If you give special privileges to a person based on gender, are you being thoughtful or sexist? Does reservation empower the recipient or hold her back? Can too many acts of kindness kill—self-esteem, if nothing else?
In recent years, some malls in Indian metros have created dedicated parking spaces for women. Located close to the building entrance, they are supposed to cut short the drivers’ walk to the destination, thereby increasing the women’s safety. South Korea works on a similar principle, as do some cities in the US, with female-dedicated parking lots that offer easy admission and exit.
One can understand, even applaud, initiatives that seek to keep women safe. But what about those that imply that women are inefficient?
A shopping mall in a Chinese town recently decided to be extra considerate towards its female clients—with mixed results. The Dalian mall made 10 of its parking lots 30 cm wider than normal, marked them in pink and labelled them ‘Respectfully reserved for women’. The response wasn’t exactly what they expected. Yes, a few women drivers were happy, and said the extra space was useful. But most of the others exploded with anger, and accused the mall of sexism and clichéd thinking. The manager—a woman—tried to save the day, saying the management was just trying to be practical, and that enlarged lots didn’t mean that women drive less well than men.
The mall should have known better. The Beijing police had already put its foot in the mouth earlier in the year when it put up a blog post advising women to not drive “while wearing heels”; not panic if they “suddenly realise that they’re going the wrong way”; and–wait for it—to
“release the handbrake before setting off”. This in a country where women cabbies, working day and night shifts, are par for the course.
Not that the Dalian misadventure is the first of its kind. In 2010, a mall in the Chinese town of Heibei had turned over one of its underground garages totally to its women clients. Each parking slot was made 8 cm larger than the regulation size and the walls were painted with animals from the Chinese zodiac so that the ladies wouldn’t have to tax their clearly pea-sized brains with the onerous task of remembering a pillar number. All they had to do was remember a colourful picture instead—you know, like the ones you see in alphabet books for toddlers.
But why single out the Chinese? Patronising women is not an eastern phenomenon. Two years ago, a German town called Triberg allocated two “tricky” locations in a car park to male drivers only. In media interactions, the town mayor took pains to explain that he was just being kind, and that women would find it difficult to park in the two spots as one needed to reverse in without hitting either walls or pillars. Talk about adding salt to an insult.
Was the mayor indulging in some nasty stereotyping? Reports culled from car companies and insurance agencies would suggest so. These say men, globally, break more traffic laws, drive more dangerously and cause more accidents than women, irrespective of age. That men in their 30s outpace their female counterparts when it comes to faulty driving as much as males in their 70s. One presumes, no one is involved in parallel parking at the time.