Women in Work Never Had It Worse

Each year, when International Women’s Day comes around, we can expect to see a lot of articles, reports and social media shares on women. Indeed, I too have something that I have written for the occasion this year.

We will usually see a lot of pious statements about gender diversity in organisations, plenty of platitudes about women being hired, about the achievements of women in various fields, etc. And while I believe that we don’t need March 8 to celebrate women, it is important to keep raising issues regarding the status of women around the world.

This article in The Economist reports that the women’s labour force participation rate in urban India has fallen from already low levels, to 7%, according to CMIE (Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy) data. A couple of years ago, I remember reading that it had fallen to 17%. And it was only in 2018 that I remember reading in The Economist that the women’s labour force participation rate in India was around 26%, having already fallen from 35% in 2008. Even more baffling is the reason being attributed for the fall: middle class families that were doing better financially thought it no longer necessary for their womenfolk to work.

Usually, one expects that along with greater prosperity, comes greater freedom for women. Sadly, that is not true of India’s middle class. That was when I wrote about discrimination against women on LinkedIn and also shared a couple of videos on helping save the girl child.

Gender bias begins from the time a girl is born. In India, as in many countries around the world, a son is considered the ultimate blessing, while a daughter is a curse. The basis for such deep-rooted prejudices is mainly economic, since families believe that a son will take on the responsibility of earning a living and look after them, including elderly parents. On the other hand, a daughter will simply while away her time till she gets married. Besides the wedding expenses and dowry, parents believe that the daughter moves into her husband’s family and is therefore no longer responsible for them. Such beliefs are so deeply entrenched in Indian society even in this century that we still tolerate the abhorrent practice of aborting the female foetus.

Girls in India study to enter the marriage market, not the job market; Image: Jayesh Jalodara on Unsplash

The latest Indian census has yet to take place, thanks to Covid-19. But even the last census showed a low sex ratio for girls at birth and in some Northern states, alarmingly low, as I have already written. This has repercussions elsewhere too. Take education for example. For the same reasons, families don’t think it’s worth educating their daughters, and it’s only after several decades that India is seeing an uptick in girl’s enrollment rates at school. In my blog post on schooling in India, I have already written about the challenges of keeping girls in school and ensuring that they go on to study further.

The ASER report for 2018 says that girls’ (aged 11-14 years) drop-out rate from secondary schools has fallen to 4.1 from 10.3 a decade earlier. However, millions of girls still don’t finish school, especially in rural India, either because their families can’t afford to keep them there, or because they need an additional pair of hands on the farm, or because the girls are ready to be “married off”.

In the last couple of decades at least, I have noticed that families especially in urban India prefer educated women as wives and daughters-in-law. Never mind that millions of them will never be allowed to work or become financially independent. Indeed, as the fall in women’s labour force participation rate shows, the moment families prosper, they deem it unnecessary for the woman to work since the supplemental income she was bringing home is no longer required.

Incredulous as the 7% women’s labour force participation rate sounds, The Economist article itself demonstrates the problematic attitude towards women. “Only 7% of women in India have paid jobs.” What other kinds are there, may I ask, because anything else, would be bonded labour. Unless they are talking of homemakers, or “housewives“, as we like to call them in India.

There is a new-fangled idea of paying housewives for housework, doing the rounds of policy circles internationally, which I find loathsome. It’s just another excuse to promote bonded labour or slavery and keep women tied to home even more than they already are. “Women on the sidelines of the economy” – when non-working women would do just fine – is loaded with a value judgement that women who do not earn a living are on the sidelines of the economy. They might not be contributing to the economy, but “on the sidelines”, they are certainly not.

Most women in the Indian labour force work in the informal sector; Image: BBH Singapore on Unsplash

In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt women a huge blow, since a majority of them work in the worst-affected sectors such as education, retail, travel and hospitality and healthcare. They have been disproportionately affected by job losses and the responsibilities of managing home, as well as looking after their children’s education during the pandemic. And millions of women who can work from home and did so, also suffered the worst of domestic abuse during the pandemic, as I had written last year on my blog.

Even women who pursue professional careers in India and around the world know the challenges of operating in a patriarchal system, often run by misogynists. From the discrimination that they face during hiring, to career advancement and opportunities in leadership roles, women are always having to fight against the odds. This, in addition to managing home and life outside work, whether married or not.

I should know. At the last couple of organisations I had the misfortune of working for, I have seen and experienced some of the worst and most unprofessional behaviour against women. I know that the bosses of these companies would not have dared treat any male employee in the same way. I had the HR head at Perfect Relations Delhi tell me at the time of hiring that I had no family responsibilities. How could she have known that, since she never even deigned to ask me about my family?!

On a different occasion I had their Finance head tell me I ask too many questions when I asked him why he handed me a receipt for cash when I had given him a cheque. This, to attend the most stupid “off-site” or conference in Thailand that I have ever seen in my entire long career in advertising, for which you could even be called an idiot if you used the word conference, by one of the owners of the company. In all the organisations I have worked for, I know that that’s exactly what it would have been called. If that’s not bad enough, I was once prevented from speaking at an internal review of a presentation that I had myself written and was in the midst of making, by the same “founder owner”.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that this was all part of a larger “game” in which both Perfect Relations Delhi and BBDO Chennai (and maybe some other agencies!) were busy trying to make me someone else, so that they can cover up their unprofessional nonsense. In fact, 14 years and 16 years after I quit both these “circuses” respectively, they seem to think they still have a right to meddle in my life and my work. Making my parents’ lives and mine miserable. Since I have written about some of this already, I will not dwell on it here.

What I would like to focus on is the unprofessional nonsense that is meted out to women in the workplace. Part of the ridiculous attempt to make me someone else was also to get UNDP to write a report on Gender Bias, and then get The Guardian to write about it. Why? Because an old colleague of mine, Sarada, once mentioned UNDP in a phone conversation with me. I have written about this already on my blog. Not only are the report and its findings terribly flawed, the PR agency bosses ought to be the last people to talk of gender bias.

The World Values Survey that the UNDP report is based on makes its way into The Economist article, if you noticed, without even telling you that it is from the World Values Survey. This is not the first time that the Perfect Relations bosses are meddling with editorial content either at The Economist, or indeed any other publication. They have gone to ridiculous extents of getting nonsense written and published, as I am still discovering with every passing day. Ditto for the idiot box, which is truly living up to its name these past few years. I have written about the great media hijack already, so you know what I think of their pathetic obsession with colours, women’s appearance, clothes, make-up, jewellery, etc.

I have also written before on how women’s issues often get clubbed along with a whole host of other issues such as poverty, diversity, minority issues, environment, development, education, and LGBTQ issues, diluting core women’s issues in the process. I don’t know about you, but I notice an attempt to also club all women together whenever discussing women’s issues as if we are some undistinguished mass. But, of course, we aren’t mass; don’t forget, we are “minority”. To me it speaks of an inability to delineate women and to deal with each class/type of woman and matters specific to that segment. And unless we learn to do this, we will never make any headway in solving women’s problems both at the workplace and in life.

It is precisely to tackle this deliberate combining of women’s issues and attempt to make all women the same, or make us someone else, that I have created a message for this International Women’s Day. We are all women who are different (even when we might share common interests) and have our own individual identities, and we need to assert ourselves much more than we do.

I made this video using stock footage and stock music. I happened to find an aria on archive.org that is familiar to me only as the aria in British Airway’s 1990s lovely “Smile” commercial by Saatchi & Saatchi London, and since I was at Ogilvy Delhi then and British Airways our client in India, we had heard and read that the music was specially composed for the commercial by Yanni. I now discover that it is the “Flower Duet” in Leo Delibes’ opera, Lakme, which I hadn’t heard until recently. I hope I haven’t infringed any copyright here!

I don’t know when the circus bosses will ever learn to leave me alone to do my own work. Alone. I know they aren’t capable of a discussion on work, especially of the kind that I have been doing these past many years, which is on brands. And after 15 years of having destroyed my career, they are the last people I wish to meet or associate with.

I am also aghast that Ogilvy, an advertising agency where I worked for nearly half my career, has created a new campaign for Dove that purports to create a movement among young Indian women “to stop the beauty test” at the time of marriage. It claims to be fighting age-old prejudices against dark skin and what is considered feminine beauty, when I think it is only reinforcing stereotypes. Not only is it not Dove in my opinion, focusing on brides-to-be perpetuates the nonsense that marriage is the only ambition an Indian woman can aspire to. I must clarify that I have had nothing to do with Unilever advertising while at Ogilvy or elsewhere, though I did refer to Dove in one of my recent brand presentations on brand extensions, and am speaking as an advertising professional and as a consumer of Dove shampoo.

I was raised by my parents in a liberal background in India, encouraged to read, do my own thinking, study and work hard, and be financially independent all these years. I also have responsibilities towards my aged parents, which I have been prevented from fulfilling. I was married once, over two decades ago in Delhi, and have no intention of marrying again. And in any case, that should have nothing to do with my professional career.

As I say in the video script, I do not need doors to be opened for me, nor do I need to be shown them… I live my life, the way only I can. And I wish the same for all the millions of women, around the world.

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