Time to redefine gender boundaries - Hindustan Times
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Time to redefine gender boundaries

ByHindustan Times
Mar 08, 2023 09:18 AM IST

The article has been authored by Priyanka Bhide, co-founder, Kubernein Initiative.

Every year, on March 8, through the occasion of the International Women’s Day (IWD), we are given a moment to recognise and celebrate women’s contributions, as well as the societal gains that continue to lead us towards a more equal future. While wholeheartedly supporting, cheering on, and sometimes even patting myself on the back, a part of me has remained contemplative on this day. The focus every year is limited to a specific area – digital innovation this year, climate change efforts in 2022, and leadership towards equality during Covid in 2021 – with resources and efforts put towards maximising the leverage that this day offers. In reality, achieving targets of gender equality are far more complex and must consider the nature of the underlying socio-economic fabric.

Time to redefine gender boundaries.(Getty Images/iStockphoto) PREMIUM
Time to redefine gender boundaries.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

From the IWD theme of 2020 the concept of “generation equality” holds great significance; it forces us to recognise that it will take us generations to reach the levels of gender parity in the various spheres of life that we desire. The WEF Global Gender Gap Report tells us how poorly we are doing every year, as a country, as the world, as humanity. The global gender gap will take 132 years to close (according to the 2022 index). In South Asia it will take 197 years, keeping in mind country divergences of a heterogeneous region. These numbers provide impetus to impact oriented solutions that we hope someday will help us leapfrog to better performance numbers. Do we, however, spend an adequate amount of time thinking about the web of interconnected factors that will hold us back for so many generations? For instance, how do we change cultural conditioning that is often a barrier for women that may be given the solutions and technology, and yet lack access.

In a pilot study by XPRIZE with UNESCO and WFP for testing innovative education technology in villages in Tanzania, a tablet was placed in front of a group of children, with equal numbers of boys and girls. It was observed that while the boys approached the technology with confidence and assertion, the girls in the very same room, were more afraid and timid in their approach. Women are culturally often brought up to heed to instruction, to do as and when told. When an intersectional lens is taken, the degree of obedience differs. The question remains that even if technology is able to reach the last mile, how do we solve for the cultural barriers? How do you measure, plan, execute for impact in the midst of these unmeasurable variables?

I recently attended the International Strategy Forum organised by Schmidt Futures, where I learnt of the very practical difficulties faced by educators in Ukraine. The risks from war has resulted in education going online for many in the near future. Delivery of online education has its challenges due different parts of a city receiving electricity at different times, and for limited periods. The long-term effects of this are harder to quantify, though other conflict zones give us a glimpse. In India, we have experienced similar gaps: The years of Covid restrictions have resulted in a generation of children and youth falling behind on learning outcomes - more acutely experienced by women and girls. Families in the lower income strata struggled not only to make ends meet, but also to manage a limited number of devices between competing priorities – parents’ work and children’s education. Even though the government and civil society stepped in with digital solutions, according to a UNICEF study, 42 % of 6-13 year olds did not use remote learning due to either lack of access, infrastructure, or technological knowhow. Thinking then of the families that had children of different genders or those in different grades, one wonders who was given access? How was the decision made? To tackle this, we need gender disaggregated data and qualitative research that is pointed so that actions are specific and meaningful.

My examples may rest on elements that fit this year’s theme of “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. My intention however, is to force us to think more broadly, outside the lines in which we are meant to colour. To ponder on what it will actually take, beyond the obvious measures currently in play, for our world to bridge this gap and achieve generation equality. How do we push our intellectual boundaries to re-define the paradigms of success and failure, or social acceptability? Such as allowing individuals (men and women) the choice of stepping back from the “rat race”, with dignity and social safety, whether to look after children, ailing parents, or themselves. Examples exist of companies such as Novartis, Amazon, Microsoft, Diageo offering “Family Leave” to support individuals on their chosen path of parenthood. But we are yet to create the culture that normalises use of these opportunities – we still do not look favourably upon men that stay at home and women that put their ambition first. While we continue to solve for more equal and diverse representation at boardrooms and key decision- making tables, we must also work towards creating cultures that support this change for it to be truly universal.

The article has been authored by Priyanka Bhide, co-founder, Kubernein Initiative.

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