Women and Self-Empowerment

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Introduction

Recently I was invited to give a talk on Women’s Empowerment at the San Francisco Tamil Manram.  This article is based on the webinar I delivered in Tamil. One of my mentees who is currently doing her engineering undergraduate was surprised by some of the challenges I mention.  That comes from belonging to the privileged class of women.  Keep in mind that when I talk about women, I am talking about all women in the world and my frame of reference is the Indian culture.  Challenges unique to women in technical professions are also discussed.

Self-empowerment

The word empower means to give power or authority to. It means giving power to another. Women need not wait for someone else to empower them. Instead, they should grab hold of it. Self-empowerment was the principle that guided me throughout my life. It continues to do so today.

Empowering ourselves sounds easy. But, each of us does not live in this world alone. We are not islands. We all need social support. Our upbringing occurs in this society.  We must, therefore, seek the support of the society, and the support of our male counterparts. Women need to work together to raise the self-empowerment of all women in the world.

Roots and Wings

I published Roots and Wings: Inspiring stories of Indian Women in Engineering in 2018.  This book draws upon the stories of women who graduated from my alma mater, College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG). I had two goals in writing this book. One, to give role models to young girls. Two, to publicize women’s achievements.

Roots and Wings - for article

From the 1943 graduates, Lalitha, Thressia, and Leelamma, to the 1971 graduates, including myself, the stories of these women have a lot of self-empowerment lessons.  In 1943, it was unthinkable that women can be engineers.  Lalita’s degree certificate had to be changed with the word “He” struck out and “she” written in its place. Rajyalakshmi was India’s first woman telecommunications engineering graduate. Sulochana studied civil engineering.  At Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) she became the first woman chief engineer, civil designs. She never shied away from fieldwork, and never asked to be treated differently from men. The lives of these women are very relevant and shining examples of women’s self- empowerment.

Challenges to achieving self-empowerment

Why is women’s self- empowerment important? There are many reasons, but let me give you one important one – self-reliance. It is important not only for women but also for the society that every adult to stand on their own feet.  Some statistics on workforce participation (on data collected between 2008 and 2017)  suggest that in India, the percentage of women who work is almost three times when women are widowed or divorced compared to when they are married. Divorced and widowed women have the necessity to earn a living.  When that is the case, they have to be ready to support themselves. What is the solution to this challenge? It is self- empowerment.

There are several serious challenges for women in achieving self- empowerment. Let us first explore the challenges for all women. We will then look at the challenges faced by women who work with technology.

Cultural norms present the first challenge. Traditionally, in Indian culture, women ‘s lives are determined by her family since birth. She is the daughter of her parents at a young age. Parents treat a female child very differently from a male child. As soon as a girl is born, the first thought in the minds of parents is her marriage. When and how will this girl be married off?  It was a good thing that my parents were not like that. My father gave us the choice of higher education or marriage. This was very rare in those days when I was growing up.  Once married, the husband decides what the wife will do. The wife takes on the responsibility of running the house according to the decisions made by the husband. When a baby appears in the family, she is a mother. Later in life, she is the grandmother, taking care of the grandchildren. This is the life of traditional women. Women are expected to be polite, passive, and nurturing. Never aggressive, active, and pushing themselves forward.

The second challenge is sexual harassment.  All women know about the eve-teasing girls are subjected to when walking down the streets.  When studying in a co-educational college, they are subjected to ragging.  After completing studies, the harassment continues at work. This harassment causes the most harm since the women’s career and livelihood are affected because of this.  In recent times, another form of sexual harassment has appeared – in social media.  All these forms of harassment affect a woman’s self-esteem, their self-confidence, and thus affect self-empowerment.

The third challenge occurs when women start to work outside the home. Job descriptions are written with men in mind. Words that are very appealing to men such as “ninja” or “rock star” may not appeal to many women.  Many women may read these job descriptions and feel the job is not for them and may not even apply. So there are fewer opportunities. Some hiring practices may favor males.  A hiring manager may have a bias towards men in their teams. He may feel more comfortable having someone who looks and acts similarly to him. Interviewers never think to ask male candidates the questions they ask female candidates – such as “do you plan to have a family or do you have children”.  These are discriminating practices and don’t help women’s self-empowerment.

Throughout their working life, women go through critical events. These critical events affect a woman’s ability to stay in the job and have a career.  When a woman graduates from college and starts work, parents are impatient for them to get married.  The husband’s job may require the wife to leave her job and follow him. When a baby is born, and if baby-care options are unavailable, the woman leaves her job and becomes a stay-at-home mom. When parents or in-laws age, it is usually the woman who may have to give up her job if other options are not available.  All these interruptions tend to derail a woman’s career since once a woman leaves her job, and is away for a few years, re-entry becomes hard. This is more so in the case of women working in the technical field. We will look at this later.

The last challenge and the most important one is the wage difference between men and women. There has been a lot of research on the subject showing women earn only a fraction of what a man earns.  When women start work, their salaries tend to be lower than men and most women feel shy about asking for a higher salary. Over a lifetime, this wage difference tends to add up. After retirement, women find that their savings are not sufficient to take care of the rest of their lives, especially since they tend to live longer than men, and have to also worry about healthcare expenses.

