Kanika Datta calls out our parenting stereotypes and how both men and women play into them.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Pay disparities and the high drop-out rate of professionally qualified women from the white-collar workforce have been topics of fiercely contested debates about gender equality in the workplace.
Innate male prejudice is responsible for these problems, the activists say.
Managements (mostly malem, but the occasional female too) insist that the gap is illusory and that work environments have nothing to do with it; it is the women who choose to put personal lives before careers and drop out.
The truth, as always, lies in between. But not in the way Cheryl Sandberg, who exhorts working women to "lean in", or Satya Nadella, who advised women to rely on "karma" for pay hikes, would have wanted you to understand the issue.
The standard societal prejudices operate against professional women in another, more insidious and less recognised way, and it stems from the customary manner in which we are socialised.
Everyone knows this hoary stereotype: Women are instinctively nurturing, home-bodies and men are the natural-born providers, free to rove far and wide in their quest for money and fame.
We know how this paradigm works against women, but it also restricts choices for men in a way that, ultimately, impacts women.
The times may be a-changin' but society at large still broadly judges career-oriented women who eschew marriage and/or children as "cold-hearted", "unnatural" -- or worse (watch the soaps, a reliable barometer of social attitudes). Women who choose to follow this path have become inured to these labels.
But what of men who would be happy to forego the glittering prizes of career progression for the joys of being stay-at-home househusbands? Society censures them too, and in terms that are as harsh as those reserved for career-focused women.
At the very least, voluntary stay-at-home househusbands are suspected of being closet gays. In fact, it is no surprise that only gay couples have been able to exploit the no-man's-land of approved gender roles (note also how the half of a gay couple who stays at home and brings up the kids is automatically assigned the "mommy" label -- cue the soaps again).
If the nonworking husband is manifestly heterosexual, society suggests, he may be just plain useless or, more salaciously, there's a playboy hiding inside the caregiver.
Popular culture reinforces these notions: The single dad is a sex symbol; the single mother is, well, just a struggling, unfortunate woman.
A married man who would ask for six months off to bring up his child would be an object of derision or pity for sacrificing his career. In a male-dominate workplace, this becomes a self-perpetuating social dynamic.
This attitude may provide some men with a handy excuse to evade their parental and household duties or reluctantly propel others onto the career/provider treadmill, but it also traps working women. And just like men, career women, believe it or not, are "conventional" thinkers who seek the companionship of marriage and children.
Let's be realistic: Parenting is a tough business that willy-nilly impinges on the work-life balance. But old-fangled stereotyping means women pay a disproportionate price for having a family.
In working life, this asymmetry in gender role assignments can be seen in the parental leave entitlements.
Obviously, biology dictates the need for longer maternity leave. But the laughably token provision for paternity leave reflects the collective corporate attitude that the man has a minimal role to play in parenting.
To be sure, most men faithfully live up to this notion.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi correctly observed that paternity leave was little more than excuse for men to take a paid holiday. Forget a developing economy like India, men in the US take full advantage of parental leave to fulfil purposes other than parenting.
Now, we all know about Scandinavian corporations and their standout record of promoting women in the workplace and extra-generous provision for parental leave. Visitors are regularly struck by the number of fathers who do as much of the heavy-lifting in parenting as their wives. Unfortunately, this shining example is so exceptional as to be impossible to replicate.
On the whole, you understand, house-husbandry isn't considered a guy thing, and it takes an unusually strong-minded man to buck the trend. It is interesting that most accounts of alpha-women acknowledge the sterling support of their husbands, though few took really radical, career-sacrificing decisions for their wives.
Last year, one book on Indian women achievers advised young women to choose their husbands carefully for precisely this reason. More to the point, young women should embrace the concept of stay-at-home husbands too.
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