Sunday, March 06, 2016

Women's day, the Fortune Most Powerful Women's Summit and etc

Women’s Day. When everyone around feels the pressure to suddenly get a lot of women talking about their opinions, fresh data springs up close on the heels of 8th March. Everyone is on overdrive about “doing something for/on Women’s day”.

I attended and spoke at the Fortune Most Powerful Women’s Summit last week at Hong Kong and being what they term, a ‘mentee’ of the Fortune/US State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership. This is a program started by Hillary Clinton 10 years ago in partnership with Fortune, where women from across the world identified as having an impact / influence are selected for a month long mentoring partnership, where the ‘mentee’ is paired with a high-level woman executive in a Fortune 500 company. Usually, the US consulate nominates women for this program after taking their consent. I sent in my details in 2011 and was chosen, becoming the first woman from Tamilnadu to attend this program. I attended the Fortune MPW in LA later that year and it was quite something to be speaking at an MPW 5 years down the line. 

During the mentoring program we got to meet Policy advisors to Michelle Obama at the White house, senior women in US politics at the US State Govt, interacted with women in CIA or organizations that volunteered in high-conflict areas across the world, or people in the media. It was quite an experience of meeting some of the most interesting people from diverse backgrounds, plus getting to shadow my mentors, both from the American Express Corporation for 3 weeks, watching how they maneuver situations in the board room and outside. More often than not, I noticed they were the only women on the board. I was the visitor. 

It wasn’t until then that I opened my ears to the gender inequality issues. I started following handles on Twitter that extensively covered and reported on issues that spoke related topics. 

Later in 2012 I filed a case for abuse on Twitter which is said to be India’s first arrests for abuse online. One of the men was a Professor at NIFT, Chennai. The other, a clerk at a collectorate. In retrospect, it is striking that a a man who is in a position as powerful as influencing young minds in an educational institution reeked of misogyny and slut-shaming opinionated women on social media.

I was usually the girl that was perceived as intimidating. Which was surprising for me, since until my early 20-s I was quite the introvert. I hardly spoke, made friends outside my realm of 2-3 people. My only close friend was one from school. It was post being a host on a reality show that I started becoming a little more, mm....friendly. Even then, I was repeatedly advised, by friends who meant only the best for me, to be more ‘girl-like’. More delicate. “You’ll never get married this way” would be a refrain I heard too many times. I thought I probably deserve to be married to a man who would want to be married to someone like me, without regrets.

Much later, as my followers grew on social media, I was asked, told, advised to keep my opinions to my self and not be so outspoken. More selfies, more photographs of food, make-up, the perfect day, rains, (no books ideally). To sum it up, as someone said “More fluff, less brain” if you need to be loved by peers and the general public on social media. This will get you work/shows/endorsements, what-have-you. 

I am not a selfie-queen. I usually think I look terrible and hence don't feel like taking photographs of myself. I love food but when I see it, urge is to eat it first and then in retrospect I ponder if I should have photographed it, like the absolutely decadent Mango Pavlova that danced a ballet on my tongue, that I had on Malaysian Airlines on my return from HK. Inflight, yes. Surprising, but yes. It was the best I had ever had.  I love fashion. But I am not fashionable myself. I love skincare and makeup - I blog about K-Beauty. I am an addict but that’s that. 

However what irks me is the misunderstanding people have of feminism. An outspoken woman, who has an opinion is called a feminist. It is not that simple really. Neither is a woman that files a false dowry harassment case on a man, a feminist. That is at worst, misuse of law. It is a lot like how all men aren’t misogynists. As simple as that. 

I sometimes giggle over the pity my husband, Rahul gets on Twitter (and he shrugs it off), since he is married to someone as outspoken as me and some tweet, wondering how he manages and some tweets have been rude to count down days to divorce. It is also interesting how I am perceived to be a man-hater (thanks to the harassment case and some of my tweets) and thus as a female performer, I am supposed to have shot my own foot by damaging my perception amongst what should be my biggest fan-base - the men. 

I am not yet a feminist, I don't believe I am as informed, astute or a trailblazer as a Gloria Steinem or her contemporaries, but I would like to be. Emma Watson is reported to be taking a year off to study feminism. Malala is a global icon. Closer home, a woman that talks about gender disparity is a man-hater. My poor husband. 

Coming back to where I started, cliches like "A woman is stronger than the man", "A woman is celebrated everyday" etc. are done to death. So are "Women can't park" jokes. One of the speakers at the Fortune MPW spoke about how difficult it is for a woman-led startup to be funded, while Microfinance companies hand out loans to women because they know that the money will be returned (and as a senior *male* exec in a Microfinance institution told me - "the men will drink it away"). Another top-line woman executive shared about how she didn't tell anyone when she had a daughter.  . Quite a strange situation. 

I look forward to the day Women's Day will not be celebrated. A day when one measly day per annum needn't be marked to celebrate womanhood. I'd rather see a world of equal opportunity, a world where there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, where 50% men could choose *and be allowed by the society* to be househusbands and be identified as primary caregivers of the family. (Because how many times is a man who contributes in the kitchen or with housework made fun of by other "alpha males" and women alike for being a sissy?) A world where it is perfectly normal for a man to sweep, mop, clean, cook (at home) and be there for his children as much as his wife. 

As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book stupendous book Lean In, We need more women at the table in the board room. We also need more men at the table - The kitchen table. 

P.S.: Here is the link to the Fortune MPW in Hong Kong that I attended