Oped

Why do we encourage women to give up their careers?

- MADHUKAR UPADHYA

Jun 20, 2019-

Only a teacher knows the thrill of meeting students after a long time when they have made progress beyond one’s imagination in their respective fields. It’s exhilarating to see them succeeding and establishing their names professionally, both at home and, sometimes, abroad. However, when it comes to female students the story is usually dishearteningly different.

While attending a workshop a few weeks ago, I had the chance to catch up with one of these students. It was about 10 years ago that one of my grad students joined a reputed organisation as a junior expert, after completing her Masters’ in Environmental Science. While working there, she had the opportunity to go abroad to earn another degree--an exciting venture that any teacher would’ve been profoundly moved to hear about. Upon returning, however, she took a break for a few years as she settled down and started a family. Now, after reentering the workforce, she works as a fixed-term consultant on a project. Another student, whose Masters’ research, nearly a decade ago, was on the rising problem of e-waste in Kathmandu Valley and who worked professionally for some years, also took a break to raise her child. She hasn’t re-started her professional career. Reeling from these accounts, it was difficult to make sense of it all. These were brilliant women who had been promising students, having the potential to be experts in their fields. Yet, their promise and ambition had to take a backseat to motherhood.

Loss in sequence

Besides the sacrifice of ambition, women must contend with other setbacks as well. The break many women take in order to raise children can last anywhere from 2 to 3 years, often more, depending upon their economic status and the support they receive, particularly from their partners and in-laws. During this period, women first lose the income that gives them economic freedom and choices. They lose their professional contacts and relationships that help position themselves with their identity in their field. Meanwhile, their male peers continue on with their careers and reach a higher level, even as they continue to lose the momentum of career development. As competition accelerates in a ridiculously fast-paced world, a three-year break translates to a chasm when those workers return to the job market.

Unfortunately, being brilliant is simply not enough. One has to continuously work hard to remain relevant in any given field; this momentum required is lost during the break. A woman has to start all over again, which means she ends up taking a back seat--a scenario society is happily complacent with. Perhaps it is challenging, particularly to those of us belonging to that other sex, to understand the pain she endures when realising she had to sacrifice her ambition to fulfil familial responsibilities. Even women who aspire to pursue higher education after marriage are often on the receiving end of discouraging remarks like ‘Why do you need a degree now?’ And these questions are almost always asked by the husband or in-laws! For society, it is a loss of talent and skill on the part of women who are qualified enough to pursue professional careers and contribute to the enhancement of society.

Now, not all women face these circumstances. Some do get support from their husbands and in-laws to continue professional careers. However, for a majority of them who aren’t as fortunate, restarting their careers--which, after a long break, requires rebuilding self-confidence, re-establishing her network, revisiting old skills and learning new ones to catch up on advanced technology--often means they have to put in additional effort to re-orient themselves--a demanding task in addition to family responsibilities.

The decades-worth of effort in reducing discrimination against girls’ education has resulted in improvement in the ratio of boys to girls taking the Secondary Education Examination from 3:1 in 1988 to 1:1 in 2015. However, it seems this improvement alone doesn’t guarantee that qualified women reach the same level professionally; education alone isn’t enough.

Female experts

Society is becoming more complex and requires more brains to devise solutions to our plethora of problems. There is a desperate need for more experts in various areas of development to understand the intricacies of managing development in a gender-responsive way. Who could do it with a better understanding than a woman expert who has the needed skills and experience? How can women develop that competence and reach that level of professional expertise when they have to discontinue their career when they want to start a family? We cannot deny that they already battle the glass ceiling and face a range of challenges that prevent many of them from achieving their goals and excelling professionally.

The real injustice is that even the women performing better in class, with superior grades, almost never have the opportunity to climb the professional ladder and acquire the height that men have the abundant opportunities to acquire. It’s at that point her actual identity, skills, expertise, intellect, and job are buried under family responsibilities.

This disparity affects the number of female experts in various fields of engineering, medicine, economics, research, or environment from participating in key arenas of decision-making. How are we constructing our policies and projects without the input of female experts? One wonders how many brilliant minds we have already lost to motherhood and domesticity. Yet, we, as a society, never question the added responsibility we so often place on women.

Changing the stereotype

Second-wave feminism’s legacy ensures a woman’s right to professional careers as well as being home-makers and rearing children. One cannot deny women this right to choose or, perhaps, to attempt a balance between both. The luxury of choice, unfortunately, isn’t afforded to a majority of women who have to take charge of both. Choice implies the viability of other options, but in many cases, this choice doesn’t truly exist.

One cannot begin searching for solutions if one doesn’t acknowledge the problem. We need to recognise that, perhaps, nearly every woman faces this reality when she decides to have a child. However, it often makes one wonder why it is only women who have to sacrifice their ambitions and professional careers to do so? There is a need to change the stereotype that a woman is a mother first and then a professional whose ambitions don’t matter.

Undoubtedly, a cross-cutting issue like this is, to over-simplify, complex. It intersects with socioeconomics, politics, gender, and, increasingly, the climate in a way perhaps few other issues do. It’s also true that there are no simple answers or ready-made solutions. And yet, will we ever get to a point where a teacher will be exhilarated to find both male and female students rising up the professional ladder at the same pace?

Upadhya tweets at @madhukaru.

Published: 21-06-2019 07:00

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