Men’s rules

At work, women don’t need to play by the same rules as men

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Indian politician and novelist Shashi Tharoor. (David Levenson / Getty Images)
At work, women don’t need to play by the same rules as men
Shoba Narayan

December 8, 2014 Updated: December 8, 2014 09:30 AM

My grandparents had four sons and one daughter: my mother. My grandmother’s favourite son was her eldest. He was always smiling, had a sweet word for everyone and sent my grandmother photos from faraway England with lines of Tamil poetry as captions. Her third son lived in the same town as she did. He was the one she called when she needed to go to the doctor, have a piece of furniture moved, or speak to her tenants about rent increases. He was her SOS and showed up when needed. He was not, however, her favourite. Perhaps this was partly because they dealt with each other too much. Mostly, it had to do with his volatile temperament. “He will do everything but with one shouted angry word, he will spoil the whole effect,” my grandmother would say.

Temperament and competence have often been framed as a dichotomy – in life and work. The nice guys aren’t competent and the screamers climb up the corporate ladder. It is a stretch I know, but political parties too have this dichotomy. The “ethos” of the Congress, as Shashi Tharoor described it during a television interview, versus the efficiency of the current BJP-led government. This dichotomy becomes even more stark when it comes to women. Most people expect women to be nice, not brusque; competent, but caring; tough, but compassionate. How does a woman balance or even acquire all these qualities?

Competence is a given in most top jobs. To climb up the ranks and run a company requires certain characteristics: perfectionism, efficiency, vision, creativity and courage. Women in top roles must have all these qualities. What brings them down however, is temperament, according to the many articles on the subject.

What is the way forward? Do you tell women to be as good, or as bad as any man; to seek equality and justice at all times during their professional career? Or do you tell them to play up the strengths that anthropologist Helen Fisher describes in her book, The natural talents of women and how they are changing the world?

According to Ms Fisher, women have the ability to build consensus, empathise and nurture relationships. Not all women are this way and these qualities aren’t the sole prerogative of women. Still, as stereotypes go, these ones hold water and, I might add, cause problems. We expect women to cooperate so, we find the pushy ones jarring. We expect empathy from women, so we can’t stand the ones that are abrupt.

Many companies – and Google is one of these – insist that their employees undergo gender sensitivity training. Words are flashed rapidly on a computer screen and you have to pick whether they are “male” or “female” qualities. The results are shocking.

One way to approach this thorny issue is tangentially. Instead of playing by the same rules, why not change the rules; change the paradigm? Why not win over the workplace through kindness and courtesy – heretical and silly as that might sound? Again, I know that these traits aren’t exclusive to women, but it is also true that men are far more comfortable being aggressive, even sometimes obnoxious.

So far, we women have assumed that imitation is the only way to enter a man’s world and be like them. Perhaps the time has come for women to stay true to themselves – at home and at work.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Women’s Colleges

LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE

Why your girl should go to a women’s college

Making a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women
Shoba Narayan
gargi-kYuB--621x414@LiveMint

George Bernard Shaw knew what he was talking about. “Youth is wasted on the young.” Our college years exert a long shadow, recognized only in adulthood. I studied at the Women’s Christian College (WCC), Chennai, and Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, US. Both of them changed my life and made me who I am today.

I went to Mount Holyoke in the late 1980s as a raw, giddy 20-year-old, eager to escape the stultifying embrace of a large Indian family. The college took me in, and did everything that a great educational institution ought to. It opened my mind, and palate; challenged my beliefs; encouraged me to try new things; and allowed me to lick my wounds in private. I went from not knowing anything about the women’s movement to defining myself as a feminist. I switched majors from psychology to sculpture and went to graduate school for a master’s in fine arts (MFA). The fact that I didn’t graduate with an MFA degree is another story, and something that I look back on with pride.

If you are a reader of this newspaper, it is that time of year when your daughter, niece, godchild, or family friend is thinking about college—perhaps here or abroad. I would like to make a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women. Going to a single-sex educational institution is not for everyone—men, for instance, cannot. But it will change an 18-year-old girl’s life for the better. It certainly did so for me.

What studying at a women’s college does is remove that entire male-female dynamic that shapes how girls behave in classrooms; the one that forces young impressionable girls to act and appear less smart than they actually are, lest they be viewed as undesirable nerds by the male objects of their desire.

Times have changed, you will say. Today’s girls are confident and don’t seek male approval. And what kind of a stupid paradigm is that anyway—where a young woman measures her worth by how popular she is with the men? In return, let me ask you to remember your high school and college years, when appearing attractive to the opposite sex occupied a significant amount of mind-space.

In the classroom, being around men robs young women of their natural drive and ambition; and renders them pliant and non-assertive. This is not the case when you are amid a group of women classmates. The playing field is levelled and you can be as in-your-face and aggressive as a start-up. You don’t have to play nice; to “be cool”. Read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to find out how a cool girl can go wrong.

During my classes, I didn’t miss men; not one single time. I missed having men around during happy hours and ice-cream socials; but not in the classroom. Freed from the distraction of good-looking males and how I could make an impression on them, I was able to focus on my studies. It was liberating.

In the US, Mount Holyoke is part of the “seven sisters”, or the “female Ivy-ies”, as they are sometimes called. The others are Smith, Vassar (now a co-ed institution), Bryn Mawr, Wellesley (hotelier Priya Paul is a trustee and an alumnus), Barnard, and Radcliffe (now merged with Harvard). They are a loose association of traditionally women’s colleges that offer a liberal arts education in picturesque surroundings.

In India, we have tons of women’s colleges. Besides my own WCC, there is Lady Shri Ram in New Delhi, Sophia in Mumbai; Loreto in Kolkata; Ethiraj in Chennai, to name just a few. Those of us who went to women’s colleges know their benefits. Our colleges made us confident. They allowed us to enjoy the company of men without being threatened by them.

Good educational institutions are exquisitely attuned to the needs of their students. They know when to prod and when to pull back. Professors, particularly student advisers, listen to what their students are saying—and equally important, not saying. They pay attention to non-verbal cues. They keep office hours and have freewheeling, off-the-cuff conversations in the corridor. Good colleges guide in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where the teacher or guru not only passes down knowledge and skills, but an entire way of being. Through role play and encouragement, faculty and staff teach young women to be assertive, to speak up; to stop second-guessing their thoughts and opinions.

My view—from personal experience and from watching other adolescent girls—is that women have many voices in their heads that tell them how to behave. They have a mortal fear of being judged. They hate confrontation. A good teacher can drown these voices. A good college can alleviate the desire for approval that women have; the self-correction that they engage in all the time. In ancient India, the guru pretty much took charge of the student, not just in the intellectual sense but also in the holistic sense. They taught their students a new way of looking at the world; of processing choices. This happens at every great educational institution, but women’s colleges are particularly attuned to that specific demographic that they cater to: young women.

It is for this reason that you should urge your daughter or niece (assuming that she is inclined) to consider a women’s college.

Shoba Narayan self-corrects (and star-gazes) all the time. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Women’s colleges

Inspired by the visit of Sonya Stephens of Mount Holyoke, I began thinking about women’s colleges.

An all-women’s college changed my life
Shoba Narayan

November 29, 2014 Updated: November 29, 2014 05:48 PM

Those involved in higher education – and I say this as the daughter of a college professor – sometimes forget just what an impact they can make on a young student’s life.

Think about it. If you are over 40, you probably don’t remember who you met last week. But you do remember those teachers whose classes you enjoyed and the teachers who shaped your mind, who charted a course that was different from the one that you had planned for yourself. These inspirational faculty, staff and advisers have been given the gift of interacting with young people when they are pretty much a tabula rasa.

Professors sometimes forget about this in their rush to publish papers and write grant applications. Reminding themselves that their jobs allow them to do what many adults aspire to do – influence young minds and leave a legacy– should help teachers get through the drudgery of institutional work: the grading of papers and writing of reports.

I went to Mount Holyoke College, a small liberal arts women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. My college days were a happy mix of curious coincidences that I could not have foreseen or engineered.

A random student, Millie Cruz, who stayed in my dorm, told me about a charismatic sculpture professor. I had never taken an art class before and indeed, the beginners’ sculpture class didn’t fit into my course schedule. But when I phoned Professor Leonard DeLonga, he told me to take whatever class that my schedule allowed. That was how I, who had no clue about art, became an advanced sculpture student at Mount Holyoke.

Good professors nudge students into paths that they may not have foreseen. Good colleges allow their faculty to make such decisions spontaneously. Good colleges go out on a limb for the student, not just with words, but also through actions.

After a year of art classes, I realised that it was my passion. I wanted to switch to becoming an art major, but I was running out of time. I had only a semester left before I finished my courses. The only choice that I – an international student on a student visa – had was to apply to graduate school. There was one problem: I didn’t have enough credits.

This was the second time that Mount Holyoke went out on a limb for me. My professors wrote to the college president and asked for an extension, so that I could stay one more year and make up an art portfolio. College president Elizabeth Kennan agreed with their analysis and gave me a full-tuition scholarship for one more year so that I could make up enough art credits to apply for graduate art school.

I did go on to graduate art school on a scholarship. A life’s path was forged at a world-class undergraduate institution.

Women’s colleges in the United States are coming under increasing pressure to convert to coeducational institutions. They were always a minority. Mount Holyoke was part of the “seven sisters”, a loose consortium of liberal arts colleges that traditionally admitted only women. The others were Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Radcliffe and Barnard. Of the group, Radcliffe has merged with Harvard and Vassar has became coeducational.

Every now and then, the remaining “sisters” open up a discussion about the future of women’s education. It happened even when I was in college. Typically, the students could go either way, but the admissions office would prefer that the college become coeducational, so they can recruit more students. The alumni, however, are the most vocal voice in favour of women’s education.

This, then, is the paradox. I only realised the value of studying at an all-women’s college after I graduated. If you have a young girl in your family who is looking at a college education, particularly in the US, I would urge you to help her consider going to a women’s college as an alternative. It could change her life.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Women– conformists and rebels

It gave me a lot of pleasure to write this piece. I think my mother in law is fascinating. She stayed with me for six months recently and it was a learning experience. She, like many of her generation, inhabits her identity so firmly and easily, without much angst or internal conflict. She does Varalakshmi puja, cuts fruit every morning, observes all kinds of Hindu rituals and calls herself a “housewife.” But she is so much more. Either she compartmentalizes really well, or she sees no contradiction between doing ‘womanly chores’ as she calls it and being a feminist. Maybe compartmentalizing is the secret to success– got to think about that.

I usually don’t show pieces to my husband but I showed this one before publication. He told me that my first draft was too hagiographic (it was). So I added all the other feminist woman names. My original last line, which I really liked went like this: Next year, she will be 80. She lives a quiet life in Thiruvananthapuram: still singing, writing, and feeding family. Her son, Narayan, is to paraphrase Mint columnist, Natasha Badhwar, my daughter’s father.”
My husband didn’t want his name in the piece. He said that the point of the piece was not the personal connection but the fact that some women of the previous generation were achievers without the “encouragement” that the NYT piece describes. So I toned down the piece in general and took out that last line.
Then came the search for photos within our boxes. I have included the three contenders here.

A conformist and a rebel
A phenomenal achiever who became the ‘first woman chief secretary of Kerala state’ in 1991
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Fri, Oct 11 2013. 04 44 PM IST
kerala--621x414
Padma Ramachandran was the first woman chief secretary of Kerala. Photo courtesy: Shoba Narayan
Updated: Sat, Oct 12 2013. 12 28 AM IST
At the time of Partition, in Rawalpindi, lived a family of five sisters and one brother. The youngest, Padma—“how my parents wished I had been born a boy”—had received a Briar Cliff scholarship to study in New York, US.
But her father refused to send her. It was enough, he said, that she had been allowed to study beyond high school, unlike her sisters. Young Padma studied, not in New York, but at Presidency College, Chennai, where she is still remembered by her generation as being an excellent debater. When she returned home after university, her brother, Mani, who was an IAS officer, dared her to pass the IAS. Everyone knew it was hard. There were very few women in the IAS at that time: Anna George being the first. Padma had no role models—not in governance, and certainly not within her vast joint family. She took the IAS exam, and to her family’s utter surprise, passed it. At the training academy—Metcalfe House in Delhi—Padma learned to ride a horse with the boys and shoot a rifle. Parallely, she submitted to an arranged marriage to a fellow IAS officer, and began her career in Kerala, overseeing tens of thousands of people at age 29, as collector of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). She travelled the world, Mexico to Denmark, the US and the Far East, working on women’s issues for the UN, always clad in a sari, and traditional nose-rings. Had you run into her at an airport, you would have dismissed Padma as a typical south Indian housewife. If you met her today, you would think that she is a traditional Indian aunty: feeding people, singing bhajans and keeping in touch with nieces and nephews. The weird thing is that she is—traditional, that is. Padma, like most Indian women, is both a conformist and a rebel. She is also a phenomenal achiever who became the “first woman chief secretary of Kerala state” in 1991. How did this happen?
photo
Recently, there have been a slew of articles questioning why women are so under-represented in a variety of sectors, including science. The reason given is usually lack of confidence. In a recent piece in The New York Times, the writer suggested that the reason many girls didn’t pursue the sciences is because they were not encouraged. They were told that they were not good enough. This is something that Indian women have heard all their life; and yet, some of them (like wine grown under harsh conditions) age beautifully. Telling them that they cannot do something only dares them to.

This is certainly true of the previous generation. Besides bold-faced names like poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu and cultural activist Pupul Jayakar, there are scores of achievers such as feminist writer Devaki Jain; sociologist Zarina Bhatty; writer and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Vina Mazumdar, a pioneer of women’s studies in India; educationist Mary Roy; theatreperson Vijaya Mehta; scholar Kapila Vatsyayan; schoolteacher Sushil Narulla; and feminist scholar Jasodhara Bagchi. What makes these women who faced conditions harsher than those that we do today, thrive in the workplace?
What made them confident when their whole world belittled them in ways large and small? What gave them grit and resilience?

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing, it would be to figure out how to help girls develop a thick skin. I used to think this was about resilience and inner strength, but it is not merely that. It is about perception and how you receive messages. It is about learning to deflect and do what psychologists call “reframing”. When a well-meaning physics teacher asks: “Are you sure you can do this?”, the average boy would receive the message quite differently than the average girl. When a father says: “Be careful how you approach that problem”, the girl will more likely back off from the problem instead of tackling it head-on. When the concerned boss says: “I have no problem with you taking on that assignment”, the average woman will hear the doubt in his voice and turn it down based on this perception. These are signals and women—for better or worse, in this instance—are more tuned to hearing signals, both stated and unstated. Women are also more likely to concede to the negativity implied in the signals, even if they were not intended. Men, bless them, won’t have a clue.

So the first thing is to make everyone aware of this “unconscious bias” in their signalling. In a famous experiment, two identical CVs were sent to university professors. One CV belonged to a fictional “John”, and the other (identical) one belonged to a fictional “Jennifer”. John got more job offers and a higher starting pay. Just based on a male name. Jennifer was more “likeable”. It wasn’t just the men who succumbed to this bias. Women bosses offered John a higher pay too. So don’t tell me you are a feminist as if that makes it all okay. No matter how concerned a father you may be; no matter if you are a feminist—man or woman; no matter how evolved you think you are, the way we all react to girls is fundamentally different from the way we react to boys.

Teachers are key in this process. They need to be aware of how they treat their girl students with respect to their boy students. They may think that they are treating every one equally without even being aware of the tilt towards boys; without being aware of their unconscious biases. The only way for girls to deal with this bias is to not “give a damn”, as it were. Be less sensitive. View put-downs as pick-ups. And realize that women have walked this path before. That young woman, Padma, for instance: After a stellar career in government, she became vice-chancellor of MS University in Vadodara. Her last name is Ramachandran. Next year, she will be 80. She lives a quiet life in Thiruvananthapuram: still singing, writing, and feeding family.

photo 2

Padma Ramachandran is Shoba Narayan’s mother-in-law.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Confident Women

A piece that really *really* bothered me and a response.

Opinion
Comment

Don’t listen to the dissenting voices, just carry on regardless
Shoba Narayan

October 8, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2013 18:08:00

Recently, the New York Times magazine carried an article titled, Why are there still so few women in science?

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The piece, which attracted plenty of attention and more than 1,000 comments to its online version, posited that the reason women don’t excel in the sciences is because they aren’t encouraged enough and they lack the self-confidence to forge ahead on their own.

It was an unsettling conclusion. It bothered me because my 16-year-old daughter wants to go into the sciences. How could I, as a parent, improve her odds in that world?

My first thought was to discount the piece entirely.

There are complex reasons that explain why women don’t thrive in certain fields, including the sciences.

In India, for instance, women form less than 30 per cent of the workforce. Scores of women professionals freely admit to being tired of “whining” about this shameful statistic and this self-perpetuating stereotype.

But it doesn’t present the entire picture.

In layered cultures, such as in the East, women may appear traditional but often think about things in the most counterintuitive way.

For example, my mother is afraid of travelling alone by plane but she is not afraid of death. Go figure.

The only way forward, in my view, has to do with how you educate and raise your children.

With this in mind, I have come up with a few observations. Call them rules if you like.

Firstly, my advice is to teach your children to deflect criticism.

This is a key skill because, like it or not, they are going to get criticised. We are often overly sensitive to criticism and the best thing a parent can tell their children is to ignore those dissenting and harmful voices.

When a physics professor is sarcastic, when a boss shreds our assignment, my instinct is to think all of the following: “I suck at this; he hates me; I have no future in this field.” Instead, we need to teach our children to learn how to reframe the situation. Maybe your critic is simply just having a bad day.

Secondly, when your boss doubts your competence, plough ahead. When your professor suggests that you take a lesser course load, ignore him or her and keep going. Make it a habit to ignore the voices of doubt.

This may seem like a big hurdle to jump at first, but once you start regularly ignoring them and doing your own thing, you will gain confidence. Yours is the only voice you’ll trust after a while.

Thirdly, take small steps. Building confidence is a long journey.

You will not cover all the ground overnight. The trick is not to expect that your offspring will turn into assertive, confident superstars immediately. It takes time.

Your children will stumble and fall and, in turn, will learn to pick themselves up. Your job is to be there to support them and cushion their failures.

Fourthly, single sex schools can help, or at least they can in my experience. For my own part, I went to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Some studies have shown that women’s colleges have an advantage.

Finally, toughen up. This is something that boys have heard all their lives. Maybe it is time girls heard that phrase too.

As the American economist Larry Summers controversially stated, women do fall off the career ladder. Why that happens is open to debate and will take a long time to resolve.

There are two ways to approach it: one is to change the system, which we are all, in our own ways, attempting to do. The second approach is to change yourself. Change your thoughts and you can change the world.

After all, the only person that you have left to work with is the individual: whether it is your child, your spouse or yourself. Whoever it is, make it count.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Why women don’t work?

Thanks to this forum for discussing feminism. Specific thanks to Naina, Vinay, RG, NS– and even though others have a view on him– Krishna.
This appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.

Caught between traditional values and modern ways
Shoba Narayan
Jul 2, 2013

During a recent trip to Dubai, I caught up with some old friends. Renu and Sid Shah met as students at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), arguably India’s top management school. They’ve lived in Dubai for many years and were part of a vibrant IIM-A alumni network.
Many of the couples in the group had met while doing their MBAs. They dated all through business school and had gone on to make a life and family together. There was, however, one troubling pattern. Among the dozen or so couples, only one woman worked. The rest were doing interesting things – running an arts council, doing research on local textile traditions, training to become a life coach, raising gifted children – but not working full-time. They were homemakers, or housewives, as Indians put it. What happened to the high-achieving young women who had cracked the impossibly hard Common Admission Test (CAT) to get into IIM-A? Business Week recently reported that getting into IIM-A is harder than getting into Harvard. The acceptance rate there is 13 per cent yet, as the magazine reported, the institute “offered spots to only 0.25 per cent of applicants for the 2012-14 academic years”.
The women who met their spouses at IIM-A were part of this intellectual elite. Yet, they appeared to have thrown it all away to raise a family. Naina V, a management consultant calls this “haldi-kumkum feminism,” alluding to the haldi (turmeric) and kumkum (vermilion bindi that traditional Hindu women wear in the centre of their foreheads).
Her theory is that South Asian women of this generation are caught between the traditional roles set out for them by their mothers and western notions of feminism that they take from a Western college education. While they may be outspoken in online forums, they come home to become wives and mothers – like the generations of women before them. In other words, they don’t walk the talk.
I know countless women like this. Indeed, I have been accused of being a haldi-kumkum feminist myself. Like “limousine liberals”, who spout liberal values and egalitarian ideals while cruising around in the back of a luxury car, these feminists are smart women who look like they could rule the world. Except that they don’t. They rule their homes.
What disconcerts me about this particular species is not the fact that they are homemakers, per se. It is just that they behave like they could be so much more. You know the kind? These are women you meet at parties: educated, smart, and in many cases, more engaging than their husbands. Bimbos, they are not. What happened on the way out of that MBA degree? Why didn’t they cash in on it?
One businesswoman I know thinks that women are genetically programmed to take pleasure from the home and hearth. Her theory is that most young women aren’t cut out for business life.
Often, especially after the birth of children, they find work life boring. Running a home, planning play dates, devising recipes, dealing with staff, and throwing parties may look boring to men, but women revel in it. They don’t miss the stress of working and while they question their lack of career trajectory, they also lack the will to stake out their territory in the corporate jungle. I fit this profile to a T. All through my life, I have never held a job. I cited a variety of reasons: lack of a green card when I was in America; becoming pregnant when I did get one; and so it went, for years on end.
My daughters will be different, I hope. They will become ruthless, focused career women, who will reach for the stars. They will marry equal partners who will help them achieve their dreams. They will go from being enablers of the family to become an equal player in it. Or so I hope. Choice is a great word and one that we women use to kid ourselves: “It was my choice to stay home and raise a family.” But sometimes a choice is a compromise and we are too blind to recognise it as such.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Women and careers

