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Should Empowerment First Begin At Home?

Posted: September 1, 2010

juggling_time5.jpgThe recent Michael Arrington post on why women mustn’t blame men for their lower numbers in technology is eliciting reactions, fast and furious. While I don’t think Arrington’s tone helps, I am not going to get into the subject here. Instead, I’d like to refer you to Shefaly Yogendra’s excellent post, “Women in tech: What gives?”, where she puts forth many actionable ideas on what we can do to get more women into science and technology.

In India, interesting women in science and technology per se is not such a difficult problem. A lot of women study both the basic and applied sciences, and at entry level, the number of women in these professions is not poor, even it is not equal. Yet, as we move up the organizational charts, fewer women are in the picture, until, when one comes to the highest levels such as CEOs and board members, few women are left. A big part of the reason is of course that a large number of women drop out of the corporate world in their late 20s and early 30s – to have children and raise a family.

Few companies make it easy for women to rejoin and most workplaces are structured in such a way that women have to “choose”. So, yes, one of the systemic changes that is needed are more flexible workplaces, attuned to the needs of a diverse workforce.

But, career empowerment is not going to happen only through systemic changes. Empowerment needs to begin at home. While we can ask governments to ensure fair working conditions and suitable maternity leave, while we can ask companies to have more flexible workplaces, what are we doing at home?

As Shefaly says in her post, “For women already in the workplace, it is important to recognise that before we can negotiate harder and better deals for ourselves at work and outside our homes, we first need to negotiate better and fairer deals for ourselves at home. With the men in our lives.”

Not all the work on inclusive workplaces will help if women still bear all the burden for housework and childcare. In conversations with many new mothers, one of the things I’ve observed is that if she wants to get back to work, finding suitable childcare is still “her” problem, as though the husband had nothing to do with the baby being there! Studies innumerable show that women, including those who have a career, do far more than their fair share of housework. I also know that many women opt out the informal networking that helps further careers. While I respect that mothers want to spend time with their children, career growth requires such networking. Why is the idea of a man watching over his kids alone still so alien to us?

Unless this changes, unless the men in our lives start accepting equal responsibility for children, workplace efforts will not help. Taking off time for PTA meetings and doctor’s visits, staying home with a sick child, getting home early because the wife has a networking event that evening, doing your share of household chores – unless men take up all these seriously, companies will continue to see women’s needs for family time as “special needs”.

When 70% of the workforce, men, start demanding the space to do these – that’s when truly inclusive workplaces will happen. Why would men demand these? Current definitions of masculinity do not really place a premium on nurturing, so only a few men will demand them spontaneously. Many others, who are fundamentally decent people can perhaps be brought to realize the importance of their spouses’ careers. In the Indian scenario, where few people really know much about their spouses before marriage, can women negotiate such fairness?

That remains to be seen, but it is empowerment at home that will drive the empowerment at the workplace.

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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  1. Thanks, A, for linking to my post and your kind words. Like all else, empowerment must begin at home. When women feel secure in our families, they fight the world – if needed – with greater vigour and focus. But if women have to fight on both fronts, well, something has got to give and it will inevitably be work because it is conditioning, isn’t it, that prevents women from confronting their near and dear ones first..

  2. Totally agree with you. I’ve seen women give up their jobs after having children because they couldn’t cope with managing everything at home while holding a full-time job. I’ve never yet seen, in real life, a man take a year off work to care for the baby, but I have to hope I will.

  3. @ Shefaly – agree. it is difficult to fight on both fronts. Having said that, in the Indian context at least, I believe women will have a tough time for many years to come, because families’ expectations of the role women will play at home is not changing as fast as women’s expectations for themselves and their careers.

    @Unmana – for the 1st year after child birth, women are biologically equipped to care for the child (at least in cases where the child is breastfed); after that, of course, there is nothing to prevent dads from being equally involved except prescribed gender roles. We are still very far from dads taking a break to care for a child. Realistically speaking, I think its good enough if they do their share in other ways once the mother decides to go back to work.

  4. I was referring to situations in which women quit because they don’t have adequate daycare available. Not every mother stays home with her baby for a year.

  5. Oh yes, of course. People choose to return at different times, depending on their personal circumstances and the support from the company. What I meant was that I honestly don’t see any dads offering to stay home with baby – at least not yet. Even when there is daycare available, there are still a host of responsibilities – there will be days when the nanny doesn’t turn up, when the child is unwell and cannot be sent to the creche – right now, in these situations, I still see moms taking on most of the load, not to mention the voluntary cutting down on networking, events, opportunities etc. So, there is plenty of progress for dads to make…

  6. I know of a male (in Canada) who took 6 months off from work on paternity leave to take care of his child 🙂 But Indian men(who believe that they are still Indians) never do that!! Not only do they ask their wives to take care of children at home, but even on vacations!! Men will be swimming or trekking and women would be baby sitting.

