Chances, choices, collective action: Can we close the gender gap in this lifetime?

Nearly 90% of 173 countries have one or more laws that discriminate against women states a World Bank report released in September 2015. USA is one of the 4 countries with no specific national laws requiring paid parental leaves for new mothers; Iran and Qatar are among 18 countries where married women have to take permission of their husbands to go to work. And in 32 countries, a married woman is prohibited from applying for a passport without her husband’s permission.

2058 – Remember this year. This is when women will reach pay parity with men in the US predicts the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In Japan, an advanced industrial nation known for its commitment to a high quality work ethic, it is a very common conflict for working women to choose between a career and starting a family; 70% of working women stop working when they have their first child, and they stop for a decade or more. Women have had to apologize in front of co-workers for becoming pregnant. And one of every five young mothers experienced some kind of office harassment, according to Rengo, one of Japan’s largest trade union confederation.


Even after decades of working towards making women equal partners with men, the gap between them remains large. Women are half the world’s working-age population but generate only 37% of GDP. Female representation on corporate boards and executive committees around the world remains significantly small; with around 15% in America and less than 10% in India, China and Japan.




As much as $28 trillion or 26% can be added to the global GDP, if women play an identical role to that of men in labour market. The McKinsey Global Institute report (2015) calls this a “full-potential” scenario. Alternatively, in a “best in region” scenario, if every country matched the progress toward gender parity of its fastest improving neighbour, global GDP could increase by up to $12 trillion or 11% ( as seen in the figure below). Research studies have also shown a strong correlation between high-performing companies and those with strong female representation at the top. The evidence that investing in girls breaks the transmission of poverty from one generation to another has been documented by various researchers [Jones et al. (2010) and Levine et al (2009)].




Not just economic, gender inequality has been social, political, and domestic for a long time.


This inequality and discrimination against women is obviously wrong on moral, philosophical and human rights grounds; but now (in this age of neoliberalism) empirical evidence tells us that it is also taking an economic toll on nations. Discrimination against women affects the growth and development of nations and this has many political influencers and economists worried. Gender inequality has now become an obstacle to the current model of economic development and therefore grabs the headlines.


Gender inequality has been persistent and pervasive in society. Women in all regions of the world suffer subordination to men in the domestic, social and political spheres for generations. The fight for universal suffrage, just the right to vote, was a huge battle for women.


According to the most recent Social Institution and Gender (SIGI) Index from 2014, social inequality towards women is still widely prevalent. The SIGI index that measures variables including discriminatory family codes, restricted physical integrity including violence, son preference, restricted resources and assets and restricted civil liberties in 160 countries, showed that most of the countries, where data was available, had either a very high or high levels of social discrimination against women.



In terms of political representation, women are far behind. As of August 2015, only 22% of all national parliamentarians were female, a slow increase from 11.3% in 1995. Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10% parliamentarians, including 6 chambers with no women at all. The highest female to male ratio of political representation was found in Sweden (0.86) and Finland (0.82), while several countries had ratios as low as 0.05 (Yemen), India (0.11), Russia (0.11) and China (0.19).




Gender inequality in film and television (even in our fiction)


“The one area where we could reach parity overnight is on screen (TV and film), absolutely overnight…,” says Geena Davis, actor. Even Hollywood, blamed as the bastion of liberal ideas by conservatives globally, has fallen into the sexist trap. Gender imbalance is so pervasive that it exists even in our fiction.


The Institute on Gender in Media, a research-based organization out of the University of Southern California-Annenberg School of Communication, founded by Davis, promotes gender parity in media and entertainment industries. Research conducted by this institute found that between 2007 and 2014, women made up only 30% of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing films distributed in the US; and of all these female characters, only 20% were 40 to 64 years old. Merely 1.9% of those films were directed by women. The proportion of female directors on top-grossing films has actually fallen over the past 17 years, and only 5% of cinematographers are women.


