Free Press Journal

Women Who Inspire India: She walks, She leads


So long as women’s achievements are countable, gender-equality is a myth.There is no need to tally numbers among equals. Gunjan Jain, in the book under review, has selected twenty-four of the star women of today and presented their lives, replete with their sacrifices, the hurdles they crossed and the battles they continue to fight.

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She, however, does herself and her two dozen heroes a great injustice with her very first sentence in the Introduction: “Acts of heroism done by women often go unnoticed,” she says, reducing all of them toa group of victims who just happen to have done well for themselves.

Among these fortunate, successful twenty-four, there are women who have had “greatness thrust upon them” through marriages and other fortuitous circumstances. This is certainly not to discount their achievements by any standards, for they could have easily enjoyed their status – and adorned their respective marble-lined drawing rooms and their swanky cars as they were expected to do.

But they went beyond. Then there is the category of women who have “achieved greatness” through the hard grind of corporate and other careers, faced with the daily need to prove their “allegiance” to family while in pursuit of their goals, and, as Gunjan Jain says, “to demonstrate, at every step, that she can balance both without compromising on either”.

But isn’t this the steel that basically describes womankind –whether in the fragrant exclusive atmosphere of high-rise residences or in the slums? The former can create hope for itself, the latter lives in despair.

In this desperate category, while the husband goes to build those high-rises, the wife works in a dozen houses, washing one thing or another, after making sure her children are in the free-education camp that goes as the local school; she returns to the temporary structure called “home” just to see that the children are fed, and then she’s back to her job. And then the husband comes home, tired out, perhaps drunk, and she becomes the loyal wife.

Against this figure of mother-wife-maidservant-washerwoman and the constant imbalance of income and expenditure, all talk of work-life balance becomes a macabre joke. Their more immediate questions: When will that plastic sheet turn to a solid roof? What the heck is a glass-ceiling?

And yet life as they know it goes on because they think “solid roof” and slog through their lot, dreaming of a better world for themselves and their children. No one has the time to record the countless instances when she goes hungry to feed her children, and wards off the lascivious (and not necessarily un-attractive) advances of the menfolk at the job and elsewhere; while she watches in silence as the husbands turns his lecherous attentions elsewhere, knowing that beyond this mess no other world exists for her.

And yet when there is success, the mothers are not even mentioned on the myrtle-mixed paths of glory. The world is awed by the child’s achievements but knows little about the journey of the woman who hauled the baggage, physical, emotional – and financial. It’s these heroes that go “unnoticed”.

So when Gunjan Jain remarks: “They do not indulge in self-pity; they go where their destiny takes them, surrender to it. They let go and trust that things will work out, undeterred with the outcome, and then mould themselves as per the new scenario… showing a rare maturity and an incredible sense of mindfulness,” there is little doubt as to which category these observations relate to.

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Jain then asks a pertinent and powerful question: what had driven these women to pursue exceptional lives and careers? This translates to a more universal question: What drives a woman (not just these twenty-four) to pursue her dreams for herself and for her family? What drives women to seeking formal employment? Supplementing the husband’s income for one. There is also the need for economic independence today, regardless of the possibilities of divorce in any particular case.

A third reason grows out of the modern drivefor achievement among women, the need to perform and excel in fields heretofore open to men. But the real question should perhaps be: What drives women to outsidejobs even when the working conditions are unfriendly– as seen in the access to executive washrooms or shop-floor assignments, from differential compensation packages to glass ceilings? And why is their number increasing?

In the 1950s, less than 35 percent of the American women worked outside the home; today, it is over 70 percent. And according to research findings, employed women continue to be responsible for child-care and household chores.

Several surveys conducted on the subject of women’s employment generally dwell on the sacrifices that women have to make to reach their career goals, such as: time with family, personal/free time, social time/friendships, stress/pressure, and work in the house.

The problem arises when both the husband and wife are out on jobs: the support that was so readily available when the husband alone went out for work is lost; and similar support that the wife as a breadwinner expects, is simply absent, resulting in the house-work falling on the wife’s shoulders.

Some surveys and interviews, though, have emphasised one major factor: that women could rise in their careers mostly when the “family” (including stay-at-home fathers) has provided the necessary support at home. However, one writer laments the fact that “getting women into corporations in not the same as moving them up.”

This is in spite of the fact that in 2005, Mary Minnick and Mary Dillon took over as Chief Marketing Officers at Coca-Cola and McDonald’s respectively; Mary Lynn Ferguson-McHugh holds the post of vice president of North America family care, a division of Proctor & Gamble; and the PepsiCo CEO is our very own Indra Nooyi.

Women Executives are also seen at General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Staples, Yahoo, AT&T and Visa. A large number of women have led their countries as presidents and prime ministers.In India, in 1982, less than 5‐7 per cent of the graduating classes at the premier business schools were women. Today that number is closer to 20‐25 per cent. But that’s numbers again.

So long as women’s achievements are countable, gender-equality is a myth.No different from the myth of equality of minority communities in a majoritarian milieu – but that’s another story.