What happens to bright young female achievers?

What happens to bright young female achievers?

Girls have outshone boys in the overall school examination results this year, last year, the year before last and, for that matter, for the past 11 years. It was the same refrain in the Civil Services exams this year: the top three ranks were bagged by women and as many as 10 women made it to the top 25.

Yet, when it comes to visibility in public life—in politics, in the judiciary, in the civil services, in companies—women just don’t cut it. What happens to these bright young achievers? What happens to their big dreams? Where do these missing women go?

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We have no measure to track their progressions and we know also that success in exam results, particularly at the school level, is no guarantee for “success" in life. But given that girls seem to be better than boys at cracking the exam code, and have been doing so for years, wouldn’t it be logical to presume that we should be seeing more women in middle to senior leadership positions?

A recent survey (published on 8 March, International Women’s Day) by The Times of India in collaboration with global marketing research firm Synovate might have some clues. A majority of working women, found the survey, have no control over their income. Conducted across eight metros among the 20-40-year-old age group in section A and B (economically better off) categories, the survey found this was true even for single working women.

So, who decides for career women what they should do with their money? For single working women, it was the parents. For married women, it was the husband. The same survey then went on to ask these women what was more important: career or family. At least two-thirds plumbed for family and less than one-fourth said their careers were a priority.

What was even more interesting to me were some of the comments posted on the survey. Satish from Chennai spoke about “Indian family values" and castigated the surveyors for interviewing “broken families". Sateesh from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said the survey demonstrated why “marriages last longer in India".

The social conditioning of an either/or attitude to marriage and career has undergone a huge change in the past few years, primarily because of economic realities and the necessity for two-income households. But dig deeper and you will find that attitudes have not really changed. Marriage is still considered the pinnacle of every girl’s life.

I find it interesting that many advertisements these days place the girl child at their centre: but always with daddy saving and planning for her future career; the mother’s role is to smile benevolently in the background. And, of course, the ads where daddy oversees his little girl’s marriage or hands her over to the new protector in her life seem to outnumber those that have her taking charge of her adulthood.

And that for me is the crux of the problem. Women are conditioned to be responsible for everyone and everything: their homes, their husbands’ careers, their children. But we are never taught to be responsible for ourselves, to take control of our lives. Behind the many successful career women lies the story of a supportive husband or in-laws—this year’s IAS topper, Shubra Saxena, thanked her husband and in-laws for encouraging her—but seldom the story of her own desires and struggles.

Why does a successful woman always have to feel indebted to a husband or father for “allowing" her to pursue a career? Sure, it helps to have support and I’m not knocking that, but how many women really follow their own heart when it comes to living their lives?

I’d like to believe there is reason for hope. I believe Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (incidentally, the father of three smart and successful daughters) is genuinely forward-looking and has a progressive, inclusive outlook. Yet, when it comes to allotting a minister for women, I hope he will appoint someone—woman or man—who is capable of out-of-the-box thinking.

This 15th Lok Sabha has the highest number of women representatives in Parliament since Independence. But with 59 women MPs—most of them in the bahu/beti category—we’re just above 10%; far less than even the UAE with 22.5% women representatives. But ultimately nothing will or can change unless we first change our attitudes to our daughters. When they excel, or even if they don’t, they must be encouraged to pursue their dreams. Twenty years from now, I hope as hell Tanvi Aggarwal will be breaking new ground on her own terms because that is what she wants to do.

Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com