In a report in the Guardian, Davis says that after the birth of her child in 2002, when she started watching more television and animation shows, she sponsored a study on gender depiction in family-rated films and children’s television over a 20-year period. The study found that for every female speaking character there were three males, while female characters made up just 17% of crowd scenes. Davis points out that this ratio seems to be pervasive: US congress? 17% women. Fortune 500 boards – 17%. Law partners, tenured Professors, Military – 17% female. Cardiac surgeons – 17%. Women in the Animation Guild – 17%. Journalists, print journalists are 19% women. Why does this percentage of women in leadership positions stall at about the same range in these different professions?


The question remains: Does society have only 20% women? If not, then why is sexism in fictional films so pervasive? Has it got something to with the fact that just like the larger society, decision-makers are overwhelmingly men and how can one get out of this imbalance? The Institute launches a Global Symposium on Gender in Media during the London film festival later this year to discuss and address these very issues.

geena davis 1



Life chances and life conduct


If gender equality is good for the economy, and good for growth and development, then why are countries and societies not making it a priority? Essentially women do not get the same chances in life that men get.


German sociologist Max Weber introduced the concept of ‘life chances’ (Lebenschancen in German), describing it as opportunities each individual has to improve his or her quality of life. A life chance is a probabilistic concept, describing how likely it is, given certain factors, that an individual’s life will turn out a certain way.


Weberian life chances can be seen as an expansion on some of Karl Marx’s ideas. Both Weber and Marx agreed that economic factors were important in determining one’s future, but Weber’s concepts of life chances are more complex; inspired by, but different from Marx’s views on social stratification and social class. Where for Marx the class status were the most important factor, and he correlated life chances with material wealth, Weber introduced such additional factors as social mobility and social equality. Other factors include those related to one socioeconomic status, such as gender, race, and ethnicity.


Sociologist, C. Wright Mills noted that everything from the chance to stay alive during the first year after birth to the chance to view fine art; the chance to remain healthy and if sick to get well again quickly; the chance to avoid becoming a juvenile delinquent; and very crucially, the chance to complete an intermediary or higher educational grade–these are among the chances that are crucially influenced by one’s position in the class structure of a modern society (1967).



A suffragist rally held in Hyde Park, London in the early 1900’s.


The issue of safety may help us understand the notion of availability or restriction of opportunities or life chances. For instance, in many countries, if a job requires returning home late at night families may not allow the woman to take that opportunity citing fear for the woman’s safety. In some cities women taxi drivers may find it hard to ply their taxis at night because of lax policing. This is an issue of law and order which is a state or system or structural responsibility. However, the fear of criminality and the general social stigma of crimes against women restricts the individual woman to jobs in the daytime; and even then there are other obstacles such as family responsibilities or care-giving for family members. This is a simplified illustration of the restriction of opportunities or life chances. There are many such instances in almost all spheres of life where one can clearly document the limited chances that women get. The question of gender equality at one level is the question of differential life-chances and standards for women and men.


Weber also noted that life chances are to certain extent subjective: what an individual thinks of one’s life chances will affect their actions, therefore if one feels that one can become or is a respected and valued member of society, then it is likely to become a reality and results in one being more successful and respected as compared to somebody without this conviction. In terms of agency and structure, life chances represent the structure, the factors that one has no control over. On the other hand the notion of “life conduct” – one’s values and beliefs, attitude to risk taking, social skills, or more generally, free willed choices about one’s behavior – represent the factors one has control over. According to Weber, together life conduct and life chances are responsible for one’s lifestyle. Until now the classic examples where women have achieved some goal despite the system has been one of strong will, a desperate desire to reach a dream, and mostly individual courage coupled with some fortuitous circumstances. We cite some examples of struggles below where individual women have risen above their circumstances. It has rarely been that the system or structure has laid out a path of equal opportunity for women. The studies by the World Bank or the McKinsey Global Institute clearly demonstrate that both at legal and the private sector or corporate level there is much to be done. However, we look at some examples below where individual women with courage have been able to organize a collective of other women to make a difference. It is life-conduct coupled with collective action that comes to mind when discussing cases where women have fought against the negative social, political, cultural or economic forces.




