The shift from corporate to the development sector was not exactly intentional. It was definitely not because I succumbed to the pressures of sales targets, or because the late working hours were affecting my “work-life balance” and hence a less demanding career in a nonprofit (yes, many feel nonprofits have a very relaxed schedule) was the easier solution for a married woman, living with in-laws. When I got the opportunity, the shift was more an experiment – a challenge I took, to tread a path less taken. I am glad I took that step, because it opened by a whole new world of possibilities for me. This new world, was “different” from my world, but never disconnected. It is true that a fast paced corporate career probably does not give us an opportunity otherwise to explore this different facet of reality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, what’s bothersome is, being oblivious to the fact that this so-called “different world” exists and people of this world can aspire and demand a world “like ours”.
Recently, I attended an event which brought together eminent women authors to talk about pressing issues concerning women and brainstorm on possible solutions. One such discussion was on identifying why such alarming number of women are missing from the workforce. While, authors talked about mid-life career crisis, unfriendly work policies, workplace discrimination, challenges of balancing work and motherhood, as some of the possible reasons for such low numbers, I felt the panel never included those women in their discussion, who never made it to the workforce in the first place. This pool, I believe contributes significantly to the count of missing women, because our labor participation rates are at just 27% and hence I posed this question to the panel. It was shocking that not even one of them considered my point relevant enough to answer.
This once again validated my belief (which I hate believing in) that quite a few (not all, I am not generalizing) women in a position of power, those who have had access to resources, especially the so called “empowered working women” are unaware and unaccepting of this “different” yet very able world of voiceless women. Not because I work with them every day, their cause always has and always will be an agenda for me to voice. I think, people who are in a position to shape young minds, should be more mindful of their responsibilities while articulating issues and solutions. I am in no way contesting the challenges women face in the corporate, which are stressful and difficult; I have faced some myself. However, our challenges are fewer and less gruesome compared to those for whom survival is a question, basic necessities are luxuries and education and career are merely dreams. While women quitting mid-career is a challenge, isn’t women not having a career at all, the bigger challenge? If this is not an issue worth discussing, what is??
To such powerful yet unaware women, I would like to say, that empowerment does not mean empowerment of the self alone. It reminds me of a famous line of Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”. So, when we discuss missing women, and our issues, let’s also discuss about these 481 million women who lack basic literacy skills, let’s discuss child marriages, school dropouts and let’s discuss early pregnancies leading to death. If you and I can’t be their voice, can’t represent them at important forums, can’t pull them along with us in this journey of empowerment, we will never get our count of missing women right.
I am not asking these women to suddenly give up their high profile careers and join the development sector. Individuals find fulfillment in different arenas, and therefore it is important for all of us to co-exist. All I am asking for, is to be aware, to be connected and to be sensitive towards women from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. So when you talk about empowerment, change the dialogue to talk about inclusivity, diversity, and upward mobility for all women, not just a handful. Do remember, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.