While a Chinese woman astronaut was embarking on her second space voyage and first space walk, the media mostly highlighted the sexist comments and condescending remarks hurled at her, rather than her remarkable feats. This reflected a sexist mindset, one that sneers at women who defy professional gender stereotypes. In space exploration, women occupy a scant space of just 10%. Amid such gross under-representation, there persists a gendered division of work, with women mostly working as mission specialists, as they are considered “less suitable as pilots" due to “biological and mental conditions". In 2019. NASA’s all-women spacewalk got cancelled because of “insufficient supply of medium-sized spacesuits" and the agency made it clear that the “ideal astronaut body is still male". In 1962, at a US Congressional hearing on women as spacefarers, a view was aired that women are “less susceptible to monotony, loneliness, heat, pain, and noise, vital for increasingly longer duration space explorations". Much later, a Chinese spaceflight researcher analysed research findings and observed that female astronauts are “more acute observers, considerate problem solvers, and better communicators… [and] can bring more vitality to the crew and team and fit better for long duration in space".
A study by the International Labour Organization in 83 countries noted that “gender sorting" of jobs by educational streaming, stereotypes and biased expectations often relegates women to less-productive enterprises and lower-paid jobs with fewer opportunities for business scale-up or career advancement. In performance evaluation too, observable characteristics such as gender or race are taken into account, it added, and women tend to lose out.
We must liberate the upbringing and learning process,
which could instil a strong sense of commitment to
gender equality among young minds, boys and girls,
to give wings to their dreams unconditionally and unequivocally
The failure of labour markets and institutions in addressing gender-specific constraints has led to gender inequality in employment. Fewer than half of women have jobs, compared with almost four-fifths of men; almost half of women’s productive potential remains unused, compared to 22% of men’s. Moreover, entrenched socio-cultural myths have induced “nearly four in ten people, globally (close to one-half in developing countries)" to believe “that when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to jobs than women"(World Bank).
Eleanor Chestnut, an expert in cognitive science, opined that “perceptions that boys are naturally more talented contribute to women’s under-representation in fields like computer science and physics".
Studies by Katherine Coffman of Harvard Business School found that “even if women have the skills and talent to succeed in the STEM fields, they shy away from such a career and lowball their own abilities, because of weak self-confidence and poor self-belief". In 2017, research by the Italian universities of Kore and Catania confirmed the overwhelming role of the educational and domestic environment in shaping a student’s professional interests, like “male preference for the masculinised and realistic occupations" and females “choosing the social and artistic occupations such as teachers, nurses, florists et al". In India, a recent comprehension passage on a class 10 board question paper raised concerns over its underlying ‘sexist tones’, linking ‘lack of parental authority at home’ to ‘emancipation of the wife’.
In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft rued that “women from the infancy are taught by the example of their mothers... that they should imbibe certain qualities like softness of temper, outward obedience, and a puerile kind of propriety, to have men’s protection". Even now, the sole responsibility of child-rearing rests on a woman, as society extols her ‘nurturing’ role, while a labour market study across 97 countries found that “on average, a birth reduces a woman’s labour supply by almost two years during her reproductive years".
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Winds of change, however, are also blowing. India now has more female graduates (43% of all) in STEM subjects than the US (34%), UK (38%), Germany (27%) and France (32%). However, they constitute only 14% of all scientists, engineers and technologists in research institutions. Women make up only a fifth of Indian Space Research Organization’s workforce. Women form 0.56% of our army, 1.08% of the air force and 6.5% of the navy, but the apex court’s 2020 ruling that allowed women to hold roles of command broke new ground. Yet, a 2015 study reported that “women are treated differently in every levels in army, navy and air forces" and remain vulnerable to sexual harassment. In the Indian judiciary, only 11 (or 4.2%) of Supreme Court judges over the past 71 years have been women, and not a single woman has headed it since 1950. The Delhi High Court Women Lawyers’ Forum lamented that “the collegium’s preference for the male bar members continues, even when many of them are found to be reluctant to leave the practice, while women are always ready to serve the institution".
According to one study, “economic development and women’s empowerment, though correlated, are too weakly connected’ (Duflo). Another found that “gender equality in education and employment contribute to economic growth, but its effect on gender equality is less consistent" (Kabeer and Natali).
Today, many educated and employed women experience restricted empowerment. Some remain conditioned by antiquated aphorisms. We must liberate the upbringing and learning process, which could instil a strong sense of commitment to gender equality among young minds, boys and girls, to give wings to their dreams unconditionally and unequivocally.
Archana Datta is former director-general, Doordarshan and All India Radio; and former press secretary to the President of India.