‘Wife’ comment on Esther Duflo’s Nobel prize indicative of a bigger problem
The fifth Women in the Workplace report was just released by Lean In and McKinsey & Co. It talks about the “broken bottom rung” that ensures only a few women advance past the lower level of the career ladder and then those women end up with a “glass ceiling”. Forty percent of the women interviewed said that they felt women are judged by different standards from their male colleagues.
Many professional women have had to sacrifice their careers because of bias, or they find it hard to reach the very top. The lack of opportunity and support at the workplace and outside of it hampers women’s growth, not a lack of aspiration or the willingness to get things done. The report clearly shows women are ready to take on hard work.
The report states that the broken bottom rung needs to be fixed to solve the “leaky pipeline” problem. However, it also goes on to say that it is a tough problem to fix because too often it’s an unseen problem. One of the five ways to solve it proposed in the report is to put the people who decide on promotions and career advancements through unconscious bias training.
As someone who works every day on gender equality, the findings of this report are not at all surprising, and I agree that unconscious bias is a big problem that must be fixed. Just yesterday I wrote about the sexist, biased reportage on Esther Duflo’s Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics. It all started when the Economic Times in India reported that Abhijit Banerjee and his wife won the prize. No reference was made to Duflo as an economist, or the third person who won the award, Michael Kramer.
In my article, I argued that the reportage was sexist and biased because it diminished the contribution of a woman and relegated her to a “wife,” which is a relationship and not a profession. The article was about a professional win and due credit should have been given accordingly. Duflo is an acclaimed economist in her own right and the youngest person ever to win a Nobel prize, besides being the second woman to win it for economics. If the point was to highlight that a married couple or a couple in a relationship also achieved a Nobel together then the same should have been reported equally without diminishing the other’s contribution. For example, the journalist could have said, another husband-wife duo of Banerjee and Duflo won the prize following in the footsteps of the Curies.
It may seem like a small thing that she was referred to as a wife, but it’s indicative of a bigger problem. The burden of domestic and emotional care often falls disproportionately on the woman whether she is a wife, mother, daughter or sister. The male family member rarely pitches in and that’s why there often is a blurry line between the role of a woman as a “professional” or a “wife/mother/daughter”. Women in India do more than five hours per day of unpaid work than their spouse making it an unfair burden.
It is the expectation that a woman’s place is in the home that makes their professional career secondary. Sania Mirza despite her titles in tennis was infamously asked by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai as to when she was going to “settle down”. Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo CEO recounted an example where her mum expected her to be the dutiful daughter rather than ask her husband or household help to buy a carton of milk!
This balancing act can be extremely exhausting for a woman. Therefore policies like Sweden’s parental leave are so important in setting the tone that family care is not only a woman’s job. It is also up to each of us to call out this sexism as it further perpetuates misogyny and patriarchy which is entrenched in our culture.
My article calling out the sexism and bias in the Economic Times article resonated with many men and women and was shared far and wide.
In fact, I stumbled across several groups that were dissecting my piece because it had provoked discussion on the topic of the status of a woman being a “wife” vs her professional title. When I read the comments, several men and women said that the reference to “wife” had caught their attention and didn’t seem right. Many people who know Duflo’s work, did not even realise that Banerjee was her husband. Unconscious bias based on gender stereotypes operate subconsciously and many times we are not even aware of it. By calling it out, we highlight the problem, and that’s exactly what my article did.
The next time someone mixes up a relationship for a profession, please make sure you point out the difference. If we don’t do it now, we are never going to correct unconscious bias, fix the broken rung and the leaky pipeline or break the glass ceiling.