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[Reproduced from an article written / published on LinkedIn]

It is that time of the year again – the token March 8th Women’s Day celebrations round the world. Does half the population of the world need one day in a year to celebrate them? And to celebrate what? Do these celebrations have an impact on women’s status and empowerment round the world? Let’s agree to be truthful and honest as we try and find answers to these questions. Every day should be women’s day, as it should be men’s day, or children’s day. Does the tokenism behind these “days” mean we do not need to pay attention to women for the rest of the year? How about we just say, we are all humans stuck on this planet with nowhere in sight to go (yet); so how about we treat each other well. All the time. Every day.

Just last week, I went to a home renovation store in Jayanagar, Bangalore to look for tiles for a kitchen renovation I am planning. As an evening outing, my father accompanied me to the fairly large and “modern” tile store. He was least interested in the tiles, or in the transaction. He just came along for the ride and was therefore trailing me by a good ten steps as we entered the store. I explained to the manager what I was looking for. He called out to the floor salesperson: “Sir wants some tiles; can you show him?”. I looked around in surprise. “Sir? Who me?” I thought. No. The manager was referring to my father who was still near the entrance of the store, whereas I was near the manager’s cabin. It did not matter to him that I initiated the conversation, I was looking for the tiles and I was going to carry out the transaction. Is this a rare occurrence? Not really. Am I invisible?

I was traveling overseas with our director. We were going to conduct a workshop for a government agency in another country, and I was the lead technical trainer. As we passed through Kuwait airport at our layover, we went to the security gate to catch our connecting flight. “Why are you here?”, the guard at the security gate barked at me. “This is not your gate”, he continued in the same barking tone. How the hell did he know where I was going, I thought. Looking around, I realized – he saw me, a diminutive Indian woman – and assumed I was an Indian domestic servant and, chances are, this would not be my gate if I were indeed one of the thousands of Indian women employed in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region as maids. They would be boarding flights to India that departed from other areas of the airport. I plonked my laptop bag on the security machine belt and handed him my passport and boarding pass. Only then, he noticed our director behind me who also did the same. No mea culpa there; there never is. He quietly handed my passport back and let me through. I visualized a tight slap that would have brought the blood rushing to his stern face. I also realized how the poor women who go as domestic aides are treated at the airports and in the countries where they serve. The visuals I saw were stunning to me, because I had been reading and writing for more than two decades about women who migrate as domestic servants. The women aides with their small roll-on suitcases trailing their employers – sometimes families with young kids, sometimes older men being assisted by the women who looked very much like me. What kind of a life did they lead, captive in these employer-families’ homes? I wondered. For the rest of the trip, I joked with our director that I am the domestic servant and he is the rich Arab Sheikh. The irony and sickening misogyny of the security gate experience was not lost on me, despite the joke. Am I invisible?

Such behavior is place-agnostic. It is the same everywhere. Many years ago, a friend and I went to a KIA car dealership in Watertown, Massachusetts. After much back and forth with the car salesperson, we were still haggling over the price and the inclusions. Suddenly, the manager of the dealership rushed across the floor. “These “girls” are not here to buy a car!” He thundered. They are here just to pass time. “It is a waste of time”, he told the salesman. “Forget about them”. We walked out of the dealership. Next day, the salesman called to apologize for his manager’s behavior.

“Please come back”, he said. “I will work with you and get you the car you are looking for”.

“I already bought a car”, I told him; and, added that his manager’s behavior towards ‘these girls’ was not acceptable. He was surprised. “What car did you buy?” He asked me curiously. “I bought a Honda Accord”, I told him. “And, I paid cash for it”. The phone line went silent for a few long seconds.

“That is a higher end car than what you were looking for here”, he said. “Yes”, I replied. “Indeed, it is. You lost a customer yesterday because of your boorish manager”. Am I invisible?

There was a discussion here on LinkedIn (#AskVishwas) on whether it is a good practice or not for HR to ask the marital status of a job applicant. Reading a random sample of responses to the question, it was disheartening to note that most respondents from various companies (Indian of course) cited the following; (a) women get married and leave their jobs; (b) women have babies and so go on maternity leave. Therefore, it is better to ask marital status. But, if men leave their jobs and move on to other opportunities, that is not apparently an issue. Women may leave jobs for the above reasons, and so companies are justified in asking the marital status, was the argument. Married women (and men) are more likely to be ‘stable’ employees, according to some of the other responses.

Starkly missing in the above LinkedIn discussion was an acknowledgement of the multiple roles women play – at the work place, and at home. Yes, women have babies. That is how creation is, unfortunately. Yes, women are most often primary caregivers and therefore are more likely to need time and space for such caregiving. However, companies and their HR would rather look at this as a lose-lose situation for the company than think of how to employ women and create enabling conditions of employment that will make it a win-win for both sides. No wonder, India has the lowest rates of women’s formal employment in the worldIs what I do invisible to you? In a few other parts of the world, it is illegal to ask marital status of job applicants – precisely to discourage this kind of discrimination in employment based on the roles women have to play in society. “Women are the primary contributors building societies, nurturing the young, looking after the elderly and trying to earn an income too”, I wanted to counter one of the respondents who thought it was too silly a topic to discuss on LinkedIn.

I could go on and on. Every woman who reads this will have stories of her own where she was invisible, talked down to, looked through as if she did not exist, devalued for what she does, and doesn’t.

This is my experience – that of someone who was lucky enough to be educated, employed, reasonably well-traveled person. What about women who, often due to circumstances beyond their control, cannot claim the same level of exposure or empowerment, or choices on how to lead their lives? They are even more invisible and voiceless. And, one day of celebration a year is not going to cut it. They would rather have 365 days a year of respect and acknowledgement of what they do for society. Shall we start a new hashtag perhaps? #Am_I_Invisible?


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