Battling for half the sky
The equality illusion:
It is said that at a seminar held in a five star hotel, last year,
coinciding with the International Women's Day, an illustrious and
highly-accomplished panelist asked the audience of mostly women, how
many of them had got pregnant while employed.
About three fourths of the audience raised their hands. When asked
how many felt that their companies had given them extra support to help
them deal with this phase in their life, only three or four hands went
Most women, had they been in the audience that day, would not have
raised their hands at the second question, either. Not because their
employers did not treat them well after they had their baby, but because
they quit before they could find out.
A good day to show respect, appreciation and love
Like the career woman I used to know, the Features Editor of a
newspaper, who interviewed foreign diplomats, constantly cracked her
brains trying to think of attractive headlines and nagged her colleagues
to meet strict deadlines.
After her daughter was born she found herself debating about
returning to work. Even though her daughter seemed to be happy in the
company of the temporary nanny, she could not bring herself to leave her
baby in the care of an outsider possibly for ten or more hours a day.
The scales tipped the day she quite shamefully realized she did not want
a stranger intruding between her daughter and herself. Absorbed by a
sense of possessiveness probably dating back to the stone ages, she
quit, and began her "second life", working as a freelance writer from
She knew, when she made this decision she stood on the line of fire
of all the feminists campaigning for women's liberation, especially on a
day when the whole world is celebrating International Women's Day. How
could she squash, so carelessly, the triumphs of the feminist movement
to free women from their homes and be financially independent?
Her only excuse is, she didn't quit completely. As full-time work was
too much and complete idleness, too unimaginable, she found an
In doing so she felt she was being half a wife, but holding on to at
least half a life too.
She knew she was lucky, lucky in that her profession allowed her to
work from home.
So far as there is a phone, an internet connection with satisfactory
speed and a computer, she could write to her hearts content and if she
was lucky, find someone to pay her for what she enjoyed doing.
She knew there are many others who are not so lucky. Like the women
at the seminar last year who had to return to work after childbirth and
who had little support from their employers with regard to maternity
According to Prof. Niranjanie Ratnayake, a senior Professor in Civil
Engineering, the first ever female Associate Professor, and Senior
Professor of Engineering (any discipline) in the Sri Lankan university
system, though a girl child in Sri Lanka is not as disadvantaged as
those in most other developing countries as society does not seem to
make any distinction between sons and daughters, particularly with
respect to education, when it comes to the world of work, the situation
is drastically different.
"The competition does not seem to be fair, not only where the
physical strength is a criterion, but even in jobs where the brain is
the main factor," says Prof. Ratnayake. She feels it is unfair that in
most offices the male employers expect their female subordinates to give
more than 100 percent to the work, but complain if their wives get late
to come home from office, or have to work overtime due to some work
The stock statement of the husband after marriage "you stay at home
and look after the family and I'll do the earning is totally unfair,"
observes Prof. Ratnayake.
"I think the same culture that gives us a tremendous advantage over
women in other cultures, seems to work against us here, because we women
also hold the view that we have to be there for our families while
holding a decent job and earning an income. This increases the demand on
our time, leading to frustration at the workplace as well as at home."
The woman is often driven to make several choices. Prof. Ratnayake
lists three - a) to leave the job, however well educated and qualified
she may be, b) to put off marriage or put off having children up to a
point that it becomes rather too late to marry and start a family; c) do
both, but with varying degrees of success of the balancing act.
Prof. Ratnayake wonders how many men would make this kind of choice.
Even though much has changed in the 101 years since one million women
took to Europe's streets for the first International Women's Day
demanding the right to work, the vote and an end to discrimination, and
today, even as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters echo their spirit,
joining rallies and celebrations across much of the globe to commemorate
the day, one thing is clear: much has yet to change.
In an address marking International Women's Day 2011, Michelle
Bachelet, the first executive director of UN Women, asked "How would
those 'courageous pioneers' view the world today? And gave the answer
herself, "I suspect ... with a mixture of pride and disappointment".
She admitted "The last century has seen an unprecedented expansion of
women's legal rights and entitlements. And (this) advancement of women's
rights can lay claim to be one of the most profound social revolutions
the world has seen", but added "despite this progress over the last
century, the hopes of equality expressed on that first International
Women's Day are a long way from being realized."
Perhaps those hopes will never be realized. At any rate, not till
women realize 'equal' does not mean 'the same'.
"Women hold up half the sky", is a saying heard in China, where today
is a holiday, but only for women. Half the sky is surely enough.
Especially if you believe in writer Robert Brault's words "The male
wants to be valued for what he pretends to be. The female wants to be
overvalued for what she truly is." But, at least on this special day,
appreciate the women in your life. After all as Joseph Conrad said
"being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists
principally in dealing with men."