Life-conduct and bottom up changes often through collective action


History is witness to the times when women have engineered their life’s outcomes by employing a strong-willed life conduct and maximizing the remote chances given to them or even by creating these chances for themselves as well as other women around them by rallying the collective.


In 2000, a second civil war broke out and brought systematic rape and brutality to an already war-weary Liberia. Leymah Gbowee, a 27 year old, newly graduated social worker and struggling single mother of four, had herself lived in a refugee camp for a time, and had been forced to send her young children away to Ghana for their safety. Anguished and angry, Gbowee responded to this conflict by mobilizing an inter-religious coalition of Christian and Muslim women and organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. Gbowee and her allies, visited churches and mosques and distributed flyers that read: “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!” They also handed out simple drawings explaining their purpose to the many women who couldn’t read. Ignited by these calls, thousands of women dressed in white, gathered in a fish market in Monrovia, praying and singing for peace; they gathered in the field along Monrovia’s central road and refused to leave. The women picketed in downtown Monrovia, they held events and news conferences, but mostly they sat, day after day, month after month, in searing heat and pouring rain, demanding that attention be paid. With outreach, the protests soon spread to rural counties, and across Liberia. The women only had a one demand: They wanted peace in Liberia.



In the face of the women’s actions, the talks grew more serious. The then president Charles Taylor left Liberia, peace finally came, and in 2005, after more strategic organizing by women, Liberia elected Ellen Sirleaf Johnson to be Africa’s first modern-day female head of state. Today, even as the country struggles economically, peace endures.




In 2011, Manal al-Sharif, a 32 year old Saudi woman, was arrested after a video of her driving her car surfaced on YouTube and Facebook. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women – both Saudi and foreign – from driving. Manal al-Sharif, a computer scientist and mother of one, found this law to be highly discriminatory and disabling for women, especially for those who work. In early 2011, al-Sharif and a group of strong-willed Saudi women started a Facebook campaign named “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself” or “Women2Drive” that pushed for women’s right to drive be able to move around without being dependent on anyone. Al-Sharif drove her car twice with prominent Saudi journalist, Wajeda Al-Huwaider, filming her. This video, posted on Youtube and Facebook got 6,00,000 views while the campaign’s facebook page got 12,000 supporters. Al-Sharif was arrested and her licence withdrawn. In reaction to al-Sharif’s arrest, several more Saudi women published videos of themselves driving during the following days. Saudi newspapers have been filled with articles in recent days detailing a rash of women taking to the roads — publishing confessions of women who drove their children to school, a father to the airport or themselves on errands.






In 1974, when the men of Reni, a village in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand were away at work, lumbermen with axes and guns showed up with government permits to cut 2500 trees. A little girl saw them and raced to get Gaura Devi, the head of a women’s group, who quickly alerted 27 other women in the village. Dodging threats and obscenities, the women resorted to hugging the trees, and dared the lumbermen to cut the trees over their dead bodies. As the news spread, women and men from other villages joined this non-violent protest, and eventually, after a four-day stand-off, the contractors left. The struggle labelled as the Chipko Movement (Chipko is the Hindi word for embrace) soon spread across many parts of the region, and such spontaneous stand-offs between the local community and timber merchants occurred at several locations, with hill women demonstrating their new-found power as non-violent activists (as seen in the adjacent image).




As the backbone of the agrarian economy, women were affected by the large scale felling of trees and the consequent environment degradation. By breaking out of their conservative moulds, these women activists, not only fought for their own livelihoods, they also endured to protect their environment. This movement achieved victory when the then Prime Minister issued a ban on felling of trees of 15 years until the green cover was fully restored.




