Why We Need To Stop Telling Women They're Equal To Men

11/08/2015 8:30 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Meriel Jane Waissman

The biggest disservice we do to women is telling them that they are equal to men. We fail to prepare them for their reality and, by doing so, we set them up for a lifetime of struggle, disappointment and misery.

Men and women are not equal -- they are different. Like apples and oranges. We're all fruits, yes, and only one of us will make a decent apple pie.

This whole bringing-up-your-daughters-the-way-you'd-bring-up-your-sons business is nonsense. When did we decide that there is an ideal human being prototype and it's male? Why is no one bringing up their sons like they'd bring up their daughters?

Many women of my generation were "brought up like sons". We went to the best schools and colleges our parents could afford. Ambition was not just encouraged but insisted upon. We were asked to dream and we dreamt big. We were told we could do anything a man can and for the longest time we believed that. We got good grades, we made it to big jobs and did well. We married men we chose and they "allowed" us wings our mothers couldn't have dreamt of in their marriages.

And then we had babies.

Having a child is the single-more gender-defining thing a woman can do -- and cute as they may be, babies take every notion you may have had of man-woman equality and smack you in the face with it till it's all but beaten out of you and you're the exact same bag of motherhood hormones as countless women before you have been. Except now it's a lot worse.

"Why are we always wishing the mother away and looking for ways to turn her into a 'career woman', just queuing up to do all that a man can?"

Children have no idea that they are now being born in the 21st century and should treat their mothers differently. Having a child continues to be the same amount of work: childbirth continues to be a bitch and a mother's biological impulses drawing her to her child remain as strong as nature intended them to be. But our expectations from women are very different now. They are supposed to be men.

They are expected to be men, but they can't stop being women. As a result, the most competent, educated, financially independent Indian woman today is terribly ill-equipped to handle her reality.

A lot of jokes about women centre on them being moody, irrational and not knowing what they want. This isn't actually funny -- we honestly don't know what we want. Nature intended us to want near-constant physical proximity to our children and gave us a fierce instinct to protect and nurture. Capitalism and its definitions of success need us to regularly show up at work and lean bloody in. Our parents told us we could be their "sons" but will be the first to raise an alarm if we neglect our homes and children and stopped being "daughters". We are always, always torn.

We can fight it all we want, but we are not winning an argument against biology. Where is the recognition of the importance of the nurturing role a mother plays in a home? Why do we treat mothers as replaceable in a child's life by a supportive father or an efficient childcare system? This is not a "gendered" argument as some of my feminist friends might say -- the way my son's cries affect me is not the same as they would affect his father. And I am willing to go to war with you on this.

How is it then that we don't recognise this critical aspect of being a woman and let it enter our reality? Why are we always wishing the mother away and looking for ways to turn her into a "career woman", just queuing up to do all that a man can?

When I was growing up, my mother often told me that I should choose a career that would be "suitable to women". Like a school teacher or a doctor in a government hospital -- like she was -- so I could come back home at a "decent time" and have time off work to spend at home in general. It used to infuriate me then but it sounds like some seriously good advice now. In the face of things I now need and want to do, it would be a nightmare to have to deal with work that doesn't allow such benefits -- as it is for many women.

"[T]he way my son's cries affect me is not the same as they would affect his father. And I am willing to go to war with you on this."

I work in a sector that is effectively the bastion for man-woman equality, with very little room to not give employees things like maternity benefits. My boss is an exceptionally accommodating person, who allows me not just a job, but a career, with all the flexibility that I can ask for. When I think about how I managed to land this, the answer is a combination of sheer dumb luck and the fact that before I had a child, I was able to make some adventurous career moves to build skills that now make me valuable to my employer. A lot of this was a happy accident, but looking back I wish someone had given me this advice when I was contemplating my career options or planning the next work/study move. I wish someone had warned me that there will be a phase in life where my career decisions will have very little to do with my professional priorities but with everything else that'll mostly be a non-negotiable -- and had told me how to prepare for it.

Maybe it's time now to introduce our daughters to the truth of what it means to be a woman and teach them to never apologise for it.

We could start by no longer denying them their differences and teach them to negotiate their reality. Being financially independent, finding work that is meaningful and exciting, the ability to keep a foot in the door -- all this while being present for your child, without pushing yourself so hard that somewhere, something snaps. This is a critical life skill and no one is teaching it to our girls.

This is not about tempering ambition but dealing with the roadblocks. It is also about redefining ambition and bringing it in line with what women really want -- not what they're taught to want. To find and create spaces for themselves as their circumstances change, to know their biology and be better prepared for what it'll throw at them, to ask for help as traditional family structures disintegrate, to ask for flexible work hours, to build their skills in such a way that allow this kind of flexibility, to stop apologising for stepping down or stepping back when their bodies and hearts make them, to not feel compelled to fight their natural instincts only because they are striving to some ideal prototype of a woman who leans in and can have it all.

"What's wrong with 'women-friendly' jobs anyway? They are friendly to women -- that should be a good thing."

None of this is to deny the importance of fighting for equality in opportunity and maternity benefits from our institutions, nor is it an argument for pushing girls to take on only "women friendly" jobs. But wouldn't it be nice if we knew growing up that we will need to fight these battles? Maybe some of us would choose differently, maybe some of us won't. But all of us will make more informed choices.

What's wrong with "women friendly" jobs anyway? They are friendly to women -- that should be a good thing.

A friend thinks I'm doing the biggest disservice to women by "dissing the feminist movement". I'm doing no such thing. The feminist movement is thankfully nuanced enough and has made all these points in many writings -- we have just forgotten its finer arguments.

I am just saying that we've been fighting this fight forever and it's taking a toll on us -- on our peace of mind, our sanity, our relationships and our careers. We are not men, we want different things and we can offer different things. Not recognising these differences is just setting us up to fail.

A "great" father is one who can change a diaper or will show up for their child's PTA meeting. I've never heard a mother being addressed as a "great" mother. Everything mothers do is routine, standard, not worthy of any special mention. When we have such low expectations of our men, why do we set such impossible standards for ourselves? We need to stop martyring ourselves for the fight because this is not how fights are won. I wish we'd stop wearing our stressful lives as badges of honour and resist from finding such virtue in "multitasking".

Frankly, if we really want to be like men, we should never leave our parents' homes, do the bare minimum, pat ourselves on the back for every little success, blame others for any failure, and just get a beer.

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