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Updated: August 7, 2010 15:38 IST

The Other Half: Twists, turns, dead-ends

Kalpana Sharma
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Hounded by the media: Sunanda Pushkar. Photo: PTI
Hounded by the media: Sunanda Pushkar. Photo: PTI

The Sunanda episode leaves us with some hard questions, about the attitude of the media to women, about sexism and other hurdles that women face everyday at the workplace...

The IPL is finally over. Now we can get on with life, with more important issues, such as the number of hungry people in this country where some children are fed mud for dinner, or the actual number of people so poor that they have to be exceptional optimists to believe that there will be a better day tomorrow, or millions of people surviving without electricity and water as the sun's rays get ready to roast the country with the approach of a sizzling summer. Yes, there is life beyond the IPL. Indeed, there was life during the IPL that was almost forgotten.

Though the matches have ended, unfortunately the IPL saga continues to unravel and hog headlines. But when and if it finally recedes to an inside page or off television screens, perhaps most people will have forgotten the Sunanda Pushkar episode.

Wrong priorities

At least that is what she will hope although she is unlikely to forget the treatment she received at the hands of the Indian media. You can debate whether she was as culpable as Shashi Tharoor when she accepted what appears to be a special favour, but the issue that the media focused on was not the impropriety of that as much as the private life and times of one woman. Why? Because she is a woman and the media is sexist, as Tharoor suggested? Or because some people decided that a woman like that should not be seen in the company of powerful upper class men like Tharoor? Or was it a combination of class bias and misogyny? However you read it, the media's attack on Sunanda Pushkar was crass, in bad taste and lacked the basic modicum of decency. You don't kick those who can't defend themselves. These are basic principles of fair play. But all that was forgotten in the IPL scrum.

There is another dimension to this story. Sunanda Pushkar is not the first professional woman who has had to face innuendo and sexist remarks. This is something many professional women worldwide would have faced to a lesser or greater degree at some stage in their lives. Of course, there is a tendency amongst women who are successful to forget such experiences, or brush them off as occupational hazards of being a professional woman. But scratch the surface, talk to women who are still struggling to get ahead, and you will hear many similar stories. “How did she land this job?” “Who is her godfather?” “Whose favourite is she?” “Did she use her ‘womanly wiles' to get ahead?” Etc, etc, etc. If you are young and reasonably attractive, and you get a prized position within an organisation, these and other questions are almost inevitable. No one is prepared to believe that you can get a job or a promotion on your own merit. Yet, when your male counterpart gets ahead through powerful contacts, or through influence, he is envied, considered smart.

The issue goes beyond petty sexism, which is just one of the hurdles women still have to overcome to get ahead. The root problem is the absence of a level playing field, where both men and women are evaluated on the basis of their capabilities. If indeed that had been the case, surely many more women would by now have reached top positions in many professions. Yet data from around the world shows us that this is still not the case.

In her book The Equality Illusion, The Truth about Women and Men Today (Faber and Faber, 2010), Kat Banyard gives the following data: In the 50 largest publicly traded corporations in the European Union, women constitute only 11 per cent of the top executives and four per cent of CEOs and heads of boards. In Britain, 22 of the 100 top FTSE companies do not have a single woman on their boards. In the US, only 15.2 per cent of Fortune 500 board directors are women.

Banyard suggests that the problem is not just one barrier. She writes:

What we are looking at here is not a single, invisible barrier quietly lying in wait outside the boardroom or at the door of the Oval Office. We are looking at the cumulative effect of women being restricted by outdated structures and attitudes at every level in the workplace. Alice Eagly, a professor at Northwestern University, and Linda Carli, associate professor at Wellesley College, point out that the term ‘glass ceiling' fails to capture fully how women are excluded from power in the twenty-first century because it implies an absolute barrier at a specific level. They suggest ‘ labyrinth' as a more accurate metaphor for what women are faced with. Right from the start the route to the top is littered with twists, turns and dead-ends as women negotiate colleagues' stereotypes and the lack of flexible working. Women have to navigate it from the minute they step into the office, not just when they are trying to open the door to the boardroom.

Indeed, a “labyrinth” that surely includes sexist innuendo. Women have to develop an especially thick hide to ignore all this and carry on. Many fall by the way side for this and other reasons, most having to do with the fact that they are women, that they are still expected to be the principal care givers for their children, and to “sacrifice” careers for family and marriage.

Even in sectors like IT, where women have found greater opportunities to succeed, the playing field is far from level. In a recent article in The New York Times (April 18, 2010), Claire Cain Miller spoke to several women in the sector in the US who wanted to launch their own start-ups. One of them was Candice Fleming who had worked with Hewlett-Packard and a small software company. But when she wanted to raise funds for Crimson Hexagon, a company she co-founded in 2007, she was told by a venture capitalist she approached that she need not bother to have a business card because they would refer to her as “Mom”. Another invited her to spend a day on his boat and showed her a naked picture of himself on the boat. How many men go through something even remotely similar? She approached 30 venture capital firms. None responded. Finally Golden Seeds, a fund that helps women setting up firms, gave her funds. And hers is not a lone example.

Different rules

The point remains that the environment for women in the professional world is not always welcoming. In India, cronyism is now so accepted that no one thinks about it. Yet men who get ahead riding on that cronyism do not have to face the personal flak that women do. And that is where the sexism lies.

So the Sunanda Pushkar episode might well be a blip on the horizon. But it should make us ask some hard questions: about the attitude of the media towards women, about sexism and other hurdles professional women face during their careers and about what it will take to ensure equality and equity in the workplace.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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