What irritates me about the comments below is not the hate-mail bit but the fact that people didn’t “get” that I am a flagrant feminist.
  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Mar 2 2012. 9:28 PM IST
Why doesn’t Priyanka Gandhi reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a magnificent campaigner. In terms of sheer charisma, she beats her brother hollow. She has that preternatural ability to gauge the pulse of the people. It is much more than empathy—every good spiritual guru has empathy. The currency of campaign politics, however, is connecting to a crowd and giving voice to their dreams. It is the ability to deliver the same feel-good factor to a crowd that empathy offers to an individual. This emotional connect combined with force of personality equals charisma. Indira Gandhi wasn’t born with it but she developed this quality. Her granddaughter has it in spades, and yet, she doesn’t use it nearly enough. What is Priyanka afraid of? Why doesn’t she reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that women aren’t ambitious enough. They compromise before they need to. They opt to be dentists rather than surgeons because dentistry offers more work-life balance—this at age 20, before they’ve met their spouse. They put off their childhood dream of starting a school or a restaurant because they are busy helping their husband fulfil his dream—and holding the family together while he does. Women rein in their ambition because they believe success will come with costly sacrifices. Worst of all, many women don’t even try; they don’t “lean in”, as Sandberg says. They compromise from the get-go. Why?

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Bangalore-based Sujata Keshavan, founder of Ray+Keshavan, one of India’s top design firms, believes that it may have to do with economics— and perhaps genetics. She talks about how difficult it was for her to persuade young women to continue to work after they got married. These weren’t women with constraints. They were talented and highly educated. They didn’t fit the conservative stereotype in which the in-laws forced them to resign from jobs to become homemakers. What’s more, they had supportive husbands and were not planning to have babies anytime soon. “Even so, if their husbands could support them financially, they chose to stop working,” says Keshavan. “This leads me to believe that women are wired to be homemakers, perhaps because of centuries of social conditioning that is now embedded in their psyche.”

The fact that Keshavan believes this is particularly damning because her career is testimony to the fact that women aren’t “wired” this way. She founded Ray+Keshavan, ran it successfully and sold it to global brand company The Brand Union. Perhaps she is an anomaly. Or perhaps early financial exigencies forced her to work. So what’s the way forward? I ask her. What do we tell our daughters if we want them to be strong, successful career women? “Tell them to marry a poor man,” she says with a laugh, voicing exactly what I have been thinking.

After 50 years of feminism, it has come to this. Or has it? Are women the resilient gung-ho crusaders who have broken glass ceilings? Or are we escapist homemakers (and I do say this pejoratively in this context) who don’t have the courage to pursue our convictions—or our careers?

Human resources adviser and Mint columnist Hema Ravichandar disagrees with this analysis. “There are two types of women—those that take a job to find a life partner; and those who take a job to make a career of it,” she says. “Sujata’s take might hold true for the former but not for the latter. Of course, even those women who are not quitters may fall into the Mommy trap, or the transfer trap, or the H-4 visa trap, where they cannot work and have to compromise.”

I was raised by a mother who believed that women ought to be like “creepers” that hold the family tree together. I came of age at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where strong successful women taught me the trenchant politics of feminism. I am married to a man who believes that nurture can trump nature; that women can trump the “wiring” that may cause them to be like creepers or homemakers. My personal belief is that we women have a fear—not of failure but of success. We are afraid to reach for the stars because we are worried about what it will cost us— and our families. We are biologically and psychologically more invested in our children. So we don’t reach; we don’t push forward because we are already calculating the costs, before we need to. When the going gets tough, we compromise and pull back.

Bharati Jacob, founder-partner of venture capital firm Seedfund, sees something similar in women entrepreneurs. “I often see women start businesses and the moment it starts to scale, and they think they need outside money, they rope in their husbands. Why don’t they have the confidence to do it on their own?” she asks. Put another way, why is Robert Vadra (Priyanka’s husband) involved in her campaign?

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who authored The First Sex: The Natural Talents of WomenAnd How They are Changing the World, disagrees that women entrepreneurs cop out. Rather, she says, “Tomorrow belongs to women.” Women’s natural talents: networking, people skills, connecting, nurturing and “web-thinking” are more suited to this information age. Women will start businesses, she says, and get ahead in the fields of medicine, education and philanthropy. With fascinating anecdotes and hard science, Fisher links the part of the brain that will help women fly—quite literally (Fisher is an identical twin, and her twin sister is a hot-air balloon pilot).

That said, even Fisher admits that women will not break into the top levels because they are more willing to strive for work-life balance. That doesn’t matter, she says. There will be a few men at the top, a tonne of women in the middle, and a lot of men at the bottom—construction workers “too drunk to zip up their pants”, as she says.

What women need are role models who shifted the paradigm; who played the game, not by men’s rules but by their own. Sarojini Naidu stands out as a shining example of this paradigm shift. She wasn’t born to dynastic power. Yet, she navigated her way through the male-dominated Congress party and held her own with style and substance.

Priyanka seems like a woman who is trying hard to strike this masculine-feminine balance. Should she decide to take the plunge into full-time politics, she has a role model in her mother. Should she choose to ignore the salacious Jawaharlal Nehru-Padmaja Naidu link, she might also be well-served by studying the style of this “Nightingale of India”, and imbuing it with a charisma that is all her own.

Shoba Narayan is neither creeper nor career woman. Like all women, she tries to be both, and therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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  • Suchitr_desai

    This is really ridiculous, under-thought piece. Women who have never worked shouldnt be calling themselves career women. It really is offensive to most working women. Mint should rethink its columns. It owes its readers some integrity. Does anyone not question such columns before running them? Last I checked people needed some qualifications to hold a job. I am sure in a country like India, the labour market is not that tight that Mint is forced to run such columns. Really irresponsible to the reader. So tomorrow if she wants to write a column on Middle East politics, should the readers have to read that too? On one hand you have the likes of Anthony Shadid, who upheld all that was right about journalism and reporting, and on the other you have this lame excuse for a column. Some things never change. Progress in India is to remain stationary.

