Celebration of the country as a republic is as important as celebrating our Independence Day, or perhaps more important, as Republic Day actually gave citizens freedom in its truest sense. Freedom is an emotion, a blessing, a privilege and an honour. Being citizen of a free country is invaluable. We will soon be celebrating the 74th year of our Republic, as the Constitution declared us free people on January 26, 1950. It is also an apt time to reflect upon and review the significant sense of freedom that we have been able to establish in our ecosystem, especially for women.
I know it will hit a raw nerve and open many wounds about how the basic safety and health, education and livelihoods of a large number of women in this country are still abysmal, but it is important to also look at some of the small but significant progress made. Every now and then, we must stop to review how much more we must strive to do.
In the world I know, the women and their struggles and challenges may be a little drop in the huge ocean of women’s issues, but they are issues nevertheless. I was raised by strong women and continue to be surrounded by equally strong ones. Some of these women saw the country march towards freedom. My grandmother was a feisty Ahom (Assamese) woman who always felt she got a raw deal education-wise, compared to her brothers. She sneaked in on the tutorials given to the boys at home and self-taught herself. She pushed her daughter and grand-daughters to never give up. My mother was a genteel Bengali lady who laid huge emphasis on education and empathy. Both these women, along with my feminist father (I use that term, as he had no biases and raised his son and daughter as absolute equals) played a pivotal role to tell me that I have to keep bashing on. Then came my doctor mother-in-law, as determined as ever, my strong sisters-in-law and now my netizen nieces, plus a long list of support staff, friends and co-workers. All part of the free country. All with the common thread to be free and seek opportunities promised in our free land.
Yes, we have moved up many notches, and my grandmother’s voice that I carry in my head ensures I keep moving, but even in the educated corporate world, freedom has been rather limiting. Women have been battling both blatant or subtle prejudices, at some level a punch to the freedom at work. Let us remember that our Constitution gives us freedom to work, irrespective of gender. So, what really defines freedom at work? Equality and acceptance on the basis of capability, equality in remuneration, opportunities, growth and welfare. A safe and non-sexual workspace. Flexibility and encouragement for all, irrespective of gender. Big words? Or simply words? I recently met two women from adland. One of them has a top job and is a freshly minted national leader. She faces blockages, albeit subtle, from the boys’ club to accept her leadership. The other one is a junior writer, very talented and very pretty. She is at the receiving end for being pretty! The talent is being overlooked as she is blatantly harrowed by all kinds of co-workers. Both these women are trying hard not to buckle under the pressure. But why this is still happening is the question. There has been big talk about being cognisant, about #metoo. And bigger talk about acceptance of women in leadership, narrowing the gender gap. It seems agencies are in a rush to bring the old (read toxic) atmosphere back.
Another point is the hybrid way of working to help more women return to work and manage the work-life balance. It is becoming more than common to slot people (mostly women) as second-class employees if they opt for this. Is choosing to work remotely bringing in some freedom, but at a cost? Is there a penalty for trying to find work-life balance? The pandemic had a huge mental wellbeing impact, and there is no getting away from that. Many working women were unable to return to office, lost jobs and have overall faced many challenges. All the progress that the women workforce made, took a beating. Perhaps more so than the men did. It’s a shame if we do not help and encourage women to find ways to go back to work. If corporates have the vision, they should not lose out on this huge talent pool, and assess people on the basis of real work and not merely face time. Access and attendance in person are great, but they are not the sole criteria for performance review. Performance is clearly defined by results, not by filling office chairs. Women who choose work-life balance should not be labelled as less serious, less committed or less ambitious. Our work life freedom will suffer a hard blow if we allow this to happen. Encouragement, empathy and, most importantly, equality is what women want to be genuinely free and be the best version of themselves.
To all you wonderful women who read this, be free in your head. Be free in your soul. Don’t let them tell you that you are not good enough or capable enough or any such nonsense. You are enough. Be proud and celebrate your freedom.
(The author is an independent brand curator, coach and consultant. She tweets at @landsdownelane)
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