Ms Anuradha Das Mathur, Founder & Dean, The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women & Director, 9.9 Group India, shares her thoughts on what liberation means for both women and men. Ms Mythili Chandrasekar, Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy Enthusiast, led the conversation.
Ms. Mythili: Why do you say that men are at a disadvantage when it comes to gender equality?
Ms. Anuradha: The issues that we’re talking about are so big and deep rooted, that there’s no question of any one person’s or even 20 peoples’ work making a change. When we think about gender equality, it’s not women’s equality but gender equality. We keep thinking that women are at a disadvantage. The truth is that it is not ‘us versus them’ at all. We live in a world where men and women are both disadvantaged by this deep rooted notion of patriarchy. So what it does to women, it also does to men. Everybody wants to be successful. The common notions of success are totally associated with men’s lives and what they do, because money, achievement and power are so central to men, in our thinking. Women have been relegated to the confines of the walls. There is an interesting study done around happiness for men. And the truth is relationships and hobbies are taken away from men, because they have to fend for themselves, their families and communities and everybody around them. There is this burden of the stereotype that women feel ‘we are pushed into the house and we can’t go out’; and the men are ‘pushed out and they can’t find their way into the house.’ This burden of expectations, stereotypes and societal pressures are deep rooted for both sides. In fact, patriarchy is damaging to men.
The Zero Sum Game
We believe that it is women against men, because we are looking at a zero sum game. We live in a world where everybody can be better off, if it was more equal. When a family goes out for vacation, the man carries the burden of making that experience possible for his entire family. How tough it is! The pressures that we put on men to make them feel like they are worthy and successful, are absolutely untenable. Increasingly, there are men who want to be a primary parent. They like to be there for their parents, when they are ill. They’d like to be able to help a friend in trouble. But if your boss calls you and you have a job commitment, then you don’t have those choices at all.
The last thing I want to talk about is that our focus always is on making women financially independent. Our organisation Vedica was set up to do that. But we don’t ever think about the fact that if we focus on women becoming financially more independent, we will liberate men to be able to follow their heart a little bit. Why should the world allow only women the opportunity to follow their heart and men to only follow their heads?
The number of men who commit suicide because of failure, every single day in India, is more than double the number of women who commit suicide. The second thing is, where there’s a dispute, they just assume that the natural parent and the only person who can really care for children is a woman. Lots of prejudices exist.
The third thing is physical strength. Nutrition is the same for men and women. But imagine if you have a son who can’t lift a suitcase and put it into the loft. The shame and the inadequacies that are associated with not being physically strong can be devastating for men. We have to bring the same level of empathy and this lens when we talk about equality. We have to make the world as equal for men as it is for women.
Ms. Mythili: Do you think that women are aware of this and do they see men through this lens at all?
Ms. Anuradha: Success in a conventional sense is all consuming and overrated. We don’t look at rich persons with any kind of sympathy. Because money and power are meant to make up for many other things. I don’t think that’s true. That’s why people regret about what they didn’t do, when they reach 70 and 75. We are not giving women the opportunity to feel fulfilled outside the home and for men to feel fulfilled in their personal life.
Ms. Mythili: We tend to see men as the establishment and, in general, we lack empathy with any establishment. What happens when women enter the workspace?
Ms. Anuradha: The participation of women in the workforce is less than 20% in a nation where higher education has grown by leaps and bounds. Lack of financial independence is a source of indignity. Dignity and dependence don’t go hand in hand. That’s something I’ve discovered. We are so keen for women to be financially independent, so that they can hold the reins of dignity in their hands.
Global research shows that women do more than three times the amount of work than men do, in the home space doing domestic chores. In India, women do 9.8 times more domestic work than men. So where is the time to go to work?
The third thing is, girls are brought up to believe that they have a choice. Men are brought up with not having that choice. Now, unless this becomes the same, how will you have equality in the workplace? I have so many friends who say, “Oh, I’m not enjoying my job or I don’t like my boss, I quit.” How many men are able to do that? They live lifetimes of working in jobs and sectors they don’t like. They suffer all kinds of nonsense at the hands of a boss who doesn’t like them. They can’t quit because they’re responsible for the livelihoods and the wealth creation for everybody around them. A combination of all of these things creates a very unequal field, at the starting point for women not participating enough in the workforce.
If we create space for men to be more active in the home space and for women to be more active in the workplace, then we will create a more equal world. I read the other day a line which said, ‘In order to liberate women, we need to liberate men.’ Another line read: ‘Why do we continue to undervalue fathers and overburden mothers?’ In a world where we approach equality, men and women will both be better off.
