Of Women, Societal Expectations and Stereotypes!

Image Credit : Freepik

Article By Anju Rakesh, Senior Manager – Research and Analytics – AVTAR Group

In a now-viral interview, PepsiCo CEO – Indra Nooyi recollected how a few years back her mother was seemingly unimpressed with the news of her appointment as the President of PepsiCo, as there was no milk in the house and Indra had failed to address the shortage! If this was what happened to one of the most influential women leaders of the corporate world, an average Indian Woman Professional’s routine is dotted by such seemingly insignificant incidents, every single day! Societal expectations on a woman does not always factor in her professional commitments, the 3 Cs – cooking, cleaning and caring, continue to be her primary responsibility.

Let us pause for a moment and explore this a little in detail – how were these expectations born? What are some of the consequences as society still subscribes to them? How could we possibly counter them? Questions that most certainly need to be answered on our paths to inclusion!

Tracing the origin of such societal expectations on women brings us to the aspect of ‘cultural conditioning’. Gender roles or the roles each gender is expected to play in the giant canvas of life are, by and large premeditated; a good part of it is planned and executed by nature (for e.g. the act of child bearing) and the rest comprises of norms that have been passed along generations and which the society we live in, continue to adhere to. The expectations are often unconsciously thrust upon women (and men) at very early stages, when they are young boys and girls to be precise. We gift our boys-building blocks and our girls-kitchen sets. We get everything blue for the boys and pink for the girls. A girl’s love for languages is applauded and the boy is termed a genius if he exhibits a flair for math. The conditioning that kids are thereby subjected to leads to the formation of strong stereotypical notions in young minds that refuse to leave them in spite of the education and exposure they acquire over the years. Consequently, they grow into adults who harbor stereotypical expectations of the opposite gender – the man to be the ‘provider’ and the woman to be the ‘caregiver’ or ‘nurturer’.

This is not to say that the Indian society hasn’t embraced the changes that were taking effect globally. The country has been able to largely close the gap between the educational attainments the genders –according to the annual World Economic Forums’s Gender Gap Indices. 46% of India’s university graduates are women; 27% of entry level workforce in Corporate India is women. These promising figures hold hope for the future. But there are certain other facts and figures that spell concern. Around, 48% of Indian Women Professionals (IWPs) abort their careers mid-way; 18% leave the workplace never to return. Only 5% of senior executives in India are women. What happens to the many women who started their professional journeys with ambitions, sky high? Why do many disappear from the talent pipeline mid-way? Amongst a host of other reasons is the fact that the woman professional is weighed down by expectations on her – by her family, by her employer and sometimes by her own.

As a woman enters the institution of marriage and further along at the altar of motherhood, her primary responsibilities often multiply. The expectations on her as a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law, a daughter etc. are manifold and her professional commitments result in conflicting priorities. The typical corporate model that are webbed on linearly progressive careers, is not always tailored for the IWP – Indian Woman Professional. The standards and speed expected at work does not quantify the gender parameter and many women find themselves not meeting ‘expectations’. And then there are expectations women have of themselves – of being the superwoman, of being able to ‘do it all’. A sick child and a critical client call on the same day, emotionally fatigue a woman and she is marred by guilt as she chooses one over the other. Around 74% of Indian women quit work owing to lack of support systems at home, unable to live up to expectations.  In an in-house research by AVTAR, it emerged that only 4% of Indian women are driven to careers by social pressure further reinforcing the ‘near absence’ of societal expectation on women to work.

Letting go off such gender stereotypes requires changes in beliefs and practices at grass root levels. The cultural conditioning of young boys and girls that begin within the four walls of their homes should follow norms that are gender unbiased. And what can the different units of this society do to drive change? To list:

  • Ensure inclusion at home: Equal opportunities and freedom of choice should be something children are entitled to, irrespective of gender. A boy’s culinary skills may not be ridiculed as a girl’s fascination for automobiles.
  • Encourage participative decision making: Decisions (on household budgets or strategic business ones) may be made gender ‘inclusively’; participative discussions that know no gender bias should be the norm.
  • Nurture co-existence: Educational institutions, especially the co-educational ones, must encourage healthy associations between students of both genders that can stimulate their intellects and sow seeds of rational, unprejudiced thinking in them.
  • Bust our gender myths: Men should have realistic expectations of their partners and should acknowledge and enable their spouses’ desires to sustain their careers. Women, on their part, should confidently pursue their career aspirations and shouldn’t confine themselves to shells of complacency.
  • Last but not the least, organizations intent on gender inclusion can continue to focus on greater career enablement of their employees, a WIN-WIN strategy on the path to strategic business growth!