SONGSOPTOK: What, in your experience, is the status of a girl child in the family? Is she treated in the same way as the male child? If not, what are the major differences in treatment?

KOLPITA BASU:   The status of the girl child in Indian urban middle class families has definitely improved. Right from giving the perfect nutrition to equal education opportunities, there seems to be a parity in treatment. Since there are more working mothers in the household, there is greater awareness towards equality. Also, more working mothers have ensured more income in the household, resulting in greater economic empowerment for women, and hence, the right decision making for their children.

Things were different till a generation back when there weren't too many working mothers. Mothers had little say in financial matters then. Their roles were restricted to cooking and other domestic chores. And most importantly, they raised daughters in the same manner as they were raised. Narrating the same folklore that were often typically biased against women. That perhaps gave birth to two kinds of women. One that was born to rebel, and the other that was expected to remain meek. Stepping out of the threshold has definitely helped matters for women as they are also aware how the real world functions.

Rural women and their counterparts dwelling in urban slums are much more vulnerable to their surrounding circumstances. Human trafficking is a major problem in cities and girls dwelling in slums are most at risk. Their mothers spent almost the entire day working as domestic helps. And very few are able to complete primary education because of gender disparity. These girls are married prior to their age and also have children early. Like the previous generation, these girls too start working as domestic helps. Thus the cycle continues. Apart from lack of education, they also suffer from health hazards.

SONGSOPTOK: Does the girl child have equal access to education in your country irrespective of economic or social status? What are the main factors that affect the equality or inequality of access to education?

KOLPITA BASU:   We are living in the 21st century. It is a century where technology has made major inroads. We are living in a digital age, which has enabled easy and quick access to information within nanoseconds. The Indian government has promised to digitize the entire nation by 2017. That would technically mean empowerment of every soul inhabiting this great country. But even as we inch closer to the super-technological age, we are found wanting in many basic areas. And one such area is gender parity. Empowerment of the girl child is still a big issue in India, and every government during the Union Budget lays special emphasis on it, allotting funds to educate the girl child and giving her the right nutrition. Attitudes are changing in rural India, I agree, and statistics may show some improvement. Yet, a lot still needs to be done.

Though both the girl and boy child start attending primary schools in rural India, domestic expectations, social safety and infrastructure barriers become major impediments for the former and most girls are forced to drop out of schools before they reach the age of 14. The same holds true for girl children dwelling in urban slums.

Let's now take the case of urban middle class India. Here, education till the college level is no longer an impediment for girls. Urban parents these days hold their daughters in parity with their sons. Though marriage still remains a foremost consideration. I would say urban middle class parents have moved forward and now show less restraint towards their daughters' ambitions. Parents with means have no issue with their daughters pursuing higher education. More urban parents are valuing the merit of their daughters today.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that women, contrary to men, always have to make a choice between home life and professional career? Is it fair either on men or women? What is your personal experience?

KOLPITA BASU:   Yes, unfortunately women still have to make that choice, even today. The primary reason being that men have not been mentally trained to look after a home. This training ought to start right from childhood. And no one can train better than a mother. If a mother treats both her son and daughter equally and explains the value of good housekeeping to both, the son can grow up to be equally responsible towards his home after marriage and fatherhood. That will also take away the pressure from the woman who has to juggle both her career and home. But that still seems some utopic years away.

While many mothers have raised their daughters at par with their sons, they have failed to raise their sons at par with their daughters. It is here that the problem lies.

The concept that men still have to be traditional breadwinners, and continue with their jobs, no matter how much they want to give up, is not at all fair. Both women and men must have equal rights to make that choice. And women should not expect men to build the world they want, they should rather contribute themselves towards creating it.

My personal experience is most liberating as both my husband and I have the choice to work as long as we enjoy working. We take equal interest in our housework.

SONGSOPTOK: Detailed studies have shown that there are very few women across the world occupy really top positions both in the private and public sectors. How do you explain this fact? Do you think that women are less qualified to hold top jobs or are there other explanatory factors?

KOLPITA BASU:   Women are more than qualified to head top corporate and government positions. Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, IBM CEO and managing director Ginni Rometty, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are some of the most successful women in corporate America. India's first woman prime minister Indira Gandhi, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir had all shown the world their true mettle. When it came to tough decision making, these female politicians stood firm as a rock.

Yet, they are a small speck in a vast ocean. They also had what many women do not have, that is the strong support of the men in their lives.

What has held most women back from occupying top positions is their households. Between the home and the world, the obvious choice becomes the home. As I have said in the aforementioned answer, as long as men do not take up equal responsibility in looking after the household, women will continue to step back even after crossing the threshold and achieving through merit.

The second most important reason of course is the absence of a conducive working environment. The compromise has to be made if the children are small and offices don't have flexible hours for working mothers. Most offices in India do not have crèches that would enable mothers to work and be with their children simultaneously.

Women working in news desks often have to quit after delivery as the work demands night shifts, which becomes next to impossible for new mothers.

Lastly, bias against women in society and the workplace are a major hindrance towards attaining top corporate and government positions. Here the attitude becomes chauvinistic.

SONGSOPTOK: Even in the advanced countries in the world, there is a large disparity between the number of men and women in political parties resulting in an under-representation of women in governments and elected councils. Do you agree with this point of view? What in your opinion are the main reasons?

KOLPITA BASU:   Yes I agree that disparity exists even in advanced countries. There is a large under-representation of women in governments and elected councils. I think it is largely a problem of societal attitudes, which needs to change.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think a larger participation and presence of women in all domains – economic, social and political- are actually required? Would it substantially improve the nature and quality of services and make the society a better place?

KOLPITA BASU:   Yes of course that would change society for the better. More participation from women in economic, political and social sectors is absolutely necessary to achieve an equal society. That would change perceptions about men and women and it would create an environment with less prejudices. It would enable equal participation in domestic chores as well. And no work would be considered less important.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that for women the choice of a career and that of a family life with children should be mutually exclusive? Do you think that women who opt for both are not totally successful in either sphere? What is your own experience?

KOLPITA BASU:   I don't agree with the view that women with career and children aren't totally successful. The CEOs I mentioned above all have children and that hasn't deterred them in achieving their goals. As for myself, I haven't faced any such problem as I do not have children. What is required is a social support system. Perhaps the lack of that deters women from becoming totally successful as many have to quit their jobs to raise their children. I, however, had a male colleague who did just the opposite by quitting his job to look after his newly-born son even as his wife took up a full-time job as a photographer.

SONGSOPTOK: What is your opinion about the role played by the mother in bringing up children? Do you think that mothers should take more responsibility for the well-being of the children more than the father given that other than breast feeding, almost every other responsibility can be equally shared between the parents? Please explain your answer.

KOLPITA BASU:   No, I think both parents have equal responsibility in bringing up their children. However, the onus to raise and look after the well-being of children still lies on the mother as society is quick to point fingers at her if something goes wrong with the children. This is extremely unfair. But the attitude can only change if more women occupy the outside sphere and more men share the domestic responsibilities.

SONGSOPTOK: “Women have been called queens for a long time, but the kingdom given them isn't worth ruling” said famous American writer Louisa M Alcott. Do you agree? What, in your perception, is the kingdom given to women?

KOLPITA BASU:   The kingdom, or rather queendom, given to women is the home and the kitchen. So that she rules and serves there and continues to expect the same from the next generation of women who come to live in that 'Kingdom'.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you agree that professional women have to work at least twice as hard as men to attain credibility in her chosen career? What is your personal experience? Do you think that it is a rule rather than an exception? What in your opinion needs to be done to bring greater equality in the workplace?

KOLPITA BASU:  Attitudes have to change first. A workplace can't change if society doesn't change. You have to understand that men and women will behave as they have been treated in their homes. In an office, there are people from different backgrounds and education. Each person has his or her own view on things. If a person was raised to believe that women are inferior to men, then he will bring this attitude to his workplace. And in case he occupies a senior position, he may even influence his decision against a well-deserved and talented woman employee in favour of a less-deserving male candidate. So that will be damaging both to the organisation as well as to the woman employee.

Hence, in situations such as these, professional women have to work doubly hard to attain credibility. More so if the women are self-employed because gaining trust is the most important aspect. So it is a cycle that has to begin inside the household and carried forward throughout the school and college days and maintained at the workplace and home.

SONGSOPTOK: Women who choose to be ‘homemakers’ often feel that they are not respected by society in general since they do not go out to earn money, though they probably have to work harder and for longer hours. Would you agree? What needs to be done to really valorize the homemakers?

KOLPITA BASU:   In India, homemakers are valorised more than working women. And I will not say they are not respected. However, they are looked down upon by men as a class that, according to them, 'don't understand matters beyond the household '. Such is the hypocrisy that if these homemakers step out of the threshold and start earning a few pennies, it threatens these men.

Society should acknowledge the 24-hour job done by homemakers and accept the fact that because of them the household is running smoothly without the others having to care a hoot.

SONGSOPTOK: On the other hand, working women very often have to juggle their professional and personal lives to be perfect both at home and at the workplace. What is your personal experience? Do you think that a woman really have to be perfect in both spheres or is this idea self-imposed? In your society, what is expected of working women?

KOLPITA BASU:   In my society, women have to be perfectionists. That is the expectation. They are expected to be brilliant homemakers, impeccable at their office jobs, hands down at any job they undertake. However, no person is perfect. And too much expectation causes undue stress. Many suffer from hyper tension due to unexpected pressure to excel both at the workplace and home. This often takes a toll on their health. Insomnia and skipping of the menses are now common maladies among young urban Indian women. Behind the layers of compact and the mascara hide the dilemma of failing to become the super woman. That is the real dilemma.

Lives in India where women are still breaking the glass ceiling. Some have reached heights, others are yet to make it for lack of actual opportunities. She considers merit to be the sole benchmark for achieving excellence for both men and women. According to her, owing to steep prejudices and an almost absence of equal opportunities in most cases, reservations have become necessary. The case of 33% reservation for women in parliament is one such example. She believes gender parity at the workplace is yet to be satisfactorily, if not fully, achieved. The ratio of male to female students in IITs too is uneven, with scales tilted in favor of male students.

      We sincerely thank you for your time and hope we shall have your continued support.

Aparajita Sen:
Editor, Songsoptok.)


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