There is this notion of making unpaid work at home as paid work. If the work that is done in the home by a family member becomes accounted for, it would change the way we think about the work do at home and the work that we do outside. So women will be happy to go out and men may not mind if there is an income associated with being at home, taking care of the family.
When you come to the workplace, it’s been set up by men for men. The pandemic, in that sense, has thrown up many questions. Women and men have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home. We must make sure that we keep the good things that came out of the pandemic like flexibility and work from home options. The moment you talk about working women, you isolate the issue. If you mention a working family, all these things become important. True, there is a systemic issue, a vocabulary issue and a societal issue.
The workplace issues are now clearly getting more attention. The problem is that in the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of new companies with D&I functions. But the participation of women in the workforce has fallen despite that. I feel a whole bunch of seniors sit and decide what corporate policies should look like, whereas the recipients and users of those policies are much younger people, both men and women. They have to talk to the right people to decide what they want. All these things together will make a difference to the workplace.
Both men and women make sacrifices but unfortunately, all the sacrifices of one kind are made by women. And all the sacrifices of another kind are made by men. All the advantages of one kind are taken by women and all the advantages of another kind are taken by men. Broadly, we have to move the world, more to the centre for both. Sacrifices, adjustments and compromise are a part of human life and the way we live and feel like. They shouldn’t be completely attributed, at one end to one and at another end to another.
Ms. Mythili: I love the fact that it’s not about gender neutrality but gender cooperation and collaboration. Women think that the money they bring in belongs to them and they can use it for all the extras. The money that men bring in is considered for meeting the basics. Is this changing?
Ms. Anuradha: These things are so nuanced and there isn’t one answer. The first thing is that in the informal sector or the lower income strata, in many cases, the women bring in the money, as men don’t care about the families or don’t make enough money. In the formal sector, there is this belief that you mentioned. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of books that have come out that talk about women with reasonable earning power in middle class India, who don’t have control over their money. They work, earn and come back. The money is handled by the husband or the mother-in-law. At Vedica, we encourage young women and make them less awkward about money matters. Women and money is a very awkward relationship. When women ask questions about money, they are termed ‘money minded.’ When men ask questions about money, ‘they are responsible and make investments.’
Ms. Mythili: How does gender equality play out in the workplace?
Ms. Anuradha: There was a global research on why there are not enough women in senior management. Peeling the onion led us to discover that women fall out of the workforce, sometime between 28 and 35. It’s very leaky pipeline. It led us to think that we teach our women to get jobs. But sadly, we don’t teach them how to keep it and how to navigate conflicts and when it looks tough at work. The man doesn’t have a choice. So he’ll shoulder it.
We’ve seen how much men regret not being able to be there for birthday parties and other occasions. When women are guilty, they quit. So women, when they start approaching senior positions, if they last through the leaky pipeline, are encouraged to learn about negotiation and becoming more confident and assertive and having difficult conversations.
The Double Bind
I want to draw everybody’s attention to the fact that in the workplace, you want a woman who is very poised, isn’t emotional, negotiates hard and has difficult conversations. Imagine that person as your mom or wife or daughter. Nobody wants them in their house. So women have a very peculiar problem. It’s called the double bind. What makes them lovable and likeable at home and what makes them likable and successful at work are different. So we as individuals have to get much more comfortable with being the way we want to be at work and at home. There has to be more space at home for us to be tough. And there has to be more space for us to be emotional at work.
People keep talking to me about tears. Men are encouraged never to have tears. In my workplace, the majority of women cry and get over their stress exactly like how men shout and get over it. Extreme emotions are not a good idea. But moderate emotions on both sides should be okay. We have to succeed against the way we have been conditioned to be, over many years. The reverse is true in the home space.
When you call a woman ambitious, it’s never a compliment. We have to get comfortable with wanting success and pitching for a promotion. There’s again research which shows that when there is a job advertisement that needs 10 parameters, women want to match all 10 before they apply for the job. Men will apply if they match even three. I’m just broadly saying that we should apply, if we meet seven. In workplaces, men and women both allow stereotypes to continue. When it’s women, they say, “Oh, don’t put her on that job, because she doesn’t want to travel; or she has a young baby.” Even without asking, they make assumptions. Then there are other stereotypes like, successful women don’t help other women. We must nip it in the bud, because these things perpetuate an environment not conducive to women becoming empowered. We must work on building networks. We have to find a band of men and women who are allies. We can have aggregator voices and advocate for the things that need to be changed.
Ms. Mythili: How does the culture improve with women in the workplace?
Ms. Anuradha: I wouldn’t even say it’s just women. I think it’s diverse. Women form half the world. Sometimes, I ask, “How dare you refer to women as diversity and inclusion? They are half.” There are lots of research that say more diverse the companies are, the better the performance is. There is research coming out that women-led investment funds perform better than their peers. There are products for which better purchase decisions can be made by women.
Ms. Mythili: What about men’s reaction to the increasing numbers and increasing influence of women in the workplace? Are they adjusting to that and are they in a position to appreciate?
Ms. Anuradha: I think the lip service has begun and that’s a great sign. We have to paint the picture of a world that is better for both men and women. In that space, we will make room for better diversity. In a workplace where men are larger, they suffer burnout. The millennials and the Gen Z are going to help this mightily because they are anyway caring for work-life balance.
Ms. Mythili: Tell us a little bit about what Vedica does.
Ms. Anuradha: It is apost-graduate certificate program. We are not a university. This is our 8th batch. We have a batch of 20 women who come and spend 18 months with us in this residential program. It’s got one-year MBA curriculum along with three other tracks, including communication and critical thinking. At Vedica, we want to equip women, not just to get jobs, but to keep jobs and to know what the inequality in the gender space will lead to. They are prepared for it; they are skilled for it; and they are committed enough to continue to change.
Ms. Mythili: You also run an elder care organization. What led you to do that? There’s also a big element of the burden of elder care falling more on the woman.
Ms. Anuradha: Yes. Women aren’t working because of child care and elder care. In the early days, they drop out because of childcare and later on, they drop out because by now they are responsible for elder care. Our focus is on making sure that women don’t quit. But the emotional part of the problem is a problem to be solved in the world. There will be a very happy by-product, if we solve this problem, so women can work all the time. In the bargain, we have created employment opportunities for women, because our elder care across the country in 80 cities are predominantly managed by women. They have an income and they get to do something that they would like to do. It has been a very meaningful journey.
Ms. Mythili: I read that, one of the things that motivates you is the concept of ‘paying it forward.’ It’s something from your childhood and upbringing that triggered this. Tell us about this.
Ms. Anuradha: A lot of my inspiration comes from my mother. My mother is an IAS officer. She retired 20 years ago. But I grew up watching a woman who could put flowers in the house, bake cakes, drive a Jeep and shoot a gun. She was the pivot of the family. I used to feel as a younger person, when women girls around me in school or family complained of anything, I used to just think these are women who make excuses. I was a complete tomboy. And I went through life just being a helpful person.
When I was getting to my 30s, a lot of my friends from school and college, had kids and were quitting work. I wanted to give them projects and things like that, just to help friends. It had nothing to do with women. Fortune Magazine and the US State Department pick 25 women from across the world under 40 for a program. You go and spend six weeks in the US where they expose you to women in leadership, politics, government and business. So you shadow a Fortune 500 woman CEO for four weeks. I was chosen for it. The program was so interesting, designed and curated in a way that opened my eyes to be able to look at the world with a gender lens.
Mainly, I still remember how guilty I felt, because I realized that I’d had a very privileged childhood, where I wasn’t discriminated against. I had exactly the same facilities and opportunities as my brothers and people around me. I had used the privilege to be blind to others who were not as privileged and I was so ashamed of myself, that in my head I said, “I have to pay this privilege forward in this lifetime and that over the next 15 to 20 years, more and more women should feel like they weren’t discriminated against.” That was the kernel for Vedica. As part of a program where we have 120 girls, each one of them shadows a woman CEO or a senior woman business leader for six weeks.
What can women achievers do to inspire others?
Globally, there just aren’t enough role models for young women. Women don’t go out and do public things, even if they are achieving things in their own way. When it comes to off sites and conferences, they may say, “I don’t have the time.” But this has started to change and that’s a big plus. What we do is over the 18 months that we have at Vedica, we have at least 100 people who come and talk to our girls. It includes women who are old and young; loud and quiet; modern and traditional; married and single; mothers and those who are not mothers. But each one of these women is successful in her own way. When you look at this group of women, over the time, you realize our girls get the message that I can be successful being who I am.
We make it so reverential for women that we think that giving up is the right thing to do. But adjustment and compromise are a part of all relationships. The entire burden of compromise and adjustment should not and cannot lie on the woman. So we have to build more equal homes, in which we create space for our own dream and aspirations.
Sometimes it’s okay to put yourself first. That’s really the aspiration that I would like to tell everybody. Parents must tell our girls that they can dream, they have right and spell out their choices.