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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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