Even a cursory look around us reveals palpable gaps between
- what a woman is capable of doing and
what she is assumed to be capable of,
- what she gets as dues for some work done, compared to
what a man gets for the same work, and
- what a man does casually to go up the career ladder and is praised, and
what a woman has to struggle to achieve but is frowned upon.
In almost all cultures, and especially in India, women are given, and often perform, the role of caregivers.
During their early years, their children take the care givers for granted.
During their middle years their husbands take them for granted.
During their late years, their children have left their nests, husbands need physical assistance themselves and the women are expected to behave as they did all these years, taking care of them.
Since all such care is usually given at home, they are nonrenumerative. They are the care givers but few care to openly acknowledge the critical role the care givers play. (See my care givers) .
I am of course talking about what used to be the norm, but my contention is that things have not changed that much, even with more women entering the workforce. With women forced to prove her capabilities outside the home to remain employed, they are have to juggle multiple conflicting demands on their time. Many compromises are made.
- Some prefer to stay home even if they are employable.
- Some take a break from work whenever a non-trivial need for their services arises. In many cases - due to insensitive workplace rules - some are forced to quit their jobs and, when the need for their services subsides, they start all over again and in many cases, without due credit being given to their prior work experience.
- Some use the time between two care-giving episodes to upgrade their skill sets, and even to get the next diploma or degree. Many find this rewarding due to the thrill or self-satisfaction of learning something new. But there is a distinct likelihood of such women feeling even more frustrated after the degree is earned because of competition from younger men and women with credentials similar to or better than theirs.
The situation for women especially those who get back to jobs or any career path after a break due to, for example, child rearing, is dismal.
The Result: women end up in jobs that are not as rewarding or stable as they deserve.
The sad part in all this is that, perhaps because the space given to women is disproportionately small and opportunities at the top being few and far between, there is sometimes an unhealthy competition between women and (in some sense) not surprisingly, some women are perceived as playing playing hard, to get to the top. And, in this male dominated world where women are supposed to be soft hearted, such behavior is not viewed positively. Here again, we see a double standard, in that when a man does it, it is considered to be a sign of assertiveness but when a woman does it, she is considered “pushy”. Nevertheless, to many males and females in decision making roles, such pushiness is something they can do without and so decisions are made, not based on one’s real capabilities, but on perceptions.
This has several consequences.
1. The right people not being where they ought to be, the society does not get the benefits of what is achievable through their participation;
2. They feel the world is not fair to them and this leads to frustration that affects performance, giving reasons the decision makers badly need to justify their decisions, thus forming a vicious cycle;
3. As a result, some capable women, who do not want to fight the fight, settle for less than what they deserve.
This also contributes to women feeling that they are dealt with in an unfair manner.
The powers that be, in government and elsewhere, have not woken up to the loss that society incurs as a result.
In fact, the current policies and practices contribute to the continuation of the status quo.
- Irrational age limit for jobs and to apply for government schemes/funds for entrepreneurship or self-employment.
- Need for prior experience of a specific kind.
- Need for the job to be “permanent” in order to be able to get funds.
Consider academics, the temple of rational thinking.
Advertisements from Government funded research institutes state that they prefer candidates who are below 35 years of age for entry level faculty positions. If a woman is beyond that age and wants to do research in academia, her only choice in India is to work as a low-paid researcher with absolutely no benefits such as pension or a health plan unless she is married to a spouse with similar benefits. These research positions are temporary, on-contract basis and there is no job guarantee and it forces her to work in an atmosphere of fear of losing her job due to loss in funding, making her unnecessarily dependent on a mentor. There are very few programs like Department of Science and Technology’s Women Scientists program, but then again, it does not lead to any permanent position. She cannot apply for Associate professorship since she lacks experience post PhD and Assistant professor position is beyond reach due to age!
Currently, in spite of working hard and even helping Professors to write proposals, a researcher’s name can never appear in the proposal as a Co-PI because the non-permanence of her job prevents government agencies from funding her project in spite of the PI being a permanent employee. Despite mentoring PhD students in her group, her name can never appear on their theses as Co-guide since she does not have a permanent position. There are many highly qualified women with a passion for research toiling in research laboratories in temporary positions, reconciled to a stunted career.
An irony in all this is that there are no temporary research positions in DBT or DST which can pay PhDs with more than five years of experience because it is assumed that they would have become assistant professors!
So, only those women who follow the sequence of Bachelors, Masters, PhD, faculty position, marriage, child birth, etc. -- and do not attempt to do things in a different order -- have some hope.
The following recommendations emanate from the above observations:
- The more informed and enlightened institutions like the IITs should have research track positions. It will benefit everyone if people who want to be on this track are empowered to write proposals (which will provide funding, among other things, for their salary). They can, in addition, help regular faculty to carry out their research and mentor research students.
- As long as someone has the qualifications associated with a position, age-related bars should be eliminated, so that the demoralizing and debilitating impact of such bars on one half of society can become history. This also makes sense in light of the fact that women live longer on average than men.
The author, Krithi Ramamritham, an eternal optimist, is Rekhi Chair Professor in the Computer Science Department at IIT Bombay.
He is thankful to Saraswathi for being a wonderful caregiver, sooner in life than usual. Also, along with Sumana, she sensitized him to the sad plight of passionate researchers due to age discrimination and insensitivity of decision makers to the constraints faced by women. Thanks also for their inputs and comments on this blogpost.
As always, he requests the readers of this blogpost to bring it to the attention of others (male of female) who may be interested.