In September, 2015, India witnessed its first ever women-led tea-leaf pickers strike in Munnar, the tea district of the south Indian state of Kerala. Without the support of dominant, patriarchal trade unions or their leaders, 4000 female tea-leaf pickers, filled the streets of Munnar for more than a week, demanding an increase in bonus and daily wages, which they felt were not just. The women were their own leaders. The unrest caught the trade union leaders, who consider the plantations their fief, unawares. The smarter ones sensed the anger and kept their distance. The odd leader who tried to appropriate the struggle faced the full fury of the women. When state leaders from the other regions tried an outreach, they were sternly told to stay away. Left and right, communist and Congress, no party was spared. Politicians, conscious of the impending local body elections, swallowed their pride and declared solidarity. A few women, leaders never before, represented the workforce at the talks. The union leaders signed the deal the women had negotiated. A higher bonus was agreed upon, and further negotiations promised higher wages and better work conditions. Since the success of the women-only Munnar strike, several other women-led tea-leaf plucker groups in the state have gone on an indefinite strike demanding equal wages.




This one-of-a-kind strike brought two points to the fore. First, the gender aspect of the mobilization – Pembila Orumai (Unity of Women) is how the women called themselves. This was an all-women led movement for women, for their rights of parity in wages. Second, the protesters were part of the organized sector and members of trade unions. Both aspects indicate a departure from the dominant political narrative of Kerala. The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve, a trend increasingly visible in women dominated work sectors.


gender9 Women leaders reaching an agreement with the state Chief Minister, Oomen Chandy and the labour minister, Shibu Baby John




Since May 2015, married women in the villages of Haryana, a north Indian state, infamous for its patriarchal norms and skewed sex ratio and where almost 7 out of 10 pregnant women have anemia (lack of hemoglobin in red blood cells resulting from dietary iron deficiency which reduces oxygen carrying capacity of the blood), have been stepping out of their homes, gathering other married women and adolescent girls from their locality and talking about simple and cost-effective behaviors to reduce anemia and improve their health. These women are volunteers, also known as ‘health coaches’, who were selected and trained as part of ‘Leadership Haryana’, a community mobilization program. Health coaches were trained to conduct daily conversations, weekly group discussions, and local events to ensure that families, especially women, discussed anemia and improved their nutritional intake of iron. The high prevalence of anemia in the state is mainly due to deficiency of iron in the diet. This affects women more sometimes because of the norms of eating last and eating what is leftover and the family not putting a high priority on the woman’s health.


Despite facing resistance from her husband and in-laws, 25 year old Renuka, a housewife and mother of one, signed up to become a health coach of her village. Renuka aced her higher secondary school examinations but was married off as per her parents will soon after her results were declared. Renuka wanted to study further, become financially independent and take care of her parents, but the patriarchal society in Haryana dictate norms that a married woman must stay indoors and take care of her family as her primary goal. Before joining the Leadership Haryana program, Renuka’s daily routine consisted of waking up early in every morning at 5 am, washing, cleaning and milking the cows, single-handedly preparing meals 3 times a day for a joint family of 6 members, working in the field as well as tending to every single chore at home. Renuka was not allowed to step out of the house without wearing the purdah (covering the head and face with a dupatta or a veil) and had to be accompanied by her husband or father-in-law. Renuka felt bonded and suppressed in her own house, where she could not express herself to her husband or talk freely with her in-laws. She was dependent on others for her every need.


After becoming a health coach, Renuka was able to step out of her home on her own and visit other women in the village, for the first time after her marriage. Within a month, Renuka transformed herself from a shy housewife to a confident community health worker. Renuka was able to convince once reluctant pregnant women to use government antenatal care services; she encouraged and followed-up with adolescent girls to get routine blood tests done and take iron folic acid tablets regularly.


gender10 A health coach in discussion with women in a village in Haryana


Today young married women and girls in the village look up to Renuka and go to her for advice on health and domestic issues. Her husband and in-laws have started respecting her. With her growing confidence and the budding network that the community mobilization program has created for her, Renuka has been planning to take a small loan and set up a female-led cooperative for making local handicrafts.


