Women empowerment – what does it really mean? – Part I

Over the past two months I have had the opportunity to either attend or speak at diverse panels, all of them focusing on women empowerment. It hit me how different organisations view this often used phrase ‘women empowerment’.

Women empowerment can be defined to promoting women’s sense of self-worth, their ability to determine their own choices, and their right to influence social change for themselves and others.

So, if your set-up is focusing on either of the above, welcome aboard the ‘women empowerment’ gang.

If you notice a tinge of sarcasm, you are right. Many a times organisations use this word at a very superficial level. And limit its usage to hiring women/increasing the number of women at a particular level. But how many women do you really see at the top? That band is really very small.

The seventh edition of Deloitte’s report ‘Women in the boardroom’ reveals that over the last six years, India has seen a decline in the number of women CEOs. In 2016, the share of women CEOs in India stood at 6.6 percent but declined to 3.4 percent in 2018, and in 2021, it stood at a disappointing 4.7 percent only, way below previous levels.

Scratch the surface and one realises that there is much more that needs to be done than mere lip service to women empowerment.

Different perspectives, different challenges

After speaking with many and understanding how they operate in the space of women empowerment, one challenge that strikes me the way this topic/theme is perceived. That gives rise to a big gap of knowledge and lack of awareness, even amongst women.

Take for example, the mere ability to make decisions and make one’s own choices. This may sound simple but when looked at from a culture lens, takes on a completely different meaning. In patriarchal societies/cultures, it is kind of understood that the man of the house makes/takes all decisions. Whether it is about finances or even education of children! The role of a woman is that of a nurturer – such a common refrain that is heard across segments. This very definition becomes self-defeating and limiting.

Beyond hiring, which is very much a human resources function, organisations turn their focus on corporate social responsibility practices (CSR) to build numerous programs that are aimed at training and uplifting women. But the ground reality is that the nurturer has no access to capital! When women are denied access to capital, all doors remain closed to them.

Mobilising women to collectively work towards running an enterprise is the easy part. The hard part comes when discussions happen around capital. Of what use is awareness building and capacity building when there is no capital to begin with! Very simply put, if there is no capital, there is success and hence, no women empowerment. How does one drive entrepreneurship in women then?

The other perspective is that there are no laws that support women. This is a big myth. India has a lot of equitable laws that grant women the same rights as men. The problem is not with the law. It is with its implementation.

In my conversations with experts, I have learnt that The Hindu Succession Amendment Act (2005), Forest Rights Act (2006) and Land Grant Program since the 1980s, all have provisions for equal rights for women. Women have equal inheritance rights when it comes to property and even land!  Yet, how many women know of it or, if know, will go that extra mile to demand for their rights? Often, the response is – let it go, why fight and create bad blood in the family!

Apparently, there is more to be done than mere hiring of women. The challenges are mere the tip of the iceberg but nevertheless, pinpoint towards a direction that organisations need to take to change the perception and the skewed ratio.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Sarita Bahl
Sarita Bahl is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Swedish Institute of Management Program. An experienced and versatile leader, she comes with nearly four decades of professional experience. She has over the years successfully overseen the communications and public affairs function and led the corporate social responsibility strategy for Bayer South Asia, Pfizer, and Monsanto, among others. Sarita has held multiple roles across diverse industries, the public sector, trade associations, MNCs, and the not-for-profit sector. Her areas of interest include advocacy, stakeholder engagement, sustainability, and communications.

As an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) from the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and Senior Practitioner (Mentoring) from the European Council of Mentoring and Coaching (EMCC), Sarita specializes in career transition, inner engineering and life issues. Sarita enjoys writing and is passionate about animals, books, and movies.

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