Equal. Are We?

So, you believe in gender equality. Your blood boils when you hear about atrocities against women? You took a vow not to take dowry? Did you tell your wife, that you are flexible regarding her decision to work or not? Did you promise her that whether she works or not, you will keep a cook to reduce the drudgery in her life?

Having done the above, do you feel happy that you are a loving, egalitarian, considerate partner?

Of course, many of the above questions are addressed to men.

I must admit, the men of our times have come a long way from where they were many years back. I cannot imagine having a partner from a generation where men decided whether their wife worked or not, expected that no matter whether she worked or not, she would cook for the family and of course cook and clean well.

Certainly, things have changed. And I am thankful. As I said above, there is a consciousness among men and women that the wives are equal partners in life and many of the externally visible behaviours and activities seem to demonstrate that. Great!

However, one may have to look a little deeper to see how gender inequality plays out in our generation. In many of our lives (I mean the elite, educated, and urban amongst us) we may have to ask some uncomfortable questions to see whether we are indeed gender equal within our families. Even while I say this, I must admit that domestic violence is a fact that is prevalent across class, today. It is still a sad fact that the patriarchal system thinks that women can be controlled and “corrected” through violence and that the superiority of the male gender is reinforced through a show of strength and aggressiveness. Even when reliable statistics are hard to come by, there are a few numbers that we may need to remember. A UNICEF study quotes a 1996 survey where, up to 45% of men acknowledged physically abusing their wives in Uttar Pradesh. Kerala which ranks high regarding several gender-based statistics demonstrates a very different story in how its women are treated within the confines of the home. A study conducted by INCLEN and ICRW on domestic violence in Kerala found that as high as 62.3% and 61.61% of the women are subjected to physical torture and mental harassment. (Sakhi) A study by Sakhi Resource Centre for the Dept. of Health report 40% violence against women, with an average of 2 women patients coming every day to the Out Patient Departments (OPD’s) with injuries due to violence (Sakhi, 2004). Therefore, the urban, elite is not completely free of the most evident form of gender inequality and that has to be acknowledged even before we discuss the more subtle aspects of gender equality.

Then, why this post?

The reason being, that gender equality today seems to be defined by the minimums rather than the optimums. Moreover, many men and women seem to be uncomfortable with any conversation that revolves around women’s rights in their rather perfect world where they think they are being equal. So, if a man does not beat his wife, or does not take dowry or does not expect her to cook and clean like his mother, or is flexible enough to “let” her take her decisions regarding her work life, he feels good about himself. As I said before, I am thankful to all the men, who do at least this much. But, is this enough? Are you truly treating your partner equally?

Before we answer this question, let me elucidate the situation as it exists in our so called gender equal elite society. Take a look around at professionals. Let me begin from the corporate world. The glass ceiling is a reality across the world. The March 2009 report, Women CEOs of the Fortune 1000, published by Catalyst identified that of the Fortune 500, only 15 CEOs were women including one Indian( Indra Nooyi) and in Fortune 501-1000, there were nine women CEOs. (SHRM) India seems to be doing rather better considering that 11% of Indian CEOs are women. Having said that, one has to keep in mind that 1/3rd of these are family owned businesses. (WSJ)The reason I am talking about CEOs is to reinforce the economic inequality that exist in the “work” aspect of our community. The lower percentage of women CEOs, women managers and women’s participation in the workforce does not mean that women do not work. What is critical to acknowledge is that, this means, most of the work that women do, is either not given a financial value, is valued less or the opportunity to reach positions economically equal to men is often filled with obstacles such as double burden, stereotyped expectations and their own self image.

Image credits: flickr@[fortheloveofcc](http://www.flickr.com/photos/fortheloveofcc/)

So, some simple questions I have for men are:

  • Does your wife have a lesser income than you? Why?
  • Did she choose a lesser paying job so that she can spend more time at home?
  • Did she choose not to work because both of you decided that your kids need to be brought up well in a loving family?
  • Does she miss out on being the star performer in her office, since she just cannot afford to give in that extra night outs and evenings? And because, when your child is sick, more often than not, it is she who has to take time out from work rather than you?
  • Or as a principle, did she choose a “female” oriented profession such as teaching, and social work which by itself pays less than your corporate job? (Most jobs where women dominate are seen to be much lesser paying that those dominated by men.)
  • Well, if none of the above seems to be true now, what do you foresee when she is forty? How do you see yourself, when you are forty? Is that picture, gender neutral?