  7. Bang on, Sudha! Not that I wish to accuse ALL men of this, but it is the case in too many families… but how much of this is due to us women too? Do we act like dads are doing a favour to someone when they take care of children? Plus, how many mothers bring up their boys to help with domestic tasks – stereotyping begins very early and carries on into adult life.

  8. very well said.But we women need to stop feeling guilty about allowing the dad to baby sit or heping out with washing clothes and cleaning up the kitchen. Then there are those who find fault with the husband’s way of doing things and refuse to allow him to learn by experience. Men are already under no pressure to help out at home and a finicky wife’s just suits him and he offers it as an excuse. I know of at least one person who will not heat up a bottle of milk and give the baby saying that the child won’t drink it up unless the mother gives it to him. Is coaxing a hungry child to drink milk also a wife’s job? Women also have a hand in spoiling their men.

  9. Its also a mother thing, I think. Even if my husband looks after the kids and I am sure they will be fed and cared for, I feel very restless networking/partying after work or when I dont see or talk to my kids enough during the week. The kids being in good safe hands is a basic but even if that is met wanting to cuddle up your sick child all evening is a very innate want.
    Not many men have that kind of a problem though ( I think). I did happily go slow on my career than go unavailable to my kids. I know atleast a dozen enterprising women in my org, all stuck at middle management. I believe if they all decide they want to play at par with the guys, I am sure they will do a good job but they all want to leave office AS SOON AS THE WORK IS DONE. So yes we need support but even with supportive partners, I doubt this issue would go away.

  10. Aparna: When I hear women referring to their own husbands as “helping with baby-sitting”, I despair. The father was very much a party to the child’s creation (in most cases in India this is still true). So why baby-sitting? Since when did looking after your own child become baby-sitting?

    Equally as I responded to a comment yesterday, women can make power trips out of things like childcare and kitchen control. Then I remembered a short post I wrote last year: http://bit.ly/4ZnYjq (The third section “Women are from Venus, Men are from, er, Uranus?” is the pertinent one). Read it if you have the time.

  11. @shefaly:yes a lot of women do feel that when a husband offers to look after kids while/whether she is working or relaxing is actually doing her a favor just like a baby sitter would.She herself does not seem to think that he is the father and he should also play a role in the kid’s upbringing.A woman needs to accept a man’s offer to help without feeling guilty or inadequate.

  12. @ Sunita – if there is a level playing field, i.e. organizations are not biased towards a “male breadwinner” style of working, and if men are doing their share of housework – at that stage, if mothers still feel they will unavailable to their children, if they network etc, well, then that’s just a choice, and if you’rehappy with it, why not? Rising to the top will always require sponsorship by peers, superiors, which will involve some networking etc, though again, perhaps not all of this needs to be ‘after work’. However, I’d still consider why it is that only mothers feel this. Why don’t fathers feel unavailable if they network/spend additional time on their careers? Are they not neglecting their kids too? Is it because women internalize that they are the primary caretakers, no matter how competent and caring a dad may be? It appears that men and women derive their self-worth from different sources, but I’m not sure that it is biological.

  13. @shefaly/hip grandma – Oh, so agree. I cringe when I hear this. This is of course because women have internalized that housework and childcare, especially, is our job. hence, the dad who does this, is ‘doing a favour’. I don’t despair though – I see this changing, although slowly. Plus of course, the desire to control and to do it ‘my way’. Love Hip Grandma’s comment – “Men are already under no pressure to help out at home and a finicky wife’s just suits him and he offers it as an excuse.”

  14. @Hip Grandma: Its not just wives who r finicky, husbands are too sometimes. But I’ve never heard of wives leaving their husbands to do things because they are finicky.
    And most of the time if the men work at home and they tell either their parents or in-laws, the girl will have it hot

  15. @sudha:yes men are finicky too. but what stops women from leaving them to deal with things their way?I know that I do.My husband would find fault with my way of ironing clothes.I’d feel hurt initially but when I let him do it his way for a while he now gives them to the dhobi who does it better than him.As for in laws not appreciating the son helping his wife with chores at home,it is best to ignore them.with time they will get used to it and even if they don’t it is their problem not ours.But the husband need to be told that he does have to announce to ‘whomsoever it may concern’ that he is helping his wife out and that the house and children belong to him too.

  16. Pingback: Indian Work Culture

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