Loving mother, efficient employee, good wife, dutiful daughter-in-law, virtuous Bharatiya nari—As ironic as it sounds, the best notions about women may be the biggest hurdles to gender equality.
Warm, Nice, Kind
“I think the most pernicious stereotype, is the expectation that women need to be warm, nice and kind. It seems like this really positive behaviour, but it has this dark side; when women fail to live up to these strong prescriptions for warmth and niceness they are penalised,” says Victoria Brescoll, Yale School of Management. And so we have female bosses branded as bitchy, young girls with leadership skills being condemned as bossy, working mothers ridden with guilt...“Men in powerful roles have license to talk a lot; but women, even when they are in high-power roles don’t. I saw this in the United States Senate as well as amongst regular working men and women,” says Victoria. Successful women choose their words carefully and do not dominate the floor, because they know it will be perceived negatively. Oddly, studies show that even women who are strong feminists exhibit these biases. “It shows how deeply ingrained and pervasive these stereotypes are; even people who actively don’t want to hold them still do,” says Victoria .
“People’s instinct is to ask well, what does the research tell us to do. I think keeping the dialogue open and raising awareness, is more important than trying to say ‘this’ is what you should do—such as don’t talk a lot or don’t get angry...”
Wife, Mother, Nurturer
“Look at our matrimonials–seeking, fair, demure, homely bride; and women falling over each other to fit into the stereotypes. Where did individualism go?” laments actor and activist Gul Panag.
“India has marriage, motherhood and nurturer mandates for women,” tells us Ruby Pavri, Psychology professor at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. “Girls are raised to think that they are complete only with marriage and motherhood. Even if they work away from home, the family remains their primary responsibility and they are expected to nurture it.” Echoes of this traditional upbringing resound in Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi’s recent interview with David Bradley, of The Atlantic. Indra narrates how her mother sent her (not her husband, who was home much earlier) to get milk after a long day at work (when she was bursting to tell her family about her promotion to Pepsico CEO), claiming that her role as wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and mother superseded any job title she could ascend to. “I don’t think women can have it all. We pretend we have it all,” Indra says in the same interview, speaking about the coping mechanisms and support systems she developed to deal with the guilt of being a working mother.
Patty Aubrey, one of the creators of the Chicken Soup for the Soul Series, who is now working on a book entitled Permission Granted tells us how important it is for women to give themselves permission to be who they are. “So often as women, we forget ourselves to be loved by men; so we act a certain way, thinking that if we are perfect they’ll love us. But in any environment, it’s crucial to be totally authentic and transparent about where you’re at and what your needs, wants and dreams are, so that people can support you,” says Patty. One of the first things she told her husband was, “I am a workaholic; I don’t make dinner, I make reservations”. Perhaps if we took a cue from her, our matrimonials would prove more honest and our marriages more fulfilling.
But what happens when a relationship turns abusive? “You must take the first step,” advises theatre veteran Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. “Leave while you are young and can survive on your own. Don’t let yourself be mentally or physically scarred for a lifetime, because you have been brain-washed into thinking that you would bring shame to your family or affect the welfare or your children or parents. Don’t wait for things to turn so bad, that because you have suffered silently for years, no one believes you. Most importantly, seek the help of the police as soon as a violent episode occurs; or later, there will be no evidence of it. Just standing up is not enough. Standing up at the right time is more important,” insists Mahabanoo.
Mahabanoo tells us about a high-ranking government official who walked up to her after a performance of The Vagina Monologues in Bhubaneshwar and said, ‘I wish your play goes on for a hundred more years, because that is how long it’s going to take to change the mindset of Indian men’. Mahabanoo notes, “it’s not just the mindset of men, but even women that needs to change”. But this is easier said than done.
Sugar, Spice, Stereotypes
Ruby Pavri tells us about psychologist Sandra Bem’s research into androgyny, which revealed that a combination of male and female traits are essential for a person to be a fully functioning, adaptive human being.
So why do gender stereotypes still weigh so heavy on us?
Victoria draws our attention to one of the best theories about patriarchy; Alice Eagly (Professor at Northwestern University) associates women’s childbearing capacity with their tendency to spend more time rearing children and ending up with the care-taking roles cross-culturally, while men get into the provider roles, giving rise to patriarchy.
“It’s the easiest explanation; everybody wants to hear that it’s all just biology and that there’s something inevitable about stereotypes, but it’s not true. Even if there is a biological basis for it, it doesn’t mean that in today’s society we still need to slot men and women into those roles,” insists Victoria, who continues to be shocked, every time the data supports her theories on gender bias.
Gul believes, “patriarchy can be condoned as a natural anthropological progression of society to an extent; in modern societies, the negative gender stereotyping fallout needs to be minimised. Secondly, the plunder that occured during invasions such as those by the Mongols validated our need to protect women, but somewhere this denigrated into thinking women were the weaker, inferior gender and we had a right to tell them what to do—jump into the pyres after their husbands, passively accept verbal or physical abuse... It resulted in sub-cultures that are omnipresent in our courts as well as our homes. Even in the South where patriarchy is not dominant, girls have a code of conduct. So a woman who doesn’t conform to stereotypes, challenges the status quo, or breaks the rules is labelled. Do we give a code of conduct to boys?”
Mahabanoo agrees, “Indian society is totally misogynistic. For decades, most of the laws (which were made by men) favoured the male child. We women were expected to ‘toe the line, or else’. It’s best to remember Silence=Death!” But, hold on a second! Couldn’t the laws created to protect women be misused by them? “Every law in our country is misused. It’s rarely women that do it. More often than not, it’s women who get the short end of the stick,” retorts Mahabanoo.