Wednesday 6 July 2011

Men, women and work

When I was studying social policy, we were asked to read about feminism and it's history. One of the sub-topics that really resonated with me was the whole subject of women, and work, and the unequal and subordinate status of women in society and work relationships. The central problem for feminist strategy, it is said, is the old debate of equality vs difference. The former, which is the egalitarian ideal, asks for equal treatment for fundamentally unequal people, and the latter, which is the new feminist ideal, asks for women to be treated as different but equal. The dilemma is that the two routes towards EQUAL citizenship that women have pursued are mutually incompatible within the confines of patriarchal society, and within that context, they are impossible to achieve. Women demand on one hand that they be treated on par with men in every respect; the implication being a gender-neutral world. On the other hand they also say that as women they have different talents, needs and concerns, therefore the expression of their citizenship, their rights and obligations, will be different from that of men. These two routes/demands are incompatible because it allows 2 alternatives only: either women become like men, and so full citizens; or they continue at women’s (traditional) work and roles, which is unpaid and seemingly of no value.
Clearly the fundamental issue from a fairly narrow perspective of equal rights, pay and opportunities at the workplace, is that a) women have primary responsibility for household work including children and other dependents, whether or not they work outside the home b) Men are INDEPENDENT to a large extent from such responsibilities. I've always believed that men's independence in this context is a far greater and problematic issue than women's dependence. Unless men are made to fulfil their household responsibilities (chores, raising kids, cooking, all that stuff), and unless such responsibilities become part and parcel of the very fabric of our society, there is little to be gained by cracking open the glass ceiling. The latter is very important, however the real constraints lie in the home, not in the workplace. 
If the patriarchal norms of society are harmful to women, they are also unjust to men. We don't hear of a "Daddy track", do we? I'm sure there are many men out there who'd love to get onto that track! And why should they not if they want to? The answer really needs to come from what would work better for both sexes. Can our communities organize themselves in a way that would allow both parents to give wholeheartedly to their families and children? 
I have a dream - that each country would implement welfare policies which would allow both men and women to pursue their careers (or not). It has been demonstrated that countries with generous maternity leaves actually worsen gender equality prospects as women stay home longer and men continue to.....well....they pretty much just continue as usual!!! Scandinavian countries which have a "use-it-or-lose-it" paternity leave policy actually do much much better in increasing gender equality. I'd love for India to have shared leave in baby's first year (as in Canada), high-quality childcare and lots and lots of flex-work opportunities. When do you think the developing countries will get there? Anytime in the next couple of generations?


  1. "I've always believed that men's independence in this context is a far greater and problematic issue than women's dependence."

    Spot on. It's true all the way. We've 'emancipated' the women, or tried to anyway, and it's falling flat on its face because the other half (or in India, more than half :( ) is still stuck in the system, whether it's about housework, harrassment, rights and respect, marriage and relationships, child rearing, jobs and on and on.

  2. Hear hear - what you're saying makes so much sense! I always liked the sound of paternity leave, and now you have made it even more a socially meaningful concept :).

  3. oh!..i had typed a long comment..
    and it disappeared...sigh!
    Equal rights or equal atmosphere for women needs to stem from the household. Traditional raising (hopefully this changes from our generation on) of boys meant that they were kept away from doing the housework till the time it became a necessity- in case of the boy leaving the parents home for further studies- that is to survive. And after marriage the skills went unused and forgotten. The housework was or is never a natural learning goal as is with girls. Although many girls do not share the housework in their parents house, they are expected to carry out the same after marriage whether or not she lives in a joint family system.
    The average man is left to understand that housework is solely the woman's responsibility. Once marriage and house is seen as a mutual responsibility, we can expect some change..

  4. Uma: I also feel that wives/significant others have a role to play in changing attitudes and shoving more responsibility to their man. At the very least, the shift has to come in how we raise our sons. Very important.

  5. I think it has to start from us. As much pleasure as some people get from serving their loved ones, this concept of 'love means I do it for you' has to change.

    Different but equal works not just for women but for the different and I am sure better environment that is brought about by women truly participating. Developing countries will get there, will women be credited for their part of that 'getting there' is yet to be seen.

    Good one.


I would love to hear your thoughts :)