Invisible women, superwomen
Growing up, I knew that not everyone outside our home was as forward-thinking as my parents, who allowed our personality and character quirks, rather than our genders, to determine how we were raised. “Unfortunately, anak,” I remember my mother saying to me, “the world is still safer for your brothers than it is for you and your sister.”
That progress has been made from that time to today is for sure—women have gained a stronger voice, societies are more aware of the comparative advantages of different genders, and economies are increasingly being driven forward by governments and businesses that have embraced diversity as a strategy toward innovation and growth.
However, in some aspects, it is still very much a man’s world. In the book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” Caroline Criado-Perez examines different elements of a male-biased world and how men appear to be the average and default form of human beings. While these are taken from a Western point of view, some of the points can be applied in an Asian context:
• The average smartphone size is 5.5 inches, which men comfortably use one-handed but is too large to fit in the average size of a woman’s hand.
• Most office building temperatures are set for the metabolic rates of men, making it too cold for most women, affecting their overall productivity.
• Women and men biologically differ in symptoms and response to medical treatments, yet clinical and biomedical trials often exclude sex-specific information.
Let us take an example from the pandemic. The administration of vaccines has had varying effects on females, especially pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 80 percent of the reports of severe allergic reactions came from women. Could there have been a relationship between sex and immune response that was not considered in formulating the vaccine, which now places women at risk?
Products, infrastructure and even metrics for success are still largely created and defined by masculine standards. Many efforts of women that contribute to the flourishing of workplaces, households and economies remain unrecognized, unmeasured and uncompensated.
In many families, women are still the “default parent”—the one who organizes school drop-offs, pickups and carpools; helps with homework; makes sure meals are prepared, healthy and taken on time – the list goes on. The default parent is the one who is around for most of the children’s successes – major and minor – but also the one who shares most of the hardships. The default parent is the one children run to for needs big and small, and the one expected to listen to and salve all aches and pains.
From experience, I know that this is undoubtedly a rewarding role – but also one that is time and energy consuming. Anyone who is able to successfully cajole their child to pack away a messy room and eat the vegetables on his or her plate after a day of negotiating targets, milestones and deadlines with an intransigent team member should be able to highlight negotiation, crisis management and excellent communication skills on their employment profiles.
Sadly, with the exception of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not many leaders are keen to give parenting “a gold star” on a resume. Unable to transition in and out of the workforce seamlessly, many women end up allowing professional development and goals to take a back seat to what they believe to be more important stuff – rearing their children.
When women do become visible, it is often a result of extraordinary effort. We have seen women leaders, heads of states and governments and CEOs overcome barriers and become role models for other women who are trying to find the equilibrium between work and family life.
Even then, different standards apply for women. On top of being leaders and public figures, they are expected to not neglect what is perceived to be their “primary responsibility” – that of mother, wife, homemaker. Many women are expected to work harder to be able to compete with their male counterparts, and often undergo more scrutiny for how they look, dress, speak and behave in the office. It is almost like a penalty for daring to venture into a space where one is not usually welcomed.
Everything, everywhere all at once
A successful woman, then, is one who does not choose one priority over another, but rather a “superwoman” who is able to do everything and be everywhere all at once.
But why must there be a default parent? Why can’t both parents share this role equally so that one is not more burnt out than the other? On the other hand, why must a woman be judged when, being human, she opts out of a job that takes away so much of her that she has nothing left for her family at the end of the day? Why must running a company have greater value than raising happy, healthy, responsible members of society?
Empowering women means allowing each one to choose where she feels she can grow the most, not pushing them into stifling boxes that society has built.
When do we know when we have achieved gender equality? It is when there are enough women in decision-making spheres that their presence is palpable in the design of solutions, products and services, and yes, even in the way we value societal contributions and our very concept of success.
The author was Chief of Staff to President Benigno S Aquino III when she gave birth to her only daughter, and stayed in the same role for the next five years. She now works in the fields of education, diversity and inclusion.
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