Whose business is the unfinished business of gender parity

Dark Clouds. Downpour. Determined still.

To brave it all and listen to the woman who elaborated Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Brandishing a fractured wrist in a bandage, Anne Marie-Slaughter recounted how phenomenal her female nurse in Davos was and well, how her replacement male nurse was not as effective in calming her down.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at HeForShe Campaign special event (New York, 19 September 2014)

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at HeForShe event in New York, 2014. Photo: UN Women/Simon Luethi

Uh Oh! She wove this in with her unfinished business of bringing back ‘care’ to the discussion on gender equality, about how a generation of feminists strove hard to be like dads but not like moms who cared, nurtured and knit families together and that it was now time to rethink that narrative; to rethink care itself.

I lean over to Quratulain on my right, 17 pounds poorer after purchasing Slaughter’s book and ask her, “Does she mean that women are better nurturers?” Genetic conditioning?

Disturbed. The downpour had not yet stopped.

Dr Slaughter explained how the daughters of the feminists of the 60s said, “We don’t want to be like you, mommy”. She was trying to drive home the point that empowerment discourse must keep care too at the centre (along with education, ambition, success, etc.), that there was nothing to be ashamed about it irrespective of whether the man or the woman chose to be the care giver.

I lean over to Paul on my left and wonder whether it is a coincidence that four out of the five MPP student-mothers in our class have left their children behind to pursue the course. Probably because it is hard to juggle a demanding academic life with that of the primary care giver. Coincidentally most of the student fathers have brought their children over with the help and support of their spouses.

While I completely agree with Slaughter’s views that the society needs to rescale the ruler with which they measure women and men, is there any other actor that can make a huge difference?

I believe so. Institutions. When the Government of India declared two years of fully paid leave for its women employees in the name of child care, skeptics said (and I don’t deny) that this could be exploited to escape a bad boss/ shirk work. I have seen in my career that there is an equal number of cases where women have used it to nurse a teenager from rehab centre or to be around a child preparing for her examinations. In 2011, the Sixth Pay Commission in India extended maternity leave from 120 days to 180 days in recognition of the need for care for both mothers and young babies.

This is in stark contrast to the USA, home to Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, which does not have a statutory paid maternity leave policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandates 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, which must put women under tremendous pressure to return soon to work.

I strongly believe that while individuals may take their time to change their mindsets, it is the institutions that can hugely make a difference without any loss of time. Thus the onus on the governments and other institutions to legislate and implement progressive welfare measures is much higher than that on the individual. This is more so in the case of women where the pace of change is dismally low thanks to what looks like a near conspiracy to maintain the existing pecking order. Progressive executive decisions force people to adjust their behavior and in due course of time correct undesirable patterns in society. Hence, rather than waiting for minds to evolve and develop a general consensus on who should provide care and when, it is my case that institutions should take proactive steps that recognize the importance of care.

The institutional push also becomes imperative once we recognize what Mancur Olson said many decades back that in a large group in which no single member’s contribution makes a perceptible difference to the group as a whole, external push is necessary to achieve collective good (here gender parity). Thus despite the decibel levels that leaning in and can’t have it all have generated, life goes on just like before for the average woman on the street.

Any talk on changing behavior patterns especially in bringing about gender sensitive behavior and improvement in gender relations in society as a whole without adequate institutional support is vague and vacuous. Sure, the business is unfinished but that last lap of the relay needs a level running track that can only be provided by institutional support, specifically public policy.

The sky is clear. Yet the sun is not out.

Susan Thomas is currently studying for an MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government. She works with the Government of India and has handled various assignments in corporate and personal income tax, anti corruption and vigilance, capacity building, budgeting and personnel management since 2001.

One Comment

  1. This is a wonderful post Susan. You make a strong point about “institution”, which indeed is so critical. I think though you could have analyzed more critically Dr. Slaughter’s main point that the feminist movement was somewhat stuck, and that they are not making much progress for decades, and there needed to be a shift about how to engage the general public for the movement to be more successful. One one side, just the idea of “care” that Dr. Slaughter advocated for is pretty vague. On the other side, her arguments about why “care” could advance the feminist cause makes a lot of sense and how it could gain more support. My issue though is I don’t see how simply advocating for “care” could be translated in any way to public policy. It reminds me of race issue in America; after Trayvon Martin’s murder, Obama stated that the nation needed to start having a dialogue with itself. As noble as a dialogue is and is needed, just like “care”, in order to make changes, “institutions” are important and we need to implement more concrete policies that address the core issue and advance the feminist cause to achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.