The above is the case of the urban elite woman. In the unorganized sector, where more than 90% of women workers are associated, (National Commission on Enterprises in Unorganized/Informal Sector, 2006) wages are unequal by norm. Even men do not get their minimum wages. Its not just rural populations... Women in rural Karnataka make as low as 30Rs per day. In their case, not only do they have to work full-time but in many homes, the responsibility of running the family is also completely borne by the women. The extent of inequality is beyond explanation. This sentence from the book The Kite Runner always comes to my mind, when I hear their stories. The hero of the book says, "I cringed a little at the position of power I'd been granted, and all because I had won at the genetic lottery that had determined my sex." So true in our world, isn’t it?

I keep coming back to some harsh realities so that we don’t think that the fight is over. It is far from that. However, in the seemingly egalitarian world, the so called “urban educated” women should not give up the accomplishments that the women’s movement has made, if any at all.

While I have put down some facts regarding women, I certainly don’t think, men have it easy either. They don’t always have a choice in our society to follow their dreams. They too are bound by gender stereotypes where their role of a “provider” is still strong and that role comes with its expectations.

This, being the situation, how does one define gender equality in urban, elite, educated families?

First, there is a need to acknowledge that the contribution of men to a family is clearly demonstrated by their payslip. The male contribution has already been given a financial value. To me, operationalising gender equality in an urban family is about defining the financial value for the woman’s unseen, unvalued contribution to the family. It is here, that the initial few questions that I put down become important. If the wife/partner’s situation is one of those, then I would presume that her contribution is equal to that of the man. The money that the man brings in home is not just a result of his performance at work alone but a combination of his effort at work and that of his wife at home which makes it easier for him to perform. Thereby enters the tricky question of operationalising this unseen contribution of women.

I asked an unmarried friend, how he would consider sharing wealth with his wife, if she were not working? His answer was, “I would give her a credit card, so that she does not have to ask me when she wants to spent. Maybe a few years from the marriage, I might get a house in her name” It is sweet, but not enough. This is only an urban form of income control, where the man will always hold the strings to her expenses. As I said, I am thankful for such men too compared to the earlier generation where in many cases she would have to negotiate for money. Then I asked him, what stopped him from having a joint account?

Although, we did not take the conversation further, a joint account between the husband and wife is to me one of the many ways of a gender equal urban society. I may be criticized for using a rather calculative lens to evaluate a beautiful relationship based on love. I believe in love, myself and find it so difficult to talk “finances” in a personal relationship, be it with brothers, father or partner. Of course, I have no data as to how many people currently have joint accounts. It is some of the reactions from some of my male friends and family members that force me to articulate this need clearly. Even if the wife does not work, if one acknowledges the responsibility within a marriage, as it exists today, there is the need to provide equal space in all aspects, including finances. Today, women are aware that they should have equal rights to property and therefore in many families, the house seems to be on a joint ownership. (Joint titling is still a concern in rural areas) But we said, equal, didn’t we?

Let me repeat my disclaimer again. I do think that Indian men are quite giving, and are under huge pressure to keep up their “provider” role with respect to the family. However, when divorces happen, the situation does not seem as great. Her claim to maintenance is often determined by her ability to prove the husband’s income sources. When the woman is unaware of her husband’s business dealings and sources of income, it is difficult to claim a clear 50% of his income. If his dealings involve the black market economy, it becomes almost impossible to claim her right. Moreover, today courts have no power to create obligations binding on the husband for the benefit of the wife or children. The court is seen just as a forum where un-enforced maintenance orders are given. (Agnes, 2008) Therefore, in many cases, the woman in her 40s, suddenly finds herself in a rather sorry state, where she has the responsibility of the children, without a steady flow of income to lead her life and where the possibility of a new life is also difficult. The rather elite lifestyle that she was used to, while in the marriage makes things even more difficult. My point is simple. As we build our families, we have to be conscious of what is “equal”. Equal means that everything that the man and the woman acquired after marriage and used jointly, is equally shared, not just orally but in documents. I would expect that a truly egalitarian husband would secure his wife’s future, as much as his own. The question is very simple although hard hitting. If the happily married husband and wife were to split today, what is her net worth in comparison to his?

If it is not equal, it’s just that - not equal.


  1. The Situation of Women in the State: The gender paradox http://sakhikerala.org/Articles%20.html

  2. http://www.shrm.org/Research/Articles/Articles/Documents/09-0677_India_W...

  3. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2010/11/18/which-has-more-female-ceos...

  4. Gender Based Violence In Kerala, Sakhi Resource Centre, June 2004

  5. G. Raveendran, SVR Murthy and Ajaya Kumar Naik, Redefining of Unorganized Sector in India , National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganized/Informal Sector, India May 2006 www.mospi.gov.in/Manual%2002.doc

  6. Agnes, Flavia, “Family Courts: From the Frying Pan into the Fire?”, Women’s Studies in India, Edited by Mary.E.John 2008

Preethi Krishnan works with Best Practices Foundation