  • Medtio

    Wired to be homemakers? Nice excuse. Basically, women, especially indian, like to believe they are sacrificing themselves on the altar of family. The truth is they dont want to work, they are taking the easy way out. Just like our lady author here. Ladies, honestly, Are you telling me, your husbands are where they are because of you? Most indian women are busy living the good life, pun intended. Getting fat, inept At housework, general high nuisance value. This column itsekf is proof that Too much time is a punishment

  • Vidya

    H-4 visa is given to women who travel with their husbands. If they are qualified and have recognizable, meaningful degrees they get an H-1. It’s a separate matter that in true Indian ghetto style the likes of Infosys etc clog up the system by using up H-1s while their ” engineers” warm the benches, but if you are with a reputable enough firm you really shouldnt have a problem.

  • aarvee

    What makes the author think that she is “not wired” right? It is also possible that Priyanka is not taking the plunge because she is simply incapable. What has she achieved so far to prove her potential to hold high office?

  • abhay chawla

    shobha this is a strange piece as it titles about priyanka and talks about women in general. i disagree with
    Sheryl Sandberg “that women aren’t ambitious enough.” if they wern’t sheryl wd not be where she is. most of the conventional tags for women wd not apply to priyanka considering she comes fm a political family that has see almost continuous power since independence. maybe, just maybe you cd have let priyanka tell this herself n then  analyzed.

  • Very good article. Echoes my sentiments…loved the part about..neither a creeper nor a career woman. I have come across so many women..strong, ambitious with good careers ahead of them..suddenly give it all up for all or some of the reasons mentioned in the article above. The frustration mounts especially in the mid- thirties and early forties..when you suddenly realize..is this all there is to life? These same women, who have daughters, are suddenly sceptical aout getting them married when they grow up! Time for a change, maybe?

  • Manish Prasad

    There are wars being fought, central banks trying to respond to recessions, politicians battling it out in the world’s largest superpower, and all Ms. Narayan can think of are silly, housewifish issues. Really, Ms. Narayan, what profession were you really qualified for had it not been ALL the support you had to provide your husband? Maybe you should have married a poor man, and then we would have seen whether Mint would have carried your column, or for that matter, whether Random House would have cared to print your silly, little cookbook. Mint, granted you probably can’t afford to pay your columnists, but having people like Ms. Narayan write garbage like this is killing what until recently used to be a decent newspaper.

  • Skyent

    Why glorifying Priyanka Vadra? What are her qualifications other than being the daughter of the chair person of a political party? What are her educational credentials? Is she a visionary who has made a difference in any constituency she campaigns in? Is she serving people in any capacity? I am not sure what charisma you are talking about, but any “tamasha” can be a crowd-puller especially when it involves to have a glimplse of a  gori chick! That does not necessarily translate into votes. This is amply evident from exit polls in UP where party she was campaigning for is trailing at the bottom! Anyways, good article/story sunk due to bad example and und0ue emphasis on a bad example! More apt title to this story, could have doen better job to convey the message of the story!

  • Sailiverma23

    The real question is why is shobha narayanan not afraid of putting her idiotic thoughts out there? Why do we need to hear about women and careers from a woman who has never put in a day’s worth of work? Why should we listen to women or men, who aren’t where they are on the basis of merit and merit alone? Is India ever going to be a meritocracy? Or are we doomed to sub standard columns and poor qualith columns for life?

  • namah

    one difference i have noticed:

    woman entering a job thinks: am i good enough for this job as a woman

    man thinks: am i good enough for this job,

  • V Anand

    You will know how media-friendly or charismatic Priyanka is when you ask her difficult questions. Then the dimples will vanish.

  • Amused

    “turn to the husband for capital….” that holds if your business is dhokla classes for the neighbourhood housewives, or tupperware, or baking classes! Mount-what-college?!snigger, snigger, snigger! The reason priyanka is popular is because she is white as a sheet, something we indians love.

    (Edited by a moderator)

  • Womenslib

    Oh my god! This is the height of hypocrisy. And what career were you planning shobha, a rocket scientist, prime minister, engineer, doctor, pizza maker?creeper shreeper!Ask woman out there who really have to mange work, home, everything. Qualified women. They arent dropping out of the qorkforce because it is some whim, some luxury, some baby on the horizon.It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and pass judgement, having never really worked for anything. And i cant believe that lame conclusion,” marry a poor man.” what has marriage got to with anything? Spoken like someone who marrried into security, who was husband-hunting, this really flies in the face of independence, independent thought, independent women. The reason there arent as many women out there, is not because they dont push themselves(speak for yourself lady) , a big part of it is its a man’s world. Women are dropping at an average rate of 9% on wall street, ask your husband how many women he has worked with, or for that matter how many has he hired? These women are not dropping because of “work-life balance,” an outmoded thought for qualified women, these are changing times, nuclear families, the old saas bahu excuse doesnt fly here. They are dropping out because it’s a boy’s club. Sit on the sidelines and talk about shattering glass cielings-conviction really is a luxury of those on the sidelines. Just because you went husband-hunting, dont generalize. And trust you to fawn over PG, IG, useless women who got everything on a platter. Look at the mess The gandhi legacy has left us in. But you wouldnt know that sitting in your ivory tower. O and by the way, there are women who are fighting against the steroetypes all the time, so before commenting on them just think twice. It really is not your place. And also, the right husband can help you acheive much more than you dreamt of, so the reason girls fashion themselves into “creepers” are looking for husbands who wouldnt be challenged by them. It’s a different type of man really who marries a woman who he knows wont threaten him. So honestly girls who look to do this are the ones who are looking for the easy ride, they are the ones who are coping out so to speak

Reactions

Women’s role

Rewrote this many times.  Interesting topic.

Why doesn’t Priyanka Gandhi reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a magnificent campaigner. In terms of sheer charisma, she beats her brother hollow. She has that preternatural ability to gauge the pulse of the people. It is much more than empathy—every good spiritual guru has empathy. The currency of campaign politics, however, is connecting to a crowd and giving voice to their dreams. It is the ability to deliver the same feel-good factor to a crowd that empathy offers to an individual. This emotional connect combined with force of personality equals charisma. Indira Gandhi wasn’t born with it but she developed this quality. Her granddaughter has it in spades, and yet, she doesn’t use it nearly enough. What is Priyanka afraid of? Why doesn’t she reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that women aren’t ambitious enough. They compromise before they need to. They opt to be dentists rather than surgeons because dentistry offers more work-life balance—this at age 20, before they’ve met their spouse. They put off their childhood dream of starting a school or a restaurant because they are busy helping their husband fulfil his dream—and holding the family together while he does. Women rein in their ambition because they believe success will come with costly sacrifices. Worst of all, many women don’t even try; they don’t “lean in”, as Sandberg says. They compromise from the get-go. Why?

 

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

 

Bangalore-based Sujata Keshavan, founder of Ray+Keshavan, one of India’s top design firms, believes that it may have to do with economics— and perhaps genetics. She talks about how difficult it was for her to persuade young women to continue to work after they got married. These weren’t women with constraints. They were talented and highly educated. They didn’t fit the conservative stereotype in which the in-laws forced them to resign from jobs to become homemakers. What’s more, they had supportive husbands and were not planning to have babies anytime soon. “Even so, if their husbands could support them financially, they chose to stop working,” says Keshavan. “This leads me to believe that women are wired to be homemakers, perhaps because of centuries of social conditioning that is now embedded in their psyche.” 