Meeting the challenges starts with Self

Self-empowerment doesn’t happen overnight. It is cultivated since the time we are born. Tamil poet Bharathiyar’s poem on modern women (Puthumai Penn) is a good introduction to the discussion on what women can do to develop self-empowerment.

Her head held high, she walks while looking everyone in the eye

She is a fearless possessor of integrity

She is a proud possessor of wisdom born of courage of conviction

The modern woman does not falter or feel inferior to anyone

There can be no doubt that the modern woman described by Bharathiyar is self-empowered.

Here are some steps women can take to empower themselves.

First, women should develop a risk-taking mentality. What kind of risks are we talking about?

  • Fearlessly speaking their minds
  • Sharing new ideas without the fear of being ridiculed.
  • Talk about their successes and accomplishments without sounding boastful.
  • If they feel they are not being treated properly, speak up about it
  • Joining group activities for promoting social good and other worthy causes
  • Attempting to do, and doing something that they have never done before
  • If they feel their compensation is low, asking for a review

A risk-taking mindset is crucial to women gaining self-empowerment.

A second step is to gain economic knowledge. No matter how smart they are, many women shy away from money matters. In many households, men take care of finances. Even though women may manage daily spending, they don’t take up strategic money management. Why should women gain economic knowledge? On average, women live longer than men. When the last years of life are spent taking care of yourself, it is important that you know how to manage money. Additionally, in old age the need for healthcare increases, and it is all the more important to be a savvy customer of available services.

The third step is to be highly aware of the worldly activities and how they impact our lives.  Prior to the internet, we didn’t have so many resources available to us.   That has changed and now there are tons of educational sources that can be used to raise our awareness and discover opportunities.

Another step is to get a good education. Malala Foundation states that there are 130 million girls who are not in school today.  When girls don’t go to school, they marry very young and have children very young. Even when they get jobs, those tend to be low-paying. Their livelihood depends on others supporting them. Studies have shown that when girls complete 12th standard, child marriages decrease by 64% and early pregnancy issues go down by 60%. Women should consider education as a life-long endeavor.

Finally, women should support other women. It seems intuitive, but in practice, women can be some of the harshest critics of other women. Working women tend to look down upon those who don’t work outside the home. Those who stay home tend to treat women who work as not doing enough for their families. We need more compassion and understanding for the choices we make in how to live our lives. Each of us is unique. One size doesn’t fit all.  If women support other women and provide support and love, we can collectively overcome any challenge.

Society’s role in women’s self-empowerment

What can the world do to help women with self-empowerment?

In 2015, the United Nations created 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  World countries are working to achieve these goals by 2030. Two goals among these 17 will help with women’s empowerment: quality education and gender equality.

SDG

The key targets of this 2030 agenda include:

  • All girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
  • All girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
  • End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Why should society care about gender equality?

The quote from Swami Vivekananda gives you perfect motivation:

Until there is improvement in women’s status, we cannot think the world has grown. A bird cannot fly with only one wing.

Indeed.  When the world population is made up of 50% of men and 50% of women, we all have to share equally in making this world prosper.

Society influences our behaviors. Our skin color, body type, our social status, our caste, are all used by society to mold our behavior.  If society gets behind the idea that women and men have equal roles to play, then women’s position in society will improve. There are those in the society who are influencers and they can use the influence to effect social changes and improve women’s conditions.

Self-esteem plays a big part in women’s self-empowerment. If a girl grows up from a young age with self-esteem, as she grows older, it gets stronger and gives her the confidence to tackle life challenges. Instead, if she is constantly reminded that she is a girl, and her options are limited, the self-esteem goes out the window. If she is told that education is important, and she can do anything that a boy can do, she will go on to achieve anything she aspires to.  The women of Roots and Wings delivered this message loud and clear – that they were not treated any differently from the boys in their families.  A girl growing up believing she can do anything will become a woman who has strong self-esteem.

Shutting down negativity is something society can do to empower women. Any activity that insults women or harasses them because they are women has no place in our society. Discriminatory practices in hiring, compensating, and grooming for career advancement should not be tolerated by anyone. Society should collectively fight gender inequality with protests, petitions, and shape policymaking.

Finally, supporting women in their quest to be self-sufficient is a great way to empower women.  Society should encourage women entrepreneurs and provide them the support they deserve to succeed.

Actions men can take to foster women’s self-empowerment

Men play so many influential roles in a woman’s life – grandfather, father, brother, husband, mentor, manager, and co-worker. They all have the power to support women in their quest for self-empowerment.

Grandfather can be a great influence on a girl’s life. He can be there when parents are too busy working and making a living.  If a grandfather treats a granddaughter like a grandson, he can help a girl to grow up with a lot of confidence.  He can also be a great influence on the life of a girl who doesn’t have a father.