Renuka seized this opportunity or chance that came her way of becoming a health coach and by adding her life conduct of hard work and dedication to this life-chance utilized both to resolve the conflict between what society expects of her (docile and submissive housewife) and her personal goals (earning a livelihood and becoming financially independent). She is now on her way to creating more opportunities for women in her village. Renuka wants to strive to bring her village to a point where every girl is educated and earns her own living.




On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman who worked as a seamstress, boarded a Montgomery City bus to go home from work. She sat near the middle of the bus, just behind the 10 seats reserved for whites. Soon all of the seats in the bus were filled. When a white man entered the bus, the driver (following the standard practice of segregation) insisted that all four blacks sitting just behind the white section give up their seats so that the man could sit there. Mrs. Parks, who was an active member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, quietly refused to give up her seat. She was arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation. Parks appealed her conviction and thus formally challenged the legality of segregation. Local civil rights activists conducted non-violent protests, led by their new leader – Martin Luther King Jr. A year after the boycott of the Montgomery bus system and protests by activists, the US Supreme Court ruled that the segregation law was unconstitutional and the Montgomery buses were integrated. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of a revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests in support of civil rights in the United States.




Rosa Parks display tremendous grit and conduct and stood her ground on that day. She initiated a new era in the American quest for freedom and equality. However, it was the collective action that was triggered by Rosa Parks’ stand that became significant in the fight against discriminatory policies and practices. Often strong will and life conduct exhibited by one person requires collective action on the part of those around her to see the end goals come to fruition as systemic changes.




Life Chances and top down change in the structure


These life stories demonstrate the power of strong-willed women who defied prevalent social norms that worked against them, and created chances for themselves. These women made a choice to alter and improve their life’s outcomes through determined life-conduct; and through that conduct and mobilization of a collective, they also created opportunities for other women around them.


At the risk of losing their lives, Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement strived relentlessly for restoring peace in the country. Manal al-sharif dared to fight for women’s rights in the patriarchal kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Gaura Devi and many of the hill women faced the wrath of forest contractors and businesses for embracing the trees in their forests and protecting the environment. The all-women protesters in Kerala brought the city to a standstill for nine long days and dared to demand parity in wages for female tea-leaf pickers. Health coaches, like Renuka, from Haryana, continue to challenge obstinate gender norms, by stepping out of their homes and enabling other women in the village to fight anemia by changing the norms in the kitchen and how food is served in homes. Rosa Parks’ determination sparked off the revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests in support of civil rights in the United States.


These stories of bravery are popular among people and the press because they feed into the notion of heroism, hard-working individuals who fight against odds and adversity to triumph and achieve their desires. This is the assumption and belief underlying popular non-fiction books such as the secret – you will get what you desire as long as you desire it strongly and with single minded purpose. Life-conduct is always attractive to cameras, to film-makers and novel writers as well as individuals. The discussion of creating life-chances is difficult because the system is abstract and is always seen as harder to change.


Such courageous individuals are few and far between. Surely, women in Scandinavian countries are strong and determined, but it is not just the will and determination of individual woman such as the ones cited above that has brought greater gender equality to Scandinavian countries. There is something beyond the individual that can change and affect human lives and that is the structure or the social system. There is a strong link between a general sense of equality in society, attitudes and beliefs about the role of women, the legal and political framework and gender equality in workplaces and communities. Equality at work goes hand in hand with equality and home and community, as the former cannot be achieved without a sense of equality in society.


Scandinavian governments have made it possible for both men and women to combine work and family, resulting in more women in the workplace, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for both women and men and, in some cases, a boost to waning fertility rates. Policies in these countries include mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave (480 days per child which can be taken any time until the child is 8 years old), generous, state-mandated parental leave benefits provided by a combination of social insurance funds, tax incentives and post-maternity re-entry programmes.


Norway introduced a 40% quota for female directors of listed companies in 2006, to come into force in 2008, it was a first. Non-complying firms could theoretically be forcibly dissolved, though none has in fact suffered such a fate. Since then gender quotas for boards have been imposed in Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain (though with less severe sanctions). eBay was touted as one of the most gender diverse tech companies, with 42% of female representation in total staff; with as many as 28% of those females held leadership roles.


In Scandinavia, women not just hold a strong representation in the top echelons of management, but are also given chances quite early in their career path through mentoring and sponsorship, as part of gender diversity initiatives.  Sponsorship (getting noticed, groomed and mentored for senior level positions) is and always has been a critical part of an executive’s path to the top. McKinsey reports show that companies have done much better when the CEO and the gender diversity leader personally took charge of the sponsorship program, selected a group of high-potential women, and invited them to spend significant time with the top team. Women in the program really got to know the CEO and senior-team members, and vice versa, and most have since moved up the management ladder.


Equality starts with equal and adequate life-chances for both men and women.


Development economist, Esther Duflo, stresses that continuous policy commitment to equality for its own sake may be needed to bring about equality between men and women.  Duflo calls for the need to expand opportunities given to girls and women; she raises the need to educate girls, to allow women with the freedom take up employment opportunities, own property, take decisions, and to lead people. Duflo also writes that in order to bring about equality between men and women it will be necessary to take policy action that favor women at the expense of men, and it will be necessary to do that for a long time.


Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen has long argued the need to increase women’s voice—through mechanisms that increase their independence and empowerment. What does this mean in practice? It means focusing on equal education, ownership rights, and employment opportunities outside the home. This means increasing the life chances available to women. Sen also says that any development program has to give greater power to women as they have been persistently neglected, underutilized, underpaid, under-appreciated—and over-exploited.


Some governments and private sector companies have shown the way in pushing gender responsive policies that create equal opportunities for men and women and encourage gender diverse environments.


Going back to the McKinsey and World Bank reports on gender discrimination in corporations, perhaps, many companies (and governments) are happy to announce, launch and implement cosmetic changes, training and sensitivity programs and not create any real change in the organizational structure and culture.


Gender diversity programs may not last, but gender equality values certainly do.


Governments and private sector must find incentives to push for gender equality or be inspired to pursue initiatives for the sake of equity. Change has to happen within the structure, the system, and from the top. However, is there something that each of us can do to create an opportunity, a chance for both men and women to achieve their potential, to improve their quality of life?


Though, most people are impatient. Changing the system requires concerted, collective action, maybe even participating at rallies and protests. People are often unwilling to participate. They ask: What is it that can we do at our own level to create opportunities for people? Can we create opportunities and chances for others? Can we support the strong life conduct of women?


The answer to that question is a series of questions: Do you allow people to come together and express their voice in your organization or do you stifle dissenting voices? Do you meet another human halfway? Does your mere presence itself give people the confidence that an opportunity will be created soon?


Gender equality is easy to talk about but difficult to do because many gender inequality values are embedded inside us – both men and women. A gender-equal society will require changes in the way we see and act in the world. And while the system or structure can create the life chances and opportunities or legal framework which will enable us to move in the positive direction; in the meantime, all of us, men and women, have to show strong life-conduct. We cannot hope for messiahs and leaders. We have to become the leaders of the gender equality movement in our workplace, community or home


What is it that we can do every day to make small changes that may not be noticeable at first but slowly add up to create a big change over time. It is like the wind working away every day and every minute to erode huge mountains. Small actions in our families, neighborhoods, companies that proclaim and reinforce our belief in equality. Can we make some shifts in the way we raise our families such that we shake the fundamental pillar on which gender inequality stands. Can we increase sensitivity and empathy among our sons just as much as try to make our daughters strong?


As Gloria Steinem said: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”




© Genevie Fernandes and The Essayist


Cover Image: “Monarch in the Making,” by D E Clark





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