Gender equality is unequivocally elected as the single most effective route to socio-economic prosperity (World Bank, 2018). Yet, as the United Nations stated in 2018, no country in the world has successfully eliminated discrimination against women or has achieved full equality.
In the United States, the top five issues affecting women identified in most reports are around reproductive rights, equal pay/advancement/leadership opportunities, sexual harassment at work, domestic violence and healthcare. Globally, top challenges are access to education, child marriage and infanticide, trafficking, GBV (gender-based violence – including gross and systemic affronts like female genital mutilation and acid attacks). Sexual assault, unsurprisingly finds place in top five for global list too but is categorized under GBV in some reports. As it is quite obvious even with a cursory side by side comparison of the two lists, there is a difference in severity and therefore the detriment caused. Working and staying in the US while being an Indian, my exposure to issues and therefore feminist priorities in the developed vs. developing economies make this difference abundantly clear. And in my opinion, understanding this difference, even in the categories that appear to be overlapping, is key to achieving a global goal of parity for women.
Now bringing the broader underrepresented minority (URM) advancement and inclusion into the discussion, the risk of missing the nuances of intersectionality gets even higher. To provide one quick example in this regard, the URM recruitment and retention challenges even in a smaller, comparatively defined activity (e.g. in medical profession in the just the State of California) differs based on race, nationality, sexual orientation, and even identification and association (Native American issues expectedly differ from African Americans, but even in the later demographic itself, undergrad college type (community vs. state vs. top league) is seen to play a role).
Although discussing a path to parity, given this, risks dismissal under suspicions of oversimplification and inadequacy, fixing the power imbalance through representation has been long identified as one of the most effective and overlapping of solutions across the spectrum. Different nations (and organizations) consistently attempt solutions following this principle (ranging from reservations policies/quotas to ‘targeted’ diverse candidate goals and sponsorship). But while the lack of opportunity and access can be addressed through these, the bigger challenge in ensuring success, in my opinion, is ensuring ‘prosperous’ retention, i.e, ensuring fulfilment and success of those who now have access to ensure that they stay long enough to make a difference and pass on the baton. Without this, parity can’t be achieved; neither can the socio-economic goals parity is expected to foster come to fruition, as the situation would be akin to a leaky bucket under an open tap (which is what most corporate diversity initiatives are left to grapple with in spite of great intentions). Therefore, in my opinion, the biggest challenge we face in achieving parity women (and other URMs) is ‘prospered retention’ and the biggest factor hindering this is oversimplification and generalization. What is needed is finer understanding and acknowledgment of the inequities beyond gender, race, sexuality etc., and therefore, sensitizing the endeavors accordingly.
Another arm of the same octopus is the common flaw of confusing between capability, conditioning, and preference. Narrowing this down to just gender, as the Gender Similarities Hypotheses outlines, there are very minimal physiological and psychological differences between men and women. More often than not, the ‘men are from mars/women are from venus’ traits are more conditioning than capability. Missing this compounds the problem of missing the nuances of intersectionality. In India, we are highly guilty of this, but most societies are not immune (e.g. pink vs. blue for even kindergarten kids and doll aisles in the US supermarkets for girls vs. blocks and trucks for boys; there are several other non-trivial examples rampant all around).
To combine and drive home the point, I want to share an example.
Years back while working with an acid attack victim rehabilitation non-profit, I had come across the story of a woman who had been maimed for life and had gone through a worse than death experience. Wife of a rickshaw puller, she had been attacked by her husband as the later had witnessed her accepting a soft drink from another man and had doused her with acid suspecting infidelity. However, post-stabilization, her only interest, and help needed, from the social worker was in ensuring that her husband doesn’t get prosecuted. Armed with ideologies of what seemed ‘right’ in my reality, I had assumed her problem to be emotional, societal conditioning, stigma, and misguided loyalty. However, her reasons were purely economic.
She had done the math well to know that the Govt. compensation wouldn’t cover even a mere percentage of her surgeries, and she wouldn’t be able to work ever again to sustain a livelihood, let alone afford treatment. She had also made peace with the fact that she could never be made whole again. On the other hand, in staying with her husband’s extended family and availing the benefits of their fear of prosecution, she stood a better chance. In my generalization of her as poor, uneducated and uninformed compounded with my ideals (which were again, functions of my experiences, not hers), I would have risked disregarding her solution, which indeed was the smartest and most effective for her success in the situation.
I have since then been sensitized into accepting that every women I come across can be different, no matter how alike me they look or appear to be, but have also overwhelmingly noticed the lack of the same awareness in a lot of highly successful, very well meaning women leaders. They teach the same metrics that have worked for them, assuming the exact same stamina, experience and intention they have or have had through their journey in their mentees.
So even though when addressing corporate goals of diversity and inclusion most programs ensure access, mentorship, and sponsorship, even women in leadership roles and in positions of high power tasked to sponsor fail to succeed in making other women successful by outlining for them a path that’d work for them and working to create an environment for diverse success.
My goal in using only one gender noun in the description above is not to criticize women over men or to indicate that one gender does a worse job than another, but is merely to make the point that what we often think is like meets like in lieu of just gender, and therefore expect a successful partnership out of, is over simplistic and therefore the cause of the problem.
In addition, corporate success often demands speaking the ‘current’ language of success (which unsurprisingly is currently a very sub categorized, predominantly alpha male, devoid of emotion and hence labelled ‘professional’ language) that others have ‘conditioned’ themselves to prefer. No one really knows if being emotional at work or being ‘passionate’ would really hinder corporate success in a representation balanced reality. It’s merely that those emotions are not what has been and is prevalent in circles and C-suites dominated by a higher number of a very specific type of individuals.
As an example, women often are criticized for expression of emotions at workplace (as are URMs who have different experiences and expressions) even by others who look like them, primarily because even if they weren’t of the ‘type’, they had had to condition themselves to be that in a predominantly singular environment to such an extent, that they are now ‘that’.
When combined, all this causes exclusion and drop-out.
Finding role-model and representation matching every individualized intersection is ideal, but unrealizable. What is needed therefore is not more programs and creative solutions; but sensitization, sensitization, and sensitization of the current programs and population to as many targeted dichotomies as possible. The role models and sponsors available currently need to be familiarized with concepts of intersectionality, avoiding language that assumes one experience as the baseline and universal, and above all, need to be trained to expect and accept differences. Training programs need to train to as many possibilities of diversity as possible and incorporate experiences and field examples to ensure the development of connection and conviction. Impact oriented prioritization has to be applied in disseminating to balance for efficiency and cost (e.g., prioritizing currently the largest group in leadership (straight men of the dominant demography) in corporations and higher impact Govt. bodies).
In sum, making sure leadership and sponsors understands that the URMs they are tasked to sponsor can be very different from them, and possibly quite different from each other, is the key to ‘prosperous retention’ which is in turn key to representation and path to parity.
other is the key to ‘prosperous retention’, which is in turn key to representation and path to parity.