Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Opinion | Boys will be boys. Now let’s change what that means

A full professional life for a woman often comes at the cost of a marriage, or her health

It takes as much time to get from the airport in Bengaluru to the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) as it does for my flight from Delhi to the city of snarly traffic. I was going to speak to a mixed bunch of students at IIMB later that day and to pick me up was a first-year MBA student. The journey was long and before long we were deeply immersed in the tricky topic of gender. I was curious to know how the gender equation has changed for a generation that was born after I had graduated from college. I remember the faces of all the girls in my class, both in undergrad and postgrad, who were married off before they finished the degrees. Those who survived the ceremonial kick-off got into jobs and then into married life. They spoke about doing two jobs—one at work and the other at home. The Indian marital household that sits in the top 1% of the population in education and wealth was happy to accept a “working" woman and her income, but did not like it when work got in the way of the household chores and duties.

Education and financial empowerment, my generation thought when we were in college three decades ago, would be the twin tools to break down the gender skew in the Indian home where women are encouraged to either stay at home or take jobs that have fewer working hours so that they can “manage" the home. “Good" girls manage both—work and home. The schoolteacher is a sought after profession for a woman in the marriage market of India. A full professional life for a woman often comes at the cost of a marriage, or at the cost of her health, because she then needs to hold down three, no, make that four jobs. Work outside the home, work at home, bring up kids and manage the male ego if she happens to earn more than him.

Surely, things are different now. But 30 years later, I hear stories of how difficult this transition has been. My young friend in the cab tells me about how things have changed, but not that much. Young men, she said, were vocal about gender equality and women’s rights but were unable to translate the words into deeds. Most of them, she said, would rather choose a “homemaker" wife over a “career-minded" one. Financial empowerment was supposed to stop abuse within the home and give the woman the status she was denied when financially dependent. But that argument goes face down when you hear stories of domestic abuse in homes where both earn and have white collar jobs. A woman who touched 40 decided to get married because she was tired of living alone. A highly paid professional woman who owns her own home in an upmarket large metro gets married and discovers she’s got herself a wife beater. What does this educated and financially independent woman do? She stays married because the cost of staying single in India was more to her than of getting a beating. This may be an extreme case, because when I last counted, most of my women friends who were in leadership positions were either single or divorced. It is a rare home where both husband and wife hold down high-stress jobs or enterprises and the woman is not the only one working at home.

But it is not just the Indian household that has these stories to share. A French woman who works in India wrote to me responding to a column I had written on why Indian women choose to drop out of work, rather than drop dead from working both at home and at work. She wrote: “One thing that I wanted to point out is that this struggle is actually taking place all over the world… I am married to a French man and in France more and more women are deciding not to get married and have children because the burden of ‘family rearing’ falls on the woman." This was echoed recently when I had an intense discussion with two women delegates at the Raisina Dialogue, organized by the external affairs ministry and Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. One American and one Italian woman, both high-ranking policy experts, shared story after story of inequality in the home in their own countries. We know of women getting paid less than men in the West, but these stories about the girl child being given less resources, attention and love while the brother gets it all were new. We tend to think these are uniquely Indian problems of gender, but in fact, these are global issues.

So if neither education nor financial empowerment is the key to better gender balance within the institution of marriage, some women are responding by not wanting to get married at all. Hans Rosling writes in his epic book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think about a high-ranking Japanese professional woman who liked the idea of having a kid—“it’s the thought of a husband I cannot stand", she said. Men have not translated what they say about gender inside their homes.

While not getting married may solve a part of the problem, it does not really change the equation. We have to bring up our boys differently—only then will real change happen. Conferences and seminars on gender equality offer moral high ground words but unless the change comes from within, the double standards will not go away. It is fair to say then that while education and financial empowerment are the necessary conditions of change, bringing up boys to be people and not princes could be more important.

Monika Halan is consulting editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation.

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