How does an item tackle sexual harassment at her workplace? Why does a highly paid woman software engineer pay a dowry? Breast pumps and Blackberry phones do thy go together? When a woman focuses on her career does she lose out as a wife and a mother? Is there a female model of achievement as distinct from a male one?
These and other similar questions are explored in Unbound Indian Women @ work through a series of interviews conducted by the author with women form all walks of life and from different parts of the country. Icons like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairman and managing director of Biocon Ltd. And Meena ganesh former CEO of TESCO Hindustani service centre rub shoulders with Rachel the hair designer and Sumathi the Call centre employee who comes from a family of domestic helps. Women engineers discuss insidious gender discrimination and working mothers speak of the difficulties of balancing motherhood work.
The stories in this book are of real women who spoke out candidly about their concerns their families their love lives and marriages their victories and defeats. Together they provide a valuable guide to the brave new world of today’s women professionals.
About a hundred years ago, in many middle-class families across India, girls were married off before they attained puberty They became mothers several times over before they reached their twenties. The Sharada Act which was passed in 1930 prohibited child marriage and fixed eighteen as the legally permissible age for a girl to get married. Yet, since it was a socially acceptable practice, even educated middle-class families continued to get their adolescent children married. Men were married early too, but they continued to study and go on to work. Marriage and motherhood totally altered the lives of women. Marriage and fatherhood were incidental to the lives of men.
In my own highly educated family; my mother who was born in the very year the Sharada Act was passed was actually married when she was fifteen. Her mother had been married when she was just eight. My fathers mother who was married when she was fourteen somehow managed to take a BA degree in 1921 even though she gave birth to two children during the course of her college career. She never went out to do paid work though she was a very active social worker.
There were exceptions of course. While conducting research for this book I met ninety-seven—year-old Dr. Vatsala Sawant who went to medical college in Mumbai in the 1920s. But for every one such woman, there were thousands who never went beyond primary school . . . not because their parents could not afford schooling, but because they felt girls did not need an education. But by the 1950s and 60s, going to college was no longer just a dream for middle-class women. Social attitudes had not suddenly changed, but educated men wanted at least partially educated wives. There was a reason behind this too. The large, traditional joint families were gradually breaking up as men traveled for work, and in the smaller nuclear units the women had to undertake certain 'outside’ jobs which their office-going husbands had no time for. Bills had to be paid, the shopping had to be done and children had to be taken to school and assisted with their studies. In the past there were several men around to share these tasks. Now the women had to do all these unpaid chores which were essential to keep the single-income nuclear family unit going.
So girls without some basic education found few takers in the middle-class marriage market. Most girls were allowed to finish school. Many even got to finish college and sometimes study even further. But more often than not, they all ended up ‘sitting at home’ after they got married.
Curiously enough, this had its own spin—off. Even though they did not hold paid jobs, the women of this generation equipped with a basic education began to emerge from the confines of their homes. They realized there was an open, none domestic world which was more attractive than the boxed-up one in which they were stuck.
More interestingly, during the same period, a silent, almost unnoticed revolution was taking place at the bottom end of the ubiquitous middle class where money was a problem. Educated girls were now viewed as economic assets. Girls who had graduated from high school began to enter the job market as nurses, teachers, stenographers and bank clerks. They were backed by their families to whom the extra income they brought in made a big difference.
The first women entrants into the job market were so grateful to be there that they did not even notice the exploitation that was taking place. These women were almost always paid less than their male colleagues for the same amount and type of work. They had no job security and could be sacked for getting married or pregnant. It was almost as if society was doing them a favor by 'allowing’ them to earn a living. But they held on, somehow balancing their badly paid, undervalued jobs and their household chores.
Educated or partly educated mothers began to have aspirations for their daughters. Schooling had opened their eyes it the avenues education could throw open for them. Soon, middle—class girls encouraged by their parents were not just going to college, but aspiring to become full-fledged professionals.
By the 1970s, women professionals were beginning to appear all over the white-collar landscape. And that’s when they realized that all was not hunky-dory.
There were women’s jobs and men’s jobs. A woman could aspire to become an airhostess, but not a pilot. She could become a subeditor, but not a reporter, jobs like policing or even delivering the post were closed to women. Whenever a male candidate was available for the same job, he was preferred. Besides, many jobs, including the civil services, required women to remain unmarried. And even if marriage was allowed, women would get sacked when they became pregnant. They were always made to feel apologetic about their sex. The old rules were still valid. Marriage and motherhood continued to alter the lives of women.
The nascent Indian feminist movement which had so far focused only on the plight of the socially disadvantaged, began to notice the problems of this new breed of working women. The issues were manifold, and at the beginning they could tackle only the more basic and obvious ones.
The first step was to ensure that women were not rejected because of their gender. The next was to see that they continued working even when they got married or had children. The third was that they got equal pay and equal opportunities.
But these were not easy things to ensure. jobs which were open to women were actually the most gender-unfriendly When the police force needed women, it laid down a rule that they could not marry Women school teachers and stenographers had to fight for maternity leave. Women bank clerks were by passed for promotions and were not even considered for challenging jobs which could help them further their careers.
It took several years of agitation, litigation and gender sensitization to tackle these issues. But the women who entered the job market in the 1970s were not only better educated, they were also more aware of their rights. The new breed of professional women realized that there were several other gender—related issues at the workplace which had not yet been addressed.
Joint families had disintegrated and young mothers had no place to leave their babies when they went to work. If they took extra leave they could get sacked or bypassed for promotion. Maternity leave became a bone of contention. Laws were passed to ensure women got time off to bear babies, but employers grumbled. And male colleagues felt that the women were exploiting the situation and getting a lot of free time.
Education and the ability to earn did not free women from being subjected to social discrimination. Working women still had to pay dowry. They had no control over their own pay packets. While men relaxed with their friends or spent money on themselves, women wage earners had to rush home after work to take care of the family. Even the earnings of unmarried women were confiscated by their families and often saved up to pay dowries.
Sexual harassment at the workplace was not even acknowledged as an issue in the early days when women who dressed stylishly were labeled as 'asking for it’. No one thought of questioning the pressure tactics used by male bosses on subordinate women, forcing them to trade sexual favors for promotions or even for just staying in their jobs. By the beginning of the new millennium many of the basic issues which the early feminists had fought for had faded into the background. The old battles had been fought and won, but new problems had emerged.
Women who reached certain levels in their chosen professions were bumping their heads against glass ceilings. Technology had changed the world they lived in. jobs no longer required physical strength or endurance; they required certain levels of education and special skills. Gender became irrelevant in the new professions. As the world opened up wider and wider, opportunities increased by leaps and bounds and so did the pay packets.
By the late 1990s new avenues of employment had opened up to women in a very big way. These new jobs were neither 'traditional jobs' nor 'male bastions’. They were totally new opportunities which were the spin—off of new technology Call centers, software companies, biotechnology new-age media . . . the choices were mind-boggling. Gender parity was now almost taken for granted.
Since the companies which offered these jobs were more gender—sensitive, women rose faster in their professions. They earned more, traveled more and were more stressed out than ever before.
The education and autonomy of middle—class women had had a trickle—down effect. Even working-class families were getting their daughters educated and many of these young women were entering the job market. They brought home pay packets which completely transformed the lifestyle of the family.
By early 2000 the milestones I documented were important only because they marked the trajectory through which the women had marched out. Bu they were irrelevant to the new age working women struggling to create their own spaces in a world which was expanding by the day. In this book I have attempted to document and salute the pioneering efforts of these women even while I try to look at some of the efforts and opportunities which resulted in their Unbinding.
All the women and men whose vices you hear in this book are real. In some cases names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of those who did not want to be identified publicly.
I would like to thank all the women and men who made it possible for me to write this book. They shared their lives with me. They gave me their time even when they had so little to spare. They shared their concerns their victories and their defeats. Writing this book has been a touching and joyous experiences for me because at the end of it I realized that the Indian working woman has finally and definitely come of age.
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