firm is waiting for them.
Keep watching for these small but significant steps. These are done not because we women are weaker but because the organisation needs us to become stronger. Cause, the presence of one, defines the other. And remember, these aren’t gifts or favours. We don’t really need them—because it’s not about gender equality, it’s about gender equity!
To borrow from an oft-used phrase: women of the world unite. You have much to offer, much to conquer and much to gain. There will be many moments of solitude and self-reflection as we face hurdles in our path, but mind you it will always be darkest before dawn. The sunrise with its beautiful warmth and life-giving rays is just a horizon away.
Before I sign off, I just want to say: Be confident and happy of the choices you make. Success is bound to happen.
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