Bang in the middle of the ongoing 16-day campaign against gender based violence, I was at an all day consultation on women and work. The unique thing about this gathering was that it brought together women working in different sectors. The participants came from as diverse a background as possible — there were domestic workers, housewives, trade union activists, HR professionals, marketing executives, trainers, academicians, researchers, media persons and campaigners in the same room, and I wonder if this has ever happened before.
Stories were shared of some women who went to work because their husbands could not support the family, and others who were expected to work to maintain a certain image of success, stating that the choice to work, and the choice of work were both decided and defined by factors external factors. There were women from both ends of the class spectrum who spoke of needing the support of men in their lives, father-in-law (head of the family) in one case, and husband on the other to be able to work.
In working itself they said, they had to work harder to keep their partners insecurities at bay — an activist spoke of how she had become the go-to person in the community (historically a place for men) and the corporate employee of how she settled for a salary lesser then her husband’s. “He’ll come home two hours before me, and wait for me to reach to make him the dosa,” said one woman as the rest of the group nodded in agreement. “My case is the same,” quipped the office goer, “he goes as many places as I do, but when we’re out of sugar at home I’m the one who’s usually held responsible.”
The work environment does not make managing the dual work roles. There’s the fight for minimum age one hand and on the other recruitment itself a question mark if one is of marriageable age, just married, or has taken a break. If being a part of a trade union makes employers uncomfortable, a woman who speaks her mind at an office space sits in the same boat. “My employer has children who fall sick too, but when my children take ill I’m accused of lying to get off work,” said one participant. The expectation on the other end runs parallel to this — the ambition, commitment, employability and the company’s investment in the employee become points of contention if she cannot put in some overtime.
On workplace sexual harassment too the same rules applied to different women. Some had no means to report it, and if they talked about it, their families would step in to ‘disallow’ them from going to work. For others, if they do report it, they were fussers, labeled problematic, and dismissed as those who read too much into friendly gestures.
By the time we were finished listening to each person’s story it became clear that the similarities between the women were as many as the differences; though caste, class, education and areas of work put distance between them, their identities as working women with resembling experiences built a bridge of solidarity. An uncommon sisterhood of understanding was born when women who have never looked outside their scope of work, looked up or looked down upon others suddenly find commonalities in their lives.
What is the violence in this case then? That women still cant assert their right to work and choose their work or access the required skills for it, that their work is largely dependent on the men in their lives, that the burden of household chore and care remains mostly unshared, and that workplaces see women as a liability or an investment without taking into account the multiple roles that play. The worst violence of it all is that women in the workforce remain unrecognized, home economics unaccounted for, and women’s work stays invisible.
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton