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Reservations for women at work are a contentious subject in India, and often seen as a ‘sop’. Yet, there is more to affirmative action than that. Here’s a nuanced look.
For centuries women in India have been oppressed. They have been strongly discouraged from participating in pure sciences, engineering, leadership, sports, battle and many other fields. Social norms in our country have confined women to domestic duties and prevented them from voicing their opinions.
Such attitudes, have resulted in the general belief that women are weak, and best suited for menial domestic tasks. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Society has made women under-confident and insecure, a psychological impact of generations of oppression and subjugation. Today, even among educated and well to do families, there is a high rate of female foeticide. Having been brought up under such misogynistic influences, it is not surprising that many women believe in the inferiority of their sex.
With women of a certain socio-economic class, entering a number of traditionally male dominated fields, there is the perception, that at least for this group, gender bias no longer exists since these women are given the same education and opportunities as men. But that is just an illusion.
Just like in the west, the assault on women’s psyche continues today even in apparently progressive settings. Gender bias in subtle forms is harder to identify and fight. Professional women face bias in a number of forms which may not be evident in examining individual cases but becomes evident through statistical studies. Such bias, often unconscious, undermines the confidence of women who begin doubt their own abilities.
Some of these problems are:
Gender pay gap: Although there are laws for equal pay, a gender pay gap still exists. This occurs because women are less likely to be hired and promoted reducing their lifetime earnings. Jobs done more commonly by women are also undervalued.
Glass ceilings and escalators: Even as the fraction of women in male dominated fields increases, the number of women who make it to the top in their fields is relatively low. On the other hand, men who are entering traditionally female dominated professions like nursing and teaching are racing past women to top positions of executives, principles and deans.
Biased performance reviews: Performance reviews often have different tones for men and women, hampering the progress of women. Performance reviews for women tend to be critically worded while those for men are usually more encouraging. Women are also often criticized for the very same qualities that men are applauded for, like taking initiative and being bold.
Stressful work environment for women: Office gossip and sexual harassment are problems that affect women more strongly than men adding to the hurdles women face at the workplace.
Since the attitudes that result in these problems cannot be corrected overnight, they need to be compensated for. Some ways this is done is through reservations for women, affirmative action and diversity programs. However affirmative action is controversial, so let us take a look at it.
The presence of reservations is reassuring because women know there are going to be a lot of other women in the workplace. This puts both women and their families at ease.
There is still a reluctance to educate women to the same extent as men and even in cases where families educate their girl children it is sometimes for the wrong reasons. Balancing domestic duties and family expectations with demanding jobs is an additional hurdle women in India encounter. So to achieve the same professional positions, women often have to work harder and against greater odds. This can be adjusted for, in the form of affirmative action.
As a result of social conditioning, many women are under-confident and timid. Reservations require women to only compete with other women diminishing their under-confidence.
Once women are commonly seen entering a particular vocation, parents are open to letting their daughters participate in it. Affirmative action and diversity programs get the ball rolling.
When women want to pursue a career option against the will of their family, it helps if they feel confident of their success and affirmative action helps. It gives them something hold on to as failure for some of these women may not be an option.
Reservations for women, or affirmative action at a broader level, especially for promotions to coveted positions, increases the resentment towards women. Many men do not appreciate having to pay the debts of their ancestors.
Many women feel that affirmative action devalues their achievements. Successful women get tired of people assuming they only got there because of affirmative action.
If under-qualified, ill-prepared women enter through reservations, they cannot handle the job pressures and it hurts their confidence and sometimes leads to depression.
In India women are not the only disadvantaged group. Caste based discrimination still exists. The poor also suffer discrimination in a corrupt system. So this article suggests coming up with an overall disadvantage index for affirmative action. In my opinion, affirmative action should also be limited to qualified candidates for it to be effective.
In addition, a consolidated effort needs to be made including outreach programs with aggressive search for talented women, workshops and training programs that help develop women and address gender bias issues and sensitization workshops that explain unconscious gender bias, so that a conscious effort is made to avoid it.
Although some Indian states require affirmative action, in the form of reservations for women and other groups in public sector companies, private companies are exempt. The government could encourage private companies with small tax breaks or other incentives for having a good gender ratio, particularly at high level positions.
This is a complex subject and there are no easy solutions especially when it comes to implementation in a highly socially and economically diverse country of over a billion where corruption is rampant. But it is important to try different things and see what works, because women deserve to live up to their potential.
Kanika G, a physicist by training and a mother of 2 girls, started writing to
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