The fact that Keshavan believes this is particularly damning because her career is testimony to the fact that women aren’t “wired” this way. She founded Ray+Keshavan, ran it successfully and sold it to global brand company The Brand Union. Perhaps she is an anomaly. Or perhaps early financial exigencies forced her to work. So what’s the way forward? I ask her. What do we tell our daughters if we want them to be strong, successful career women? “Tell them to marry a poor man,” she says with a laugh, voicing exactly what I have been thinking.

After 50 years of feminism, it has come to this. Or has it? Are women the resilient gung-ho crusaders who have broken glass ceilings? Or are we escapist homemakers (and I do say this pejoratively in this context) who don’t have the courage to pursue our convictions—or our careers?

Human resources adviser and Mint columnist Hema Ravichandar disagrees with this analysis. “There are two types of women—those that take a job to find a life partner; and those who take a job to make a career of it,” she says. “Sujata’s take might hold true for the former but not for the latter. Of course, even those women who are not quitters may fall into the Mommy trap, or the transfer trap, or the H-4 visa trap, where they cannot work and have to compromise.”

I was raised by a mother who believed that women ought to be like “creepers” that hold the family tree together. I came of age at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where strong successful women taught me the trenchant politics of feminism. I am married to a man who believes that nurture can trump nature; that women can trump the “wiring” that may cause them to be like creepers or homemakers. My personal belief is that we women have a fear—not of failure but of success. We are afraid to reach for the stars because we are worried about what it will cost us— and our families. We are biologically and psychologically more invested in our children. So we don’t reach; we don’t push forward because we are already calculating the costs, before we need to. When the going gets tough, we compromise and pull back.

Bharati Jacob, founder-partner of venture capital firm Seedfund, sees something similar in women entrepreneurs. “I often see women start businesses and the moment it starts to scale, and they think they need outside money, they rope in their husbands. Why don’t they have the confidence to do it on their own?” she asks. Put another way, why is Robert Vadra (Priyanka’s husband) involved in her campaign?

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who authored The First Sex: The Natural Talents of WomenAnd How They are Changing the World, disagrees that women entrepreneurs cop out. Rather, she says, “Tomorrow belongs to women.” Women’s natural talents: networking, people skills, connecting, nurturing and “web-thinking” are more suited to this information age. Women will start businesses, she says, and get ahead in the fields of medicine, education and philanthropy. With fascinating anecdotes and hard science, Fisher links the part of the brain that will help women fly—quite literally (Fisher is an identical twin, and her twin sister is a hot-air balloon pilot).

That said, even Fisher admits that women will not break into the top levels because they are more willing to strive for work-life balance. That doesn’t matter, she says. There will be a few men at the top, a tonne of women in the middle, and a lot of men at the bottom—construction workers “too drunk to zip up their pants”, as she says.

What women need are role models who shifted the paradigm; who played the game, not by men’s rules but by their own. Sarojini Naidu stands out as a shining example of this paradigm shift. She wasn’t born to dynastic power. Yet, she navigated her way through the male-dominated Congress party and held her own with style and substance.

Priyanka seems like a woman who is trying hard to strike this masculine-feminine balance. Should she decide to take the plunge into full-time politics, she has a role model in her mother. Should she choose to ignore the salacious Jawaharlal Nehru-Padmaja Naidu link, she might also be well-served by studying the style of this “Nightingale of India”, and imbuing it with a charisma that is all her own.

Shoba Narayan is neither creeper nor career woman. Like all women, she tries to be both, and therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


Women on top

A woman’s touch is exactly what is needed in today’s politics

Shoba Narayan

Sep 6, 2011

As Moza Al Otaiba begins her Federal National Council campaign, one of many women moving into the UAE’s public sphere, I have some good news for her. Recent research suggests that putting women on a team, committee or council improves its overall performance.

In other words, it is not enough to get a group of smart people together to solve problems. In politics or in the workplace, enthusiasm, motivation and cohesion leave something lacking – that crucial woman’s influence.

A recent study by US academics, Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University and Thomas Malone of MIT, found there was “little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises”.

The study has since been replicated twice with the same results, with even the professors saying they were surprised by the findings.

As the FNC campaign gets under way, many candidates are focusing on the hot-button issue of women’s rights. Indeed, most governments and organisations these days are sensitive to gender diversity. Yet the topic is viewed as a feel-good option rather than a necessity.

Women, the thinking goes, add colour and diversity to the work culture. Many companies hire women as a kind of branding exercise that confers some sort of righteous halo of political correctness.

What is becoming clear is that women shouldn’t be hired and put in positions of responsibility just to promote women; high-performing teams, in business or politics, depend on women for productivity.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Prof Woolley attributed the results to a greater level of “social sensitivity” among women, but cautioned that not all of them share the trait.

Indeed. And from personal experience, I can say that some women take sensitivity to a ridiculous extreme.

An example of this different decision-making is available from my own building, which houses 70 families. Frequently, the women come together to have tea and foster a sense of community among ourselves. We plan events, parties and holidays, sitting around a table in the community centre to discuss how to celebrate Christmas, Eid and Diwali.

For the most part, we talk about food and how to organise the potluck meals that are part of most celebrations. Who makes what dish? What worked from an old menu? Can two women share a dish? These discussions frequently last more than two hours, which drives my decisive husband nuts.

Typically there will be at least two follow-up meetings. One woman will have discovered that her cook cannot make kebabs and wants to sign up for pilaf instead, or two women that are making one dish discover who they cannot work together. And so it goes. It can be exhausting and make me long for gender diversity within our group.

Women collaborate and negotiate – about everything. In every women’s group that I have belonged to, from a book club to a workplace committee, decisions are painfully slow, somewhat akin to the ponderous elephant with which India’s democracy is compared.

Women often do operate differently from men and are expected to, or they may face discrimination. Men generally are more ambitious, assertive and confident with respect to their careers – and they have permission to be that way. Women who display the same assertiveness and confidence are viewed negatively.

As more and more women enter the public sphere, in politics, business or other areas, these gender stereotypes will change.

And they need to. More women holding elected office is a wonderful thing for a country. I just wish that in this movement towards gender equality, men would be as assertive in traditionally women’s spheres. We will have seen real progress when my “women’s group” has some men in it as well.

Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based journalist and the author of Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes

Why we hate our girls for Mint Lounge

This was a tough piece to write because you had to get the tone right. Many rewrites; many inputs from editors. Here it is at Mint’s site and pasted below

Culture
Why we hate our girls
The 2011 census reveals our abysmal child sex ratio. Is it poverty, deep-rooted cultural conditioning or our ignorance about what it means to be a woman? An IAS officer may not have the remedy, because India needs to convert minds subliminally for a real change
Shoba Narayan

Some stories find you. This one began with bags—1,000 unbleached cotton bags, to be specific. My sister-in-law in the US needed them to hand out to guests at a new Hindu temple in Southwest Florida. I started trawling online sites and spamming friends for recommendations. Days later, a stranger named Namrata Vora emailed me. There was an orphanage for girls named Aarti Home in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, she said, with a tailoring unit that could make the bags. After discussing shape, size, price and design, we ordered 1,000 bags.

A 2007 BBC documentary titled India’s Missing Girls, which can be found on YouTube, features Aarti Home. Its remarkable founder, Puchalapalli Sandhya, speaks about India’s gender bias with understanding and compassion. She cradles a beautiful two-year-old girl whom they have named Harshita—abandoned at birth in a basket with a feeding bottle. “We don’t know who her parents are, or her name or her birthday. But since today is an auspicious day, we are celebrating her birthday,” says a smiling Sandhya in the documentary.

There are many poignant moments. A grandmother walks into Aarti Home and hands a day-old girl to Sandhya. The baby’s mother, her daughter, is missing, she says, and walks out. Thirty-six hours later, the premature baby dies. Sandhya speculates as to whether the mother tried to abort the baby using crude methods or eating poisonous herbs. The foetus survived the womb to die just after birth.

The case that spears your heart is of a pregnant woman who once worked at Aarti Home. She knows she is pregnant with a girl and wants to abort her baby. “I’ve had such a tough life,” says the woman. “Why should I subject my daughter to it also? Maybe I will give up my baby to Aarti Home.”

She eventually doesn’t abort her daughter or give her away to Aarti. “Once I saw my daughter’s face, all my love came pouring out,” says the woman in Telugu. “How can I give her away?”

The 100 girls at Aarti Home range in age from a few months to more than 18 years. Many have been abandoned at birth; some have been rescued from brothels when they were seven or eight years old; some of the older girls have found jobs and moved out. They return occasionally and are received with joyous cries of “akka” or elder sister. The Home invites young men to become elder rakhi-brothers to the girls. Sandhya posts advertisements on Telugumatrimony.com, trying to marry off the older girls on the condition that no dowry shall be asked for or given. The Home has three grandchildren, says the website proudly, and it will remain the “maternal home” for every girl who passes through it.

The 2011 census has brought forth India’s abysmal sex ratio, something that even our vaunted economic growth has been unable to stem. The number of girls per 1,000 boys has fallen 13 points, to 914, in the 0-6 age group in the past decade. Authorities admit that the programmes they had initiated to stem female foeticide and infanticide are not working.

It’s not just among the poor. The latest census figures show cities don’t fare too well either—in Delhi, for instance, the ratio is down 2 points, to 866. In the BBC documentary, a rich woman in Ahmedabad left her husband because he forced her to abort her five-month-old foetus when they discovered it was another girl. In 2007, more than 90 female foetuses were found stuffed in polythene bags and dumped into a well near an ultrasound-scanning clinic in Odisha, even though sex determination is illegal.

Why do we kill our daughters?

Economists have long tried to explain the “missing women of Asia”, first noted by the Nobel prize-winning Amartya Sen as early as 1990 in a seminal paper he wrote for The New York Review of Books. In it, he tried to wrap economics around biology and explain why 50 million women in China and 100 million women in India were “missing”. At birth, he said, boys outnumber girls everywhere. But women are hardier than men. They live longer and have a higher survival rate. Women outnumber men in much of the developed world. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged as it is by calamities and enervating poverty, women outnumber men. In Asia, however, particularly in India and China, the opposite is true. Even within the countries, there is a difference in sex ratios. Punjab and Haryana have a lower sex ratio relative to Kerala. “These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women,” writes Sen in an oft-quoted line. Two explanations, one cultural (the East is more sexist than the West) and the other economic (women fare better in developed economies) have been “implicitly assumed”, as Sen says, to account for the lower number of women. Sen dismisses both explanations—read his paper for reasons—and lays the blame squarely on gender discrimination, suggesting that employment, literacy and economic rights, including property rights, are factors that would help right the wrong.

Later, economist Emily Oster questioned Sen’s view and suggested that the prevalence of the Hepatitis B virus in Asia would account for the higher survival rates of boys. Oster later publicly admitted that her hypothesis was wrong. Hepatitis B, as it turned out, had nothing to do with the survival rates of girl babies.

The most hopeful research, and the one that interests me the most, is by Monica Das Gupta, a senior demographer at the World Bank’s Development Research Group. In her paper Is There an Incipient Turnaround in Asia’s “Missing Girls” Phenomenon?, Das Gupta and her colleagues use data from South Korea to show that the son-preference reduces as societies develop, not simply because of economic improvement but because of “normative changes across the whole society”. Normative—I looked up the term—means a complex conglomeration of values, standards and judgement. It is what society thinks of as “normal”. Son-preference is strongest in patrilineal societies such as China, India and, until recently, South Korea. They viewed having sons as superior and normal. As patrilineal societies modernize, they develop political, legal and social tools that recognize “patrilineages as a threat rather than an asset to society”. This is slowly happening in India. Second, urbanization and industrialization will render women as valuable as men, both in their own minds and in society at large. The norms, in other words, are changing, even in India (I’d like to think). The modern state, says Das Gupta, has “unravelled” the underpinnings of a society’s son-preference.

Unlike Das Gupta, who views the world in wide swathes, I am not a demographer. I am a storyteller. I am interested in the psychology of India’s son-preference; about why we value sons more than daughters; and how we can change this.

The home front

Aloma Lobo and I are sitting in Bangalore’s Caperberry restaurant sipping wine and nibbling on canapés. Lobo is a medical doctor who used to be the chairperson of Cara, or Central Adoption Resource Agency. She continues to work with the Karnataka chapter of Cara and has six children—three boys and three girls. “Must you say that my girls are adopted?” she asks before giving permission.

I meet Lobo once a month at foodie events in Bangalore. With her slim frame, short hair and Herve Leger-type bandage dresses, she cuts an elegant figure. Her youngest daughter, Nisha, is visually impaired and has ichthyosis, a genetic condition that causes the skin to become scaly and flake away. Adoption specialists say that girl-babies with special needs are the hardest to place, something Lobo knows first-hand. “You know, our daughter didn’t come from a poor family,” she says. “Nisha’s parents were well-off but they still gave her away because she was challenged. The other day, she asked me, ‘Mama, what will you say if you meet the people who gave birth to me?’ I said, I would thank them because they gave you to us. I asked her: ‘What would you say?’ My Nisha said, ‘I would ask them why they weren’t there for me when I needed them most.’”

When my second daughter was born, I have to admit that I felt a pinch of disquiet. It would have been nice to have one child of each sex. I’d like to think that I would have felt that same disquiet had I given birth to two sons. But now, it is hard to fathom life without my little Malini. Could I adopt? I didn’t think so. When we contemplated adopting before my second child was born, I told my husband that I was worried I would treat the adopted child different from my own. Worse, I would treat the adopted child as more special, just to overcompensate. My husband was more sanguine. He had no qualms that “after the first few hours, your heart will embrace the newborn—any newborn—like it was your own”. Then I got pregnant and we didn’t do it. But I think to myself, why don’t we place adoption centres and orphanages beside IVF clinics so that people who try so hard to have a child know there are other options? Why don’t we build orphanages in districts such as Jhajjar, with India’s lowest sex ratio? The irony is that there is a waiting list for people who want to adopt girls and across the psychological border, there are parents who abandon or kill their daughters.

The oft-quoted, and very real reason why daughters are not desired is dowry; but it goes much deeper than that. To even begin to address India’s skewed sex ratio requires vision, extraordinary empathy, and a leap of imagination. Simply quoting numbers, getting on the moral high ground and condemning the parents who kill their daughters is not enough. “Indian women have been raised to devalue themselves and we perpetrate this on our daughters,” says Lobo. “I get very irritated when women tell me that they won’t eat before their husbands. Do it if it’s important that you have a family dinner. But don’t do it because he is the man. Till we learn to value ourselves, we won’t value our daughters.”

Valuing ourselves has to do with self-esteem, but it also has to do with the psychological burdens that women bear. Before you condemn the woman who kills her daughter, think about the sleep-deprived despair and fury that you have felt at whiny, cranky babies night after night. Were there moments when you wished the child would keep quiet; wished the child away? Now transpose that quiet rage to a different self. You are dispossessed; live in a hut in arid interior Rajasthan; work like a farm-horse; are malnourished and barely literate. You have never experienced maternal love (your father killed your mother in a drunken fit when you were a child), let alone the milk of human kindness, and civilization’s little courtesies that we city dwellers take for granted. In this morphed form, your body and mind have hardened like the land around you. You are already on edge and you know that you are carrying a girl. You dread the eyes that will view you with pity and censure when your daughter is born. You have no food for yourself or your first daughter. And now another? What are you going to do?

In Usilampatti taluk in Tamil Nadu, women give the newborn milk laced with erukkam paal (sap of Calotropis gigantea). The infant sucks the milk greedily and dies within an hour. Penn-sisu-kolai (girl-baby murder), it’s called. Mothers did this, but more often, mothers-in-law, by mixing pesticides, sleeping pills, rat poison or saps with mother’s milk and feeding it to the newborn girl.

It is not true, what they say, about maternal instinct gushing forth when you see your newborn. That happens in movies where the heroine sheds tears of joy and violins pierce the high note. In parts of India, the fierce, protective maternal instinct that those of us sitting in comfort feel for our children, is submerged, staunched and often runs dry—especially when the newborn happens to be a daughter. Maternal love is a luxury for poor, despairing women in Usilampatti, Jhajjar and other areas. They have no control over their lives or destiny; they lack individual identity, let alone self-esteem, education or financial independence. Most important, they believe they have no choice but to kill their daughters. If there were street plays or television campaigns in these villages with images of smiling, well-off parents who look these desperate mothers in the eye and say, “I will take care of your daughter,” they wouldn’t kill her. They’d give her up instead.

Many state governments, including Tamil Nadu, have attempted solutions for women teetering on the edge. They leave cradles outside orphanages for mothers who are ready to dump their daughters; have caseworkers monitor pregnant women.

While easier access to adoption agencies and orphanages might address the problem of female infanticide, it doesn’t prevent female foeticide, which requires step-by-step checklists and engineering solutions, along with a good dose of female psychology. Make sex determination illegal? Done. Shutter ultrasound clinics that violate the law? No. Slap fines on ultrasound technicians who reveal the sex? No. The PNDT (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act needs to be enforced because seeing an infant daughter’s face can change a mother’s mind.

Psychological issues are more complicated. Women feel like failures when they give birth to daughters; they feel victorious when they bear sons. The son is the carrier of the family name and business; the daughter takes away the family wealth. Sons take care of you in your old age; and they can light your funeral pyre. But all that is no longer true; not even in traditional or rural homes. As numerous microfinance institutions that lend mostly to women have figured out, it is the women who earn and save money. If you’ve ever employed a maid with a drunkard husband, you know that he is the burden and she is the financial provider. The problem is that this anecdotal evidence doesn’t apply to large swathes of India where women are painfully dependent upon and dominated by their fathers, husbands, and then sons. Among middle-class or wealthy families, the son-preference has to do with passing on businesses. Even here, daughters like the Paul and Reddy sisters have shown that girls can run and elevate a father’s businesses just as well as any son and they too keep their family name, even after marriage. You can make logical arguments like these to convince women to keep their daughters, but at the end of the day, they just aren’t enough. India needs to convert minds subliminally to displace centuries of cultural conditioning.

The problem is that this bias is so culturally ingrained and so complex that it is hard to know where to start. People say the oddest things. When my second daughter was born, an educated feminist sympathized with me because she came from a family of girls. My conservative mother, on the other hand, rejoiced over my daughters because she comes from a family of four brothers and one sister (my mom). She didn’t have the baggage associated with being a girl. A close friend in New York told me to try for a son who could light my funeral pyre. I expected this statement from a Brahmin priest, not from an investment banker. It is moments like these that make you a revolutionary.

Bollywood can help; as can our cricket heroes. If Sachin Tendulkar or M.S. Dhoni urge fathers to cherish their daughters, would it change minds? I love masala movies, but I cannot think of a single one, either here or in Hollywood, where a woman does Mission Impossible or is a Don. Why can’t Farah Khan or Kathryn Bigelow make women-centric movies? For that matter, why can’t Vishal Bhardwaj or Rajkumar Hirani change the paradigm, by using heroines as the “3 Idiots”? Easy to say, but in order for successful directors to embrace this concept, you need one runaway women-centric hit. Would that J.K. Rowling had written her series using her own daughter as heroine, instead of Harry Potter. That would have changed the minds of countless young girls, who currently have fairy tales in which the prince “saves” them as opposed to stories where they take charge of their destinies and save others in the process.

Reimagining realities is a central component in the fight against female foeticide. If I were Sonia Gandhi and I were serious about rebalancing the sex ratio of our country, I wouldn’t just hire a politician or an IAS officer to head this effort; I would hire a crackerjack team of demographers, caseworkers, implementers, ad men (or women) and media people. Lest I sound self-serving, let me add that in her paper, Family Systems, Political Systems, and Asia’s “Missing Girls”: The Construction of Son Preference and its Unravelling, Das Gupta concurs. “Studies of the impact of the media suggest that states can accelerate the resultant decline in son preference through media efforts to help parents perceive that daughters can now be as valuable as sons,” she says.

We are all stakeholders in this battle to save the girl child. Census 2011 is the tipping point beyond which the pendulum should not swing. If Indian society doesn’t save our girls, we will spiral downwards into the realm of science fiction decades later in ways that boggle the mind: inflicting sex-change operations on effeminate-looking boys in Nayagarh, Odisha, for instance, simply to provide a bride for a family of brothers. Holding Mahabharat-like swayamvars in families who have the daughters that society suddenly finds valuable; and killing off those boys—Greek-mythology style—who don’t qualify. You think this is impossible? As the country prospers and birth rates drop, who will be wives and mothers if there are no girls?

India needs to save our girls. The future of our boys, and indeed our civilization, depends on it.

Till we change our minds, we cannot change our world.

Shoba Narayan writes a popular weekly column The Good Life for Lounge.

Write to lounge@livemint.com