Fathers affect the lives of girls in so many ways. Treating a daughter just like a son will give her the message that she has equal status. A father encouraging the girl to do whatever she wants to do without being overprotective will increase her self-esteem and prepare her for life’s challenges.  In 1934, Lalitha, the first woman in my book Roots and Wings, got married when she was 15. She had a child when she was 18, and her husband passed away four months later. Lalitha’s father wanted her to be self-supporting and encouraged her to study. Lalitha became an engineer, with the ability to take care of herself and her child. At a time when a widow would have been considered a burden, Lalitha had the courage to show what a woman can do with the support of a caring father.  Many other women in my book spoke about the support they received from their fathers which shaped their lives.

As elder brother can act as a sounding board for a girl. Coming from the same generation, a brother is able to provide guidance for a girl’s choice of education and career. If the parents have brought up the son to be a caring and empathic, he can be a strong ally for his sister.

The support a husband gives his wife is priceless. Men should treat the work of his wife as important as his, adjust his contribution to housekeeping, and celebrate her accomplishments as his own. A great example of a supporting husband is the one I came across when writing about Sulochana in my book, Roots and Wings. While working at TNEB, Sulochana had to be away from home on field visits to inspect the progress of various projects. It was her husband who took care of the children during these times. While speaking to Sulochana’s son about his mother, he said: “There is a saying, ‘Behind every successful woman there is a man’, but in my house, it is reversed – ‘Behind a successful woman, there is a man’ – my father”.   In my family too, without my husband’s support, I couldn’t have done my Ph.D. while raising a daughter, and later advancing my career.

Male mentors can contribute in many different ways to women’s self-empowerment. Many enterprises are still lacking in women’s presence. Often, the only mentors available are men in leadership positions. These men can provide valuable mentorship in career management and personal development. They can motivate women to take on challenging roles, and treat a mentee the same, irrespective of gender.

A manager’s treatment of his woman-subordinate makes a tremendous difference in a woman’s career and self-empowerment. It is a manager’s responsibility to give both genders equal treatment in terms of praise for a job well done, performance reviews, and compensation. A good manager will guide the career of a woman in his team, and give equal opportunity for advancing.  He will identify gaps in skills, and provide training to fill those gaps.

A male co-worker can be a valuable ally to women at work.  It is important the men listen actively to what women have to say and not shut them off.  It is also important to acknowledge a good idea from women and give them due credit for the same. If they see a colleague treat women badly, they should have the courage to speak up, have a conversation, and if needed, talk to the human resources about it.

Additional challenges faced by women in technical fields

Women in technical fields do not have enough role models.  This limits them in knowing what possibilities exist for them. It is important for women to see other women thriving in their chosen fields. When girls don’t see enough role models, they tend to give up studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  When you don’t have enough women entering professions that require STEM, the funnel that feeds the women population in such professions tends to be small.  Expanding that funnel is critical in creating and showcasing role models. As women navigate their careers, the percentage of women who get promoted to senior roles is reflected in the number of women leaders.  There are many statistics regarding Information Technology (IT) leadership that suggest we have a long ways to go in achieving gender parity.

We looked at the critical events that disrupt a woman’s career. In technical careers, these disruptions make it almost impossible for women to re-enter the workforce.  Technology changes are happening at incredible speed.  A woman who decides to take time off from work to stay home and raise a kid, but wants to go back to work after three or four years, finds her skills have become obsolete.

Wage inequality is quite prevalent in technical professions.  Dice conducted a study in March 2020 which highlighted the disparity between males and females in the high-tech industry.

dice report - for article

The two charts, one at the state level, and the other at the occupation level show the differences in earnings between men and women. When women look at the impact of the job on their ability to get some balance in their lives, many choose to not deal with the compensation issue and just leave the tech job.

How can these challenges be overcome?  Many enterprises have started to implement a number of initiatives to address them, but a lot more work is yet to be done.

Addressing women’s challenges in technical professions

To address the issue of equal pay, organizations have to assess where they are and focus their actions based on data. They have to understand how their employees are compensated, and what benefits they are offered. When it comes time for performance reviews, base them on job performance, experience, and skillset, not gender. It is important for organizations to understand the kind of benefits that women desire such as flexible hours and work-from-home options.  Other benefits that can make a big difference in a woman’s career are paid parental leave, on-site daycare, work-share programs, and support for caring for the elders in the family.

Organizations should offer work re-entry programs.  This is very important for women whose careers get impacted by critical events in their lives.  Men will also benefit from these programs. Companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Goldman Sachs have such programs.  There are also organizations such as iRelaunch which offer a number of resources for re-entry, such as job boards and networking opportunities.

Women should do everything to promote those who shine in their technical fields. My Facebook page on Roots and Wings, TechWomen website, the Society of Women Engineers magazine All Together, are all working to showcase women role models.

Finally, we should celebrate women’s accomplishments in STEM fields.  Celebrating an individual’s accomplishment, or a team’s accomplishment help bring intense activities to close and allows those celebrating to pause, reflect, and re-charge to move forward. There are several organizations that celebrate women’s achievements in the tech industry, such as Women in IT awards.  It would be good to see many more.

Conclusion

I hope this article gives you a glimpse into the world of women’s self-empowerment.  The reasons why are many. The journey starts when women are children. There are many actions they can take, and the society, male counterparts, and enterprises can all participate in making this happen.

Notes

 There are many more. You can search for them on Google.

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