Empowered women: a boon to society
Mar 11 2013
— Dr Leon
India has traditionally been a patriarchal society where men and women had clearly defined roles. Epic Ramayana, which is highly revered in India, echoes the ethos of a male dominated society, with some ideas finding relevance even today. Men are judged for their intelligence and strength, both financial and physical and women for their beauty and subservience to men. A woman is viewed as property and this sense of entitlement fosters the commoditisation of women and girls. These attitudes have created legacies and customs where the position of woman remains inferior to that of a man. The custom of dowry, female infanticide and sexual assault are manifestation of a society that does not respect women. India has a demographic crisis. According to its 2011 census, there are only 9 women for every 10 men in urban India. That’s one of the worst sex ratios.
Given this backdrop, I salute the women in India today, who have shown the courage to break the patterns of society and carve out a path for themselves. There are many women in significantly important positions in society today — as CEOs and senior executes in the corporate world, as ministers and members of parliament in politics, as filmmakers, actors and artistes of great accomplishment .So let us stop all the negativity for a moment and realise that this is no mean accomplishment in itself. I do realise however, that we cannot rest and the process of ensuring that men and women have an equal place in society must continue. When an imbalance has been created over hundreds of years, it will take a humungous effort to achieve balance. When the scales are titled so much on the other side, you have to lean on the reverse to make it work.
Economics and business play the most crucial role and it is no surprise that gender diversity makes economic sense. Studies have shown that business effectiveness and profit is enhanced when women are included in every level of enterprise. In terms of share price, companies who have women on their board outperform those who do not. While women empowerment has been seen as an issue of fairness and equality, it now strikes closer to the corporate heart and is about company performance and fiscal accountability. As consumers, women are gaining more and more purchasing power. They control and spend 65 per cent of the consumer spend worldwide. Their spending power is estimated at $20 trillion. Women have embraced technology and outpace men in the use of features that save time and money. Women outrank men in the use of social media. Interests of women are invading male territories such as online gaming.
Given that women are becoming a modern, technologically aware, financially strong, socially active consumer group, companies can ignore them only at their own peril. Global and evolved organisations are working on adopting many practices to both recruit and retain women and provide equal opportunities to succeed. Recognising that in traditional societies, women still have caring responsibilities; practices include flexible working, work from home options, and day care facilities for children among others. The problems that men and women face at work are more or less the same, just that women have a tougher time.
India in particular has an ecosystem that supports working women. Family support and domestic help both are at hand. While I agree that India as a country has a long way to go in achieving gender balance, I would urge the women to make the most of the benefits that India offers. I know many women who consider this a blessing and have evolved ecosystems around them so that they can go out and achieve their dreams. This positive attitude is equally important. Women should shed all thoughts about prejudices and think of themselves as individuals first. Once they establish what they want in life and are uncompromising about demanding it, life will fall in place around them. When opportunities are provided to them, they must live up to the challenge. As Nora Ephron said, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
Some parts of India are witnessing liberation at a faster pace than the others. But I strongly believe that economics itself will drive women to come out of their cocoons and make their place in the world; and society will be left with no choice to welcome them with open arms and celebrate their success.
Yet this freedom and success can be threatening to those men who are insecure and harassment of women may be a result. This is where women’s interest groups can step in. While many groups operate in the country both at a social and corporate level, it is important that they are inclusive and involve men. Standing up for women’s rights is as important as sensitising men and creating an inclusive society where there is mutual respect.
This year, the theme that United Nations has chosen for woman’s day is, “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”. That brings me to the one issue that will not sort itself out on its own. Sexual violence in this country would only end when there is enforcement of laws and punishment meted out to the guilty. If we continue to hide criminals in the gridlock of regulation, we would never rid ourselves of this menace. The finance minister may have announced a Nirbhaya Fund and a bank for women until the guilty are punished, but we would continue to feel that India has no spine to stand up for the right and no heart that beats for its women.
“He who does not punish evil commands it to be done.”
—Leonardo da Vinci
(The writer is CEO of KPMG India)