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The best a woman can be

  • Published at 12:00 am January 18th, 2019
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Undoing generations of harmful constructs is easier said than done

Razor burns are awful, and seemingly, so are campaigns from men’s trusted razor companies about toxic masculinity. Cue #NotAllMen -- rightly so or otherwise, I leave up to the reader -- but men’s rage over

Gillette’s new ad isn’t unbelievable. But what’s on the other end of the spectrum?

At the other end of misogyny lies submission and oppression; quietness and cowering of women (and other genders left with little social capital). Understandably, not all women fall under that seemingly narrow definition. However, women do behave in specific ways to manoeuvre around strong patriarchal ideologies which, if tackled head-on, would jeopardize their wellbeing, be it physical, mental, emotional, social, or otherwise. Sociologist Deniz Kandiyoti defined these behaviours as patriarchal bargains. 

This theory is applied by women from all strata of the social hierarchy, consciously or otherwise. It could be in the ways women speak (for example, pitch, volume, choice of words) to be heard and understood, or in the ways women dress (for example, covered or otherwise, to ensure safety or appear a certain way). 

The ways in which women carry themselves become markers of their identities. And while this is true for men and women alike, social constructs exist which put women at disadvantaged positions in comparison to men. And subconscious practices to engage with and around such harmful constructs have a domino effect which further propagates patriarchal norms. 

Take the workplace, for example. According to a research done by the Harvard Business Review, women at the workplace understand that one of the ways to further one’s career is by being more visible at work -- being vocal and taking credits for accomplishments. But instead of choosing that route, these women would rather avoid conflict and opt for strategies which are risk-averse. The research brought forward three motivations for such behaviour. 

Avoiding backlash from superiors was one of the reasons, where women were wary of being penalized, lest they were more assertive than the norm allowed them to be. Another one was pressures of parenthood, where many mothers experienced problems at home as a result of prioritizing their professional lives. 

What struck me as interesting was that for many women, professional authenticity was what kept them away from being, or wanting to be, visible at the workplace. Many women in the study said that “being highly visible felt inauthentic and out of character.”

To not want to be in the spotlight can be a personality trait -- gender doesn’t have to be at the centre of it. Whether sternness and rationality work better than empathy and compassion is contextual. But more often than not, we see many women reject (consciously or subconsciously) conventional ideas of leadership, in the sense that they do not align with their characters. Does this go as far back as conditioning from childhood and throughout our lives? 

We could go in circles trying to trace back to a point where it starts to take form. It’s 2019, and lots of work has been done to change the way we talk about gender roles. But the harmful social pillars still stand as tall as they have ever been -- the misogynistic backlash from Gillette’s new advertisement is but a small proof. Isn’t it time we, women, change the way we manoeuvre around them? 

If the majority of women opt for conflict avoidant strategies, for instance at work, to what degree do newcomers, or other women around them absorb the same patterns of behaviours? From an academic and research-oriented perspective, I cannot say much. But if our strategies were tweaked to be less conforming, and more pursuant towards what we really want, then wouldn’t we all be a little bit better off and feel a little less under-appreciated? 

Of course, restructuring behavioural patterns which result from generations of harmful constructs is easier said than done. It is seemingly an individual choice, bringing change into how someone acts, until the reasons for behaving the way we do resurface. 

The advantages of investing more in ourselves and stepping more into the spotlight have positive ripple effects throughout the women and girls in our lives, but the risks of doing so still remain very real. 

Here, institutions can play a part -- families, workplaces, schools, and universities have to be on board to help bring in these changes, which will allow women to be more visible. Only then can women be the best that they can be. λ

Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager, Communications, BRAC.