Accept it or not, women mindfully or unmindfully minimise the worth of themselves and (also in the process) other women they come across. This incident refuses to fade away from my memory. It was 4 pm in a hot, summer afternoon. I was at a sports academy that day. A new kid had joined accompanied by his mom. After exchanging a few pleasantries, the mom asked me rather nonchalantly, “So, what does your husband do?” The question caught me by surprise. Without asking my name and possibly checking on what keeps me busy, the lady (after making all the necessary assumptions) came straight to the point. Obviously, I could not be doing anything significant since I was whiling my afternoon at the academy.
Talk about stereotypes and biases that women have for each other. Women often find accepting other women “as they are” difficult, especially those that do not fit a certain type. This trend is rampant, across all sectors and all socio-economic backgrounds be it in high-society parties, in corporate corridors, among mothers’ groups and even in extended family. These stereotypes start right from physical looks, dressing and go up to behaviours and opinions. Sadly, these biases are mostly regressive and sometimes so deeply embedded in our values that many of us do not even recognise these as biases. Our education system is of little help as it facilitates pre-conceived ideas and notions, values obedience and discourages questioning.
You may say there are so many other biases in the society and biases are inevitable, then why talk about women vs. women bias alone. It is important that while we talk of women empowerment and social justice, we must ensure that there is more trust and nurturing among this “one-half” of the population. In no way, must we underscore the importance of self-belief and hard work as important tools to get past professional and personal challenges. But getting a facilitating environment from fellow women can sometimes make the crucial difference.
In formal workplaces, women employees often brand their high-achiever female bosses as “too pushy” and “too bossy”. Sadly, women in senior positions are also not as supportive as one would expect them to be, sometimes as research says, for fear of being penalised. “Queen bee” is an infamous term used to describe women in power who bullies and obstructs careers of her women subordinates. (Meryl Streep has portrayed one such character in the movie Devil Wears Prada). A chairman of a very prominent multinational company in India once confided how it breaks his heart to see senior women not supporting other women for promotions or job breaks. In one case, a women boss promoted her male team member instead of the more deserving female member simply because she would not value the promotion as much since she was on the family way.
Take another scenario. Why is it that I find mothers at school who are seemingly good friends always invariably talk about their kids and their school life. It is rarely about themselves or their interests. Notice how we tend to save numbers of fellow mother’s as someone’s mom. Well, one could argue it is done for convenience, but it does tend to bracket their individuality. On the home front, there are typical mother-in-law and daughter-in-law stereotypes that makes it daunting for two people to bond, even before they have met each other. Having been brought up within patriarchy, women tend to become carriers of it, fuelling sanctifying and ratifying it, either consciously or sub-consciously.
How do we get rid of these biases? The first step is recognise them through keen awareness. Notice how these biases create regressive and limiting environments. Once we understand this, the next step is to create informal and formal women networks that enable bonding and hand-holding. Good things are already happening on this front with many women in power in India empowering other women. Companies are setting up creches at office and providing “work-from-home” options to retain talent. There are various networking platforms including facebook pages and whatsapp group that are helping like-minded women interact with each other for work, leisure, fun or simply emotional togetherness. At the village level, women self-help groups are running successful businesses. Anganwadis too are based on women educating and empowering each other for family health and education.
All this needs to be scaled up for greater impact. There should be more forums and informal meet ups where women can speak freely with each other without the fear of getting labelled. They could listen to each other stories, educate, compliment and mentor each other. Luckily, I do have a “go to” women friends who have helped hone my perspectives and opinions as I ventured in the social space and I now seek their advice on just about anything. So, next time we meet a fellow women, let’s not see her just as a mother, daughter, wife or a professional but also as someone in her own right. In doing so, we not only give her a rightful place but also give a stamp of approval to our own identity.