Gender bias is universal
I have lived my life surrounded by women. I grew up with six sisters in India, I have a daughter and a granddaughter. So gender equality and the fight for it are lifelong concerns for me. When I left India for the U.S. in 1968, it was still very much a male-dominated society. Women were discriminated against openly and culturally. I had imagined the U.S. to be that utopian society, free of gender biases, with everyone being treated equally. But when I arrived here, things were not quite how I pictured.
To be fair, women did have a lot more freedom in the U.S. than in India at the time. Unlike my sisters back in India, women in the U.S. were free to work outside the home. They drove cars and were as much part of decision-making as their husbands. In many households, I found that women were in charge of managing household expenses and paying bills. They made all decisions related to running the household and who the family would socialize with.
But I also discovered that a large number of women in the workplace were concentrated in service industries, like teaching, nursing, babysitting, cashiers in stores, office receptionists, waitresses, and the like. Sexual abuse at work and by spouses at home was not uncommon which was disheartening. Of course, women in the U.S. have come a long way professionally since 1968.
Sisters were a breeze but were treated differently
Growing up with sisters was easy for my brother and me. While sisters may occasionally compete with each other, they rarely compete with a brother. My older sisters were so affectionate and protective that they were almost like mothers to us.
Yet though my parents were fair-minded, my sisters had less freedom of movement than us brothers, because they feared for their safety. We boys could grab our bikes and pedal to a movie theater to see a late-night movie, but that was never an option for my sisters. They would have to be accompanied by a male member even to watch a movie; they were not expected to learn to ride bikes.
Patriarchy defined women’s lives
Society’s attitude toward our education was also gender-colored. When I was growing up, only boys were expected to focus on a professional career; girls were expected to go to college until they got married. They were expected to be housewives, raise children, and take care of their families. Working outside the house was not encouraged.
Girls were taught early on that their parental home was a temporary abode for them. Their “real” homes would be where their husbands lived. They were supposed to regard their husbands as pati parameshwar (“Husband is god”). They were taught to cook and do household chores and were expected to be devoted to raising their children and taking care of their husbands and their families.
Having sisters gave me the opportunity to observe how girls think, act, and react. After they got married, I paid close attention to how their husbands treated them and how my sisters felt about how they were treated by their husbands and in-laws. That provided me with valuable insights regarding how I should treat my wife when I got married. Their experiences helped me be more sensitive to the needs of women and more aware of the inequality and discrimination they faced every day.
I promised myself that if I were to have a daughter, I would not treat her any differently because of her gender. I sent both my son and daughter to the best private schools and colleges they could get into. Both excelled academically and professionally, with my daughter retiring only recently as the Chief Financial Officer of a biotech firm.
Women’s Equality Day is celebrated in the U.S. on August 26 to commemorate the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment prohibits states and the federal government from denying U.S citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex.
Women’s suffrage was a significant first step. There’s much to be done before we can have a truly equitable society.
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