I was sitting at a Literature festival, talking to young children, many amongst them bright young girls, expounding the importance of believing in oneself, one’s abilities, equality, and what not. That’s when someone asked me about my ‘success’ and my body of work. The poor fellow had scarcely completed his question when I animatedly started thanking the barrage of people behind my achievements; much like a Filmfare debutante. From God, to lady luck, to my parents to my husband to my child, to my sisters to my dog. (I have a faint memory of mentioning my gardner and plumber as well.) I was breathless by the time I finished. Now where is the problem in being humble, magnanimous and grateful you ask? No problem at all. Except that I forgot to even make a meagre mention of someone who had put in a tremendous amount of hard work to get to this station, paved with sacrifices and disappointments. Me. Did I have the right to speak to impressionable young minds about self-worth and self-love when I didn’t consider myself a priority?
This question made me wonder. Why are women so hard on themselves and loathe to take credit for the work they put in? This is a rather complicated debate but an answer might lie in the confounding theory of imposter syndrome. Studies have indicated that this phenomenon is experienced by more women than men. After years of environmental conditioning, women are subconsciously programmed into believing that there exists a biological, social and professional divide between men and women that they can never really breach.
Let’s take a scenario from the workspace. To begin with, there are certain industries like tech, automobile, construction, finance, manufacturing to name a few which are sausage fests, where women will always feel like outsiders. This could come from a host of factors like the absence of women workforce, lack of women leadership, lack of investment in skill development or an innate complex making them feel as if they’re at the wrong place, where they don’t belong. Add to that harassment and objectification based on clothes, appearance, body shapes, etc are ungenteel yet present realities of most industries, even the ones to which women feel more ‘suited’ to like services, hospitality, education etc. I remember that at my very first job in advertising, as the only girl in my team I was asked by a senior to order food for the team and clients. The same senior who had taken credit for some work that was mine. I promptly refused, asking him to order a pizza for me instead. It certainly didn’t win me any brownie points but it helped establish certain boundaries. In this general scenario, imagine that if confidence, equal opportunity, a sense of purpose and validation are basic building blocks for a happy employee, where will the gumption to be assertive and outspoken, even to take credit for hard work come from?
Women Are Reluctant To Have Their Hard Work Recognised
History; across cultures and continents is teeming with examples of women who have quietly toiled in the greenroom, being silent contributors while men have taken centre stage. Especially in the world of arts, from writers to painters, where most artists were waging an inner battle for expression, women were busy trying to find a means to. From popular games like Monopoly (Elizabeth Maggie Phillips), to literary classics (Zelda Fitzgerald, Margaret Keane), to early models of the computer, to DNA structuring (Rosalind Franklin) to the original design of the bra (Mary Phelps Jacobs), there is not one field where women have not made their mark but their contributions have either been conveniently forgotten or simply whitewashed from credit lines. Many times, it was due to a lack of precedent when it came to women achievers. So then why would it matter if the contributions of women weren’t highlighted? It wasn’t expected. Even if we fast forward to the world we live in today, some things haven’t changed. Much like for men, there are tedious female stereotypes. The go-getters, the vocal ones who fight for their rights, for recognition are labelled aggressive, frustrated, greedy and non-team players. Devil and the deep blue sea much?
While our foreign counterparts have moved to negotiating nuances of workplace amenities, fair practices and advanced gender parity and equality measures, India remains particularly peculiar in its attitudes towards women which has been birthed in the capricious cauldron of an ancient culture whipped up with various influences lent to it by colonisers and invaders. What we are left with is on one hand a progressive society where women have a lot of agency and another chunk of the population that is unwilling to let go of a past that has always tried to keep its women in check. Its fortunate that historically, so many of them, like A. Lalitha, the first woman engineer in the country, Ismat Chughtai the iconoclast writer or Anandibai Joshi, the first female physician could never be controlled and paved the way for so many others. But for a large percentage of women in urban and rural homes today, the whispers and conversations reflect the same sentiments when it comes to giving women their due. In one instant she is the revered jagat janani and in the next, there is a need to control her, ‘daba ke rakhna.’ Every achievement of the child becomes the intellectual legacy of an intelligent father, the home is a place that she nurtures and keeps yet has no claim to, she gives her all, mind and limbs alike, yet most of her efforts are taken for granted.
I was watching the movie Kapoor and Sons the other day on a flight back home. There is a particular scene where &t=617s">Ratna Pathak, who is always at loggerheads with her husband, questions him about squandering her money over some household expense, money that she had stashed aside for her business. Without skipping a beat, he retorts (something on these lines), ‘What are you so smug about? It was never your money. I am the one who earned it. Stashing aside my money doesn’t make it yours.’ The look on her face stayed with me. It was a reminder of the number of times I’ve seen women crumble, almost always take a step back, eat their words. Because it is unbecoming, ungenteel and plain and simple wrong to ask for your slice of the sky, to claim credit, to beat your chest and declare what is yours. It also reminded me of how important it is for me to tell my daughter, teach her, that credit doesn’t only belong in bank accounts and business books. It is something that belongs to you, that you must not shy from if you’ve done the hard work. I’m not asking for us to blow our trumpets. Women are already innately programmed to find that repugnant. It’s about washing away that reluctance that has always been in our DNA, our Achilles heel, resulting from historical conditioning. It’s time to heal (see the wicked pun?!) and holler with our heads held high.
Richa S Mukherjee is an award-winning writer with four books under her belt, two of which are getting adapted for screen. Views expressed are the author's own.