India Inc can fight patriarchy with gender-inclusive policies

Padma, who sells delicious kozhukattais (a sweet dish) out of a small roadside eatery at a busy corner of T Nagar (Chennai), was having a raging argument with her 26-year-old daughter.

Shanti wanted to take up a job at a mobile showroom, leaving her 2-year-old daughter in the care of her husband, who runs his own garage. The husband was fine with the arrangement, but Padma was not. Even as Shanti pointed out that Padma herself was working, whereas she did not want her daughter to work, Padma’s retort: “Your father is a wastrel. Hence, my misfortune that I am forced to be the ‘man’ and earn. You are lucky to have a husband who works and provides for his family. Now you do your duty by staying at home as a good woman should. Don’t shame me by going to a job,” brought an end to the argument. And thus, over several layers of patriarchy shrouded under so-called “values”, one more nail was driven into the coffin of women’s workforce participation. Before we get to the bottom (if there indeed is one) of the declining labour force participation rates of women in India, let’s understand the term. What indeed is patriarchy? It is a social and ideological construct that allots specific roles to men and women, with the underlying theory that men are superior to women. Gurcharan Das defines it thus, “While men and women are indeed biologically unequal, societies around the world have institutionalised this insidiously into an inequality of power, aka patriarchy. Because women were supposedly (physically) weak, they had to be guarded”. And hence, the balance of power shifted to the male. A patriarchal society is one where women do not get the same opportunities as men, where crimes against women are not taken as seriously as those against men and where women’s freedom is restricted and controlled. Patriarchy is a spectrum — it begins with tiny micro-inequalities and goes all the way to rapes and lifelong subjugation. When you dissect it to its core, it is nothing more than a power ploy to fit men and women into straightjackets. It is not cultural, and it certainly is not natural. It evaporates in the glare of a critical economic discussion.

I discovered the hold of patriarchy when in 2005 we created India’s first ever career service for women — not just any woman, but women who had taken a break in their careers and wanted to return. I was quite fascinated by the double bind — while it was patriarchy that dictated child-rearing was the woman’s sole responsibility, the same patriarchy designed workplaces around the clockwork of male careers and ordained that if you took a break, you were ostracised!

Centuries ago, in western societies, patriarchy did flourish and women were treated as chattel along with domestic animals. Then the agricultural era gave rise to the industrial era. The industrial era brought with it the advent of machines — the washing machine, the blender, the oven and other implements — that freed the woman’s time in the kitchen and around the house. The advent of World War I brought her to the workplace. Yes, you guessed it — a patriarchal workplace!

In a patriarchal workplace, maternity breaks are considered a “woman’s problem”. Career trajectories are essentially crafted using the image of a married man who has a stay-at- home wife/homemaker. Flexibility has no place. Patriarchy demands clear gender-based roles and division of labour. Sexual orientations such as LGBTQ that don’t conform to the male-female definitions are an aberration in a patriarchal workplace. There is no space for empathy or sensitivity. When men and women are perceived differently for exhibiting the same behaviour, you know that it is a severe case of patriarchy. A high instance of sexual harassment, workplace abuse of women, off-colour jokes and sexist remarks reveal that patriarchy is at work. If you find a proclivity for separation and control at your workplace, beware! Patriarchy is lurking like a ghost.

I have observed that quite often efforts to correct the impact of patriarchy lead to male- bashing. Every male is made out to be the oppressor. Let us stop for a moment and acknowledge that some of the biggest allies for women’s progress are men. In truth, men too are victims of patriarchy, as much prisoners of stereotypes as women are. And it takes more for a man to stand up against patriarchy than for a woman. It is easier to get rid of biases which work against you, but what about biases that actually work in your favour? If patriarchy to a working male means having someone to “take care of you” at home, why would it be objected to? If women are comfortable not deploying their skills at the workplace and being “taken care of” financially by a man, then patriarchy thrives that much more.

A male leader, who I know and has done much for women in the workplace where he is a plant manager, goes home where his wife — his batchmate from an engineering college — prepares his dinner. After aborting a flourishing career that she landed on campus, she has stayed a housewife, simply because his parents did not want the “eldest daughter-in-law of a joint-family, setting the wrong example by not taking care of the home”. While he does his utmost at the workplace to combat unconscious biases and the veiled clutches of patriarchy in policies and programmes, he shares sadly that he is still unable to create equality at home.

I am often asked, ‘How do I, as one individual, combat patriarchy?’ My response is this: Begin by questioning everything that you have been trained to use as rules. Question the root of your worldview. Anything that appears to be focused on the ‘greater good’, while oppressing an individual, deserves to be examined in the harsh light of reason. Does this doctrine actually serve the requirements of your life? Just because it has been handed down generation after generation, is it fair? Patriarchy, just like any other learned bias, served its purpose in another time when it meant survival of the society by division of labour. By understanding that patriarchy today is a dead dogma, we can change our approach to work, politics, money and everyone around us, who is different from you.

There are phenomenal gains to be had by every home, every family and the country as a whole, if we free our society from the clutches of patriarchal biases and provide equitable economic empowerment. Having worked with many organisations on their gender inclusion journey, I feel that the workplace is actually an easier arena to fight patriarchy than the home. Combating patriarchy actually begins and ends with economic empowerment— the importance of women’s access to economic resources results in gender equity and this is the best antidote to patriarchy. Shanti, the aspiring mobile salesgirl, can manage biases in the workplace with the help of allies, but changing her own mother’s patriarchal values is a battle that will take long.

Article by: Dr.Saundarya Rajesh (Founder – President, AVTAR Group) , originally published in the Times of India on 26th September 2018.