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Roundtable Discussion on “Women in Leadership”, