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The Smoking Gender Gap Is Narrowing In India, But Is It A Win For Women?

Choosing the stereotypes we want to break.

16/09/2017 10:19 AM IST | Updated 17/09/2017 11:47 AM IST
Saša Prudkov

By: Anuradha Das Mathur and Bhavna Bidani

"Women are narrowing the gender gap"—instinctively, this statement invites celebration almost everywhere in the world. However, when this statement is in the context of smoking, might we want to pause before applauding? Or, not really?

A recent WHO report states that "in quickly developing India, female cigarette smoking exists mainly among the urban elite classes of large cosmopolitan cities, which may reflect women's aspiration to 'equal' the social position of men." A study published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal examined the prevalence of smoking in 187 countries between 1980 and 2012 and found an interesting, or perhaps worrying, trend for India: cigarette smoking is falling among Indian men and rising for women. While the numbers for men are significant (from 33.8% in 1980 to 23% in 2012), the percentage increase for women is marginal (from 3% to 3.2% over the same duration). However, it is the trend that grabs attention and the absolute number of 12.5 million female smokers isn't small either. The question in our minds is, why are women smoking more, given the established and dire consequences for health, and whether our aspiration for gender equality should include breaking every existing stereotype—even that of "smoking is masculine?"

Should our aspiration for gender equality include breaking every existing stereotype—even that of "smoking is masculine?"

Let's start with the why. In the absence of data, based on conversations, discussions and observations, for many women, the first reason is simple—smoking gives them a high and makes them feel good! In their heads, this has nothing to do with gender. It's just personal choice. For others, rapidly changing attitudes and evolving social norms offer opportunities to express themselves, assert their independence, step out of not just their homes but also their traditional image—and cigarette smoking becomes one indicator. Sometimes, there is an "I will do this because I can" element in the choice to smoke. Other reasons cited by women smokers are experimentation, an expression of liberation, and even the belief that it curbs appetite and helps weight loss!

Smoking in the corporate world is reasonably common—"stepping out for a smoke" is about unwinding, relaxing and coping with stress. As women face peer pressure to "fit in" and gain acceptability into the "boys' club", smoking presents an attractive and possibly easier choice. A woman smoker today is often "perceived" as modern, self-assured and also non-conforming to traditional societal or gender norms. It is not surprising that the rise in women smokers is most pronounced in urban workplaces.

And it seems that women have already built in the biological hazard of smoking into their decision—it is by all means an "informed" choice.

We must fight to have equal access to all opportunities and behaviours, without being judged or stereotyped for them, but that doesn't mean we should do everything we "can" do.

Our second question was around whether this stereotype merits breaking. We know that smoking is associated with "conventional masculinity"—being macho, powerful, risk taking, adventurous, blasé, and much more. Cigarettes do not conjure up the "conventionally feminine" traits, i.e. empathetic, domestic, stable, security conscious and so on. A woman holding a cigarette does cause some raised eyebrows, even today. Some interpret it as un-feminine and unseemly, while others see it as bold and progressive. Is it ever an unthinking choice for women? In an age where this shouldn't be about morality, is it an act of rebellion, an instinctive desire to challenge the existing stereotype? Whatever the motivation, is it a good enough reason to walk from a "preferred position" (health-wise) to an unhealthier, avoidable "male" trend? Growing acceptance of women's smoking is considered reflective of social change, emancipation and greater independence, but is smoking really an appropriate symbol of gender equality?

Our commitment to closing the gender gap, breaking the glass ceiling, and creating inspiring role models for the younger generation of aspirational women comes with a responsibility to ourselves and to other women to choose our "equality goals" carefully. In a time of heightened consciousness around health and wellness, shouldn't this trend be downward for both—men and women? Some other examples come to mind, where men must walk towards the positions currently inhabited by women and, thereby, close the gap. Take the case of empathy which is considered "feminine"—given the widespread recognition that it is becoming an increasingly important attribute of leadership, empathy amongst men must go up, as opposed to women discarding it to smash a stereotype. Could destroying some stereotypes be self-defeating?

Isn't it time for us to create new "gender-neutral" norms that serve both sexes better and help us to be the best version of ourselves?

We must fight to have equal access to all opportunities and behaviours, without being judged or stereotyped for them, but that doesn't mean we should do everything we can do. Some addictions are best avoided, even if they help smash a stereotype. Isn't it time for us to create new "gender-neutral" norms that serve both sexes better and help us to be the best version of ourselves?

Back to where we began, should we pause before applauding this closing of the "gender gap" or not really?

Anuradha Das Mathur is the Founding Dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women. A Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016, she was recognised as one of India's 100 women achievers by the President of India.

Bhavna Bidani is the Senior Manager, Marketing and Branding for the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women.

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