The nurses at the hospital, upon receiving a mithai ka dabba (box of sweets), congratulated my parents and asked, “Blessed with a long awaited child?” “No,” said my parents. “A baby boy?” they asked. My parents replied: “Aik aur beti hui hai” (We have been blessed with another daughter). “Oh ok,” came a lukewarm response.
As the third born and the second daughter in my family, I widely quote this memory shared by my father to delineate the discriminatory attitudes within our society towards females. Irrespective of a privileged, discrimination-free life at home, one does come across explicit or implicit biases embedded in our societal institutions like media, economy, education, and politics; this issue would bear grave consequences for our society if left unaddressed.
In the contemporary discourse around human rights and gender equality, the prominently highlighted discriminatory practices against females usually include gender-based violence, female infanticide, honour killings, acid attacks, child marriage and child sexual abuse, etc. Where rape and sexual harassment are considered mainstream issues of grave concern, requiring laws and macrolevel attention, women tend to increase their threshold of tolerance, to passively accept other ‘everyday’ level discriminatory practices. This is one of the drawbacks of putting a wide variety of prejudiced practices against women on a spectrum, not acknowledging that all forms of discrimination affect females profoundly.
Discrimination against women as defined by CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) and adopted by UN General Assembly in 1979 after ratification by majority of the countries means, “Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex, which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” Though males may also face discrimination in various spheres of life, the reason for highlighting the unfair, discriminatory attitude and behaviour towards women is the magnitude and intensity of gender biases.
For a holistic understanding of discriminatory practices against females, the lens of ‘intersectionality’ may be used, as it allows to explore experiences of females based on their varying ages, ethnicities, marital status, profession, rural/urban residence, etc. Using a lifecycle approach, one may begin to examine the bias a female has to experience from birth till death, through different stages of her life. In the South Asian region, sons are generally given preference over daughters. The prevalent ideology remains that males are assets and thereby need to be invested in, as they will give a return, whereas females are an expense and liability, as they will get married and leave the kin. It is not be very uncommon to come across households, where distribution of food and exclusive focus on education and health will be positively inclined towards the male child, neglecting the female child.
The segregation of blue and pink sections for placing toys for boys and girls, respectively, may appear harmless on the surface but the practice of providing the girl child with stereotypical ‘girl’ toys like dolls, and kitchen or doctor sets, moulds them into acquisition of specific skillsets and restrict their potential. Developmental psychologists have highlighted, how this discriminatory practice does not allow these girls to explore a variety of technical and intellectual skills and to realize their full potential. Similar is the case with video games that children are exposed to in today’s digital age, where the nature of games and the discriminatory characterization of males and females contributes to shaping a skewed of all children. With technological advancements the implicit bias in tech products and now the Artificial Intelligence projects begins when the designer puts emphasis on the ‘male default’, which tends to exclude marginalized groups like females, elderly and people with disability from having an enabling experience.
In some households, owing to less income or issues of proximity, male and female children may be sent to different schools, compromising on the quality of female education. In educational institutions, gender biases are reinforced as David Sadker, an educationist, puts it: “Sitting in the same classroom, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different education.” Schools may discriminate female students by delegating leadership positions to boys only and constantly using the male pronoun ‘he’ in all learner activity references. Moreover, the stories and illustrations, especially in primary and secondary textbooks portray females in conventional roles such as cooking at home and not in white collar jobs, further breeding patriarchal narratives.
More than overt sexism, it is the unconscious gender bias as revealed in popular literature like proverbs, jokes and TV dramas, etc., that discriminate women. Fortunately, popular media is catching up and exhibiting females in non-stereotypical professions like the Armed Forces, commercial pilots and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers, etc., but generally, our conventional society puts glass walls for females in certain professions. Moreover, females in various professions experience vertical segregation — barriers that prevent women from achieving positions of power and decision-making. This is clearly reflected in the executive bodies of most organizations, pictures of which will reveal only a few women in leadership positions.
The gender pay gap in majority of the employment sectors disregards that equal pay for the same work is a basic human right and deny women a fair wage. Moreover, for the capitalist economy ‘thriving’ on profit maximization, female labour force is seen to have a higher opportunity cost, assuming they tend to avail the maternity leave and are usually held accountable for the incapability in creating a work-life balance. A common practice involves excluding female employees from additional duties or international opportunities on the pretext that they would not be able to do it. Most female employees or students aspiring for scholarships narrate their deplorable experience where their marital status attracted more attention and probing than their credentials and ambitions. One needs to realize that taking a maternity leave is not a privilege but a right.
Females, mostly from less privileged, low socio-economic areas, constitute a major chunk of the informal economy, the domestic labour force, and face discrimination based on their gender and class. These house help experience deplorable working and health conditions. Only few countries or organizations have inclusive hiring policies that do not discriminate against gender. Organizations that pay a fair wage, ensure work-life balance and are inclusive and empathetic towards employees do not have a high turnover rate of women employees.
Employing the gender lens in the health sector help realize that using only male species in animal testing for clinical trials and generalizing the results for all population was highly unscientific. The androcentrism in early health researches neglected women’s issues. Inclusive researches that advocate for gender-disaggregated data, employ females as researchers and participants, promote gender sensitivity and this way facilitate elimination of bias in health sector.
For the privileged, the above-mentioned issues may seem unfamiliar, however, the need is to realize the culture of silence around gender issues and acknowledge discriminatory practices against females at micro, as well as meso levels. For most of the biases highlighted above, the traditional conceptualization of gender roles may be referred to as the root cause of discrimination against women.
To combat gender discriminatory practices, there is need to promote gender justice in the society, which is everyone’s responsibility. All of us have unconscious gender biases due to internalization of gendered socialization throughout our lives, therefore, stopping gender discrimination requires ‘internal reflection and willingness to change’. Beginning at home, one needs to realize the unequal division of labour and celebrate the emerging ideas and practices related to equal partnership of men and women at home that include shared parenthood and involvement in domestic work. In our diverse social roles, as parents, teachers, actors, doctors, police officers, journalists, shopkeepers, leaders, etc., it is our duty to be aware of the gendered dynamics surrounding us, to equip ourselves for exhibiting gender sensitivity in our interactions. At workplaces, gender and diversity trainings, as a transformative process, contribute to positive changes in employees’ social construction of gender, paving way for zero-tolerance towards gender discrimination. Our understanding of gender stereotypes, discriminatory practices and differential experiences of men and women will facilitate de-normalizing gender unequal environments in our respective spheres of influence. Along with equitable social structures, adequate policies may be designed and implemented to address the disparity that allows for females of all ages to flourish in a non-discriminatory environment.
Closing the gender gap is not just women’s issue as it affects us all at the societal level. A feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw posits: “If you see inequality as a “them” problem or “unfortunate other” problem, that is a problem. We've got to be open to looking at all of the ways our systems reproduce these inequalities, and that includes the privileges as well as the harms.” HH
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