A recent article in Harvard Business Review titled, ‘Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome’, gave me some food for thought. Before I delve further, let’s understand the meaning of ‘imposter syndrome’, which psychologists often refer to as the impostor phenomenon. It’s a pervasive psychological experience wherein one believes that he or she has succeeded only due to sheer luck, and not because of talent or qualifications. It’s this constant feeling of incompetence coupled with the fear of being discovered as a fraud by your friends or co-workers.
Popular media constantly makes us feel we are not good enough, instilling a fear in us of missing out on something big, of not making enough money or that we are marrying too late or for debating whether to have a kid or not, or for not maintaining the ideal weight!
It basically thrives on making us feel bad or guilty for not being superhuman, especially so, if you are woman. If I could earn a dollar for each time I heard a working woman say that she is guilty of not spending enough time with her family/kids or for leaving office on time at the risk of coming across as not committed enough, I would be considerably rich.
On the work-life balance debate for women professionals, the 65-year-old former Pepsico CEO, Indra Nooyi had said at an event a few years ago, “You have to cope because you die with guilt. You just die with guilt.” And, Nooyi had added, “I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all.” That line stuck in my head, even as I was an aspiring female professional in my 20s back then.
Tomorrow (March 8), brands and companies around the world are going to be celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) and you know what to expect. A deluge of cheesy messages will flood your phone and mail inbox telling you how special you are, along with a complimentary code to get a discount in an outlet.
Yes, the irony is that IWD is fundamentally an occasion not only to celebrate working women but also to overthrow capitalism. In the Jacobin article titled, ‘The Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day’, authors Cintia Frencia and Daniel Gaido write, “While its immediate objective was to win universal female suffrage, its aspirations were much grander: the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism…”
While there is nothing wrong in brands trying to sell their products, can we simply afford to restrict the idea of celebrating women’s day by making it about purchasing commodities? When I speak about brands and marketing, I am aware I only refer to a minuscule percentage of urban educated female demographic, and not the millions of women working in the unorganised sector and garment factories, who constantly face discrimination, harassment, sexual abuse and work under zero labour protection laws.
It’s important to point out that women account for only 19.9% of the total labour force in India, owing to restrictive cultural norms regarding a working woman, gender wage gap and a lack of safety policies and flexible work offerings, among other factors.
Do these brands, who spend a big chunk of their marketing budget on these Women’s Day campaigns, treat their women employees fairly, pay their factory workers minimum wages and have fair representation of women in leadership roles? If the answer is a resounding ‘No’, their social media campaigns and empowerment videos with buzzwords and hashtags are then nothing but mere tokenism.
What I also consider problematic is the done-to-death imagery and message around Women’s Day, which emphasises that stereotype of how a woman magically does it all without breaking a sweat. And, why are we celebrating women who are overburdened, and not compensated enough, who are trying to climb up the career ladder and are made to feel guilty at the same time, for not being there for every milestone of their child or be present at every PTA meeting.
Isn’t that something we need to condemn or reflect upon? I have seen plenty of single women, who are excelling at work and are financially secure but are made to feel worthless just because they were not married in their 20s (the ultimate fall of grace!). The fact of the matter is that the modern-day woman desperately trying to juggle multiple roles has to deal with difficult trade-offs compared to her male counterparts, and it is high time, we make her feel human and encourage her to switch off the ‘superhuman’ mode.
In the media and in reality, we need to stop glorifying women, who are constantly at the receiving end of unrealistic expectations, magically shuffling between their career aspirations and being the perfect wife or mother at home. Research over the years have shown us that women do significantly more housework and childcare than men—so much so, that according to a McKinsey report, women who are employed full-time are often said to be working a “double shift”.
The reason we set the bar so impossibly high is probably because as a patriarchal society, we want zero accountability in ensuring a woman’s well-being. So, a woman pretending to be a superwoman without any support system can do so at the risk of putting her mental or physical well-being at risk and god forbid if she fails, we can always guilt her into it. That is either bound to work or make her feel worse.
We have grown up watching our mothers doing domestic chores, slogging in the kitchen, cooking for everyone in the family, even if it means skipping her own meals, without any holiday or sick leave. In return, she is occasionally showered with compliments, up to the point that it becomes her duty and she is taken for granted. It’s a generational thing, which establishes her place in the kitchen, without ever voicing her desires. She is an example of cultural oppression, as harsh as it may sound.
It’s 2021. We need to look just beyond gifting branded paraphernalia on Women’s Day. Let’s not ask women “how do you do it” or “how do you balance work and life” and then hail her as a ‘Boss Lady’. Ask her what support she needs and where we need to draw a line, when it comes to expectations and that it is perfectly understandable if she cannot excel in every department. She is not a magical being or a goddess with multiple hands, who has to multi-task efficiently. The onus of how women are projected in the mass media is not on the brands, marketing companies and ad agencies.
As organisations, policy-making systems and individuals, we need to redefine gender roles, as parents, we need to talk to kids about gender stereotypes and how it’s portrayed in media. We need to create workplace cultures which cares deeply about fairness and opportunity and does not promote unconscious bias against women, create conducive working environments and not hand women any rulebook on the Utopian ‘have-it-all’.