08/03/2016 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Freeing Career Choices From Gender Stereotypes

Helicopters fly over new graduates of the Indian Air Force during their passing out parade ceremony in Bangalore, India, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. A total of 121 officers including 45 women completed Friday after 74 weeks of training at the primary force of the Indian Armed Forces. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

A digitally connected world, changing outlooks, ever-rising aspirations and access to education are all driving women to strive for new frontiers. And yet, stereotypes continue to operate, especially in the choice of careers. The unsaid norm continues to be of women placing their family before career and this remains an important driver of professional choices. For achieving a balance between personal and work lives, women need the operating environment, social and family attitudes and workplace policies to render that extra support and encouragement. In a society where almost 21% of the population still lives below the poverty line, the problem of choice of work takes many different dimensions.

While some are fighting the odds to complete basic schooling, others are fighting the odds in careers that are perceived to be the province of men.

When we use words like 'stereotype' and 'unconventional' we need to first consider the context. On one end of the spectrum are women like astronaut Kalpana Chawla, whose life was an epigraph of small town, middle-class success as she broke stereotypes in everything she did. On the other end of the spectrum is the struggle and triumph of a woman like Shantha (her story narrated by BBC Capital in "The woman who lifted a village"), who, with no formal education or experience fought the odds and lifted an entire village from poverty by empowering the women around her. Her story of starting a microfinance venture in a village is in its own way unconventional even though the work involved was the setting up of a packaging unit. These women battled against different sets of stereotypes as they dealt with multiple challenges.

I see women breaking taboos and creating stories of inspiration every day as they find their way to dreams that were unachievable not too long ago. I see them in the form of Prema Ramappa driving a bus, in the form of bartender Shatbhi Basu as she juggles bottles to give you a great drink, in the form of Bachendri Pal as she climbs the mountains, in the form of village girls walking long distances to school and in the form of every woman executive. It's a question of what obstacles these women of extraordinary courage are trying to overcome. While some are fighting the odds to complete basic schooling, others are fighting the odds to secure a place in a flying school or archeology or police or other careers that are generally perceived to be the province of men.

Some gender stereotypes in choice of career persist even in the Western world. For example, it was only in January 2016 that the US military opened all combat roles to women in the armed forces. There is still a significant gender-based pay gap even in corporate America.

A world [with no stereotypes about career choices] would enable each girl to pursue her dream and fly unrestricted towards her choice of work.

As we work through the challenges posed by stereotypes, we reach an important question. What lies beyond the debate of whether women should opt for conventional or non-conventional careers? Would it lead us to a place where a choice of career would flow only from what a woman wants to pursue and be free of perceptions based on gender?

Taking a flight of the imagination, what would a world with no stereotypes about career choices look like? This world would enable each girl to pursue her dream and fly unrestricted towards her choice of work. The environment would neither cause obstruction through biases of what women can or cannot do, nor would it require women to prove that they're 'better than' men. It would acknowledge the individuality and uniqueness of an individual that goes beyond gender and support equality in the true sense of the word. In that world, the debate between conventional and non-conventional career choices would lose relevance

The views expressed are personal.

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