One small step, one big change

September 19, 2018

Is it not interesting that a country which has had a woman Prime Minister, way back in the 1960s and 1970s, still runs a campaign to save and educate the girl child? Notably, it is only in recent years that many a so-called developed nation started having women at the helm of affairs. What has gone wrong and where? This inquiry merits a good brainstorming. There are several challenges we all know and have enough data on. So, can we get into action mode now? Can we put our strengths to use?

Just a few months ago, I happened to meet Srishti Bakshi, who was on her mission to walk a 100 crore steps starting from Kanyakumari (in South India) to Srinagar (in North India) in a duration of 260 days to create awareness on women issues. She is a ‘Champion of Change’ of the United Nations’ eponymous initiative. A high-profile corporate woman who lived in Hong Kong, Bakshi was deeply affected by the incident that happened in India in Bulandshahr and decided to do something all by herself. Though she had a good network and an illustrious pedigree, it was not easy for her to get started. Nevertheless, she accomplished her objective: reaching out to urban and rural women across the country and sensitizing them—and men too—to numerous issues; this included talking and educating them about their safety, hygiene, emotions, identity, and their life at large.

Bakshi mentioned, during a discussion, that in some places she found that pregnant women do not drink enough water in order to avoid going to the washroom as there is none in the first place and relieving themselves in the open in broad daylight is difficult. She conducted hundreds of educational workshops and tried to explore the ground reality, all on foot, step by step. The issue is whom we want to change and what we can do at a personal level. A lot of our counterparts are waiting; we need to take a call. Sudha Murthy took hers. Her recent book, Three Thousand Stitches, is not just a great read but an eye-opener too; it is a guide on what one can do if one decides to. The way she has been able to impact and improve the quality of life—the very life fabric of devdasis—is a feat in itself. Can we choose our target? Can we decide and zero in on a few women, a small group, even a single woman, who may be working as our domestic help or a peon in office?

There are a lot of things, however, not happening on the required scale around the issue of women empowerment. This year, we had our President honoring the ‘first ladies’. We have women winning in various categories in international sports events. The Lok Sabha Speaker and many Cabinet ministers are women. Despite this, why do we need to read, write, and talk about women-related issues on every forum? Ela Bhatt, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), made an important observation in one of her interviews: “…we need to talk more about the achievements and success of women around us. We need to celebrate the success of women whom we can see, meet, and relate with. A story of Sheryl Sandberg and Hilary Clinton will definitely inspire me but, I may not get an opportunity to meet them, ever. They and I are very different. Our context is way different. Therefore, when we hear their stories, we definitely feel motivated, but in most cases, we need something more to convert that motivation into action/s.” This means we need to get to know about the way women around us manage their challenges and win.

There is a scientific base to what Ela says, a theory to which Albert Bandura contributed immensely—the ‘self-efficacy theory of motivation’, also known as ‘social cognitive theory’ and ‘social learning theory’. It refers to an individual’s belief that he or she is capable of performing a task. Higher your self-efficacy, the more confidence you have in your ability to succeed. The researcher suggests four ways through which self-efficacy can be increased:

enactive mastery

Gaining relevant experience with the task or job. If you have been able to do the job successfully in the past, you are more confident that you will be able to do it in the future. But this is applicable [only] to those women who get an opportunity in the first place.

vicarious modeling

This is the most relevant to the point I am trying to make—becoming more confident because you see someone else doing the task. The theory says, vicarious modeling is most effective when you see yourself as similar to the person you are observing. So, when I see my mother being a doctor and operating successfully for years, I feel I too can do it easily. But if I have never had anyone in close vicinity whom I saw as a role model, maybe I would have had a lot of trouble managing my work and personal life simultaneously. In that case, I could be lucky to hear a motivational speech and it may lead to what Bandura calls, ‘verbal persuasion’.

verbal persuasion

This means becoming more confident because someone convinces you that you have the skills needed to be successful. This may not necessarily lead to ‘arousal’, which means an energized state, so the person gets psyched up and performs better, feels Bandura.

arousal

This takes up another important issue, that is, ‘can we have more role models from around us?’ Here, the issue is of context. In order to benefit from others, we need to reach out, may be to the smallest and nearest cluster of women who are performing so that we can easily relate to them and benefit from associating with them.

For the last three years, my colleague and partner Dr Abhishek Narain Singh and I have been conducting a study on women leaders and entrepreneurs from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. A sample of more than 200 has been collected. We studied their ‘role stress’ and ‘support systems’. The first-year study was focused on ‘role stressors’, and the top three identified are, role-isolation (emerging out of role-irrelevance), role inadequacy, and self-role distance.

Role-isolation means feeling isolated (left out) as there are not enough leaders/businesswomen around. Improving one’s own required network may fix this problem to a large extent. Role inadequacy means feeling of helplessness and need for power. Some women leaders may experience stress in relation to their lack of impact, or their control over various aspects such as inadequate training. The stress which arises out of conflict between what you think you are and the expectations from the role you are engaged in may lead to self-role distance. A general development plan (GDP) for the participants in the study was provided through a seminar. Both the years, hardly one-fourth of the participants attended the seminar. The study got published but that was not the only agenda, not the first one at least. Let me call this issue, ‘taking ownership’. Not taking charge of oneself needs some good attention before we ask for help from outside.

The other day, when I stopped at a grocery store in my neighborhood, I asked Leela (name changed), owner of the shop to, quickly fetch a few things in my list of items so that I could leave quickly. I saw a year-old baby playing at the reception counter, but I could not find her parents anywhere around. I enquired, “Whose daughter is she?” “My sister’s. She is in Mumbai. You know how it is there; no one to look after her, so we volunteered and here she is now, for almost six months. Her mother visits frequently,” she said. I am sure you can find a similar story in your neighborhood. This speaks volumes about the support systems for working women in India. In tier two and three cities, it is a bigger problem. Very few professional day care systems are in place. So many women give up their careers to look after their children. No issue if they do it willingly, but what about those who wish to work out of home, but cannot. As Viktor Frankl puts it, “Once you know your ‘why,’ you can survive almost anyhow.” One may guess, they manage to find their ‘why’ and learn to be happy.

The children of working women need to be taken care of. Did you read about the motivational story of Anu Kumari who stood first in the women’s category of UPSC 2017 and scored second rank overall? She says, “My mother looked after my two-year-old and my maternal aunt looked after me; if these two women would not have supported me in every possible way, there was no way I could have achieved what I had aspired for.” Is it not high time we institutionalized this? Banking on our strengths, seeking opportunities, and aspiring for results can be a good starting point and as Peter Senge says, believing that we are in a leadership position of importance may help us develop a more useful mental model.