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Political Gender Equality: Women’s Voices and Preferences

gender equality in politics

The discourse surrounding gender equality often fails to capture the diverse perspectives and aspirations of women, particularly in the context of workforce participation in India. Referred to as “political gender equality,” this discourse imposes predefined benchmarks on gender equality without genuinely understanding how women define empowerment or perceive their roles. The narrow focus on enhancing women’s workforce participation, while seemingly empowering, tends to exclude alternative pathways to gender equality.

Where does it falter?

The discourse often neglects fundamental questions such as how different women define empowerment and whether Indian women view workforce participation as conducive to their empowerment. This political gender equality narrative is not confined to international organizations and NGOs but permeates everyday language and media discourses, perpetuating myths that replace women’s voices with a widely consumed yet rarely questioned ideology.

The emphasis on enhancing women’s workforce participation, as a primary goal for empowerment, overlooks other valid pathways to gender equality. For instance, a woman’s preference to work from home, contributing to hands-on parenting and reducing outsourced care work, is a credible pathway to empowerment. Unfortunately, such choices are often disregarded in discussions that uphold workforce participation as the pinnacle of empowerment, reinforcing a zero-sum game against patriarchal oppression.

Moreover, the discourse oversimplifies the complex negotiations women undertake within patriarchal structures. It fails to recognize that women have been navigating these structures long before paid work, relying on their knowledge, negotiating ability, adaptability, and interpersonal skills. These traits not only predict workplace success but also signify how women exercise agency in ways that may not align with the goals of political gender equality.

A misleading narrative

The discourse also perpetuates a misleading narrative by framing men and women as adversaries rather than collaborative partners. This harmful perspective not only distorts the true dynamics of relationships but also introduces an unhealthy competition between genders. The political gender equality framework, attributing low workforce participation to patriarchal social norms, misses the nuanced realities. Women’s decisions regarding workforce participation, especially those with children, are often driven by aspirations to be more physically present for their families. Rather than focusing solely on rectifying social norms, understanding these aspirations can lead to more responsive policies such as flexible work options and family-friendly workplace initiatives.

Additionally, the framework’s criticism of non-Western social norms as a “problem” reflects a lack of cultural understanding and risks perpetuating stereotypes. Social norms operate along multiple dimensions to enhance support, security, and mental well-being in family-oriented societies. Overlooking these dimensions oversimplifies the analysis and misses the importance of familial and community support.

Hence, discussions about gender equality need to move beyond political projects and consider women’s expressed preferences and aspirations as the foundation for policy and development programs. A more reasonable conversation on gender equality should acknowledge the complexity of women’s lives, respecting their choices and recognizing the multifaceted ways in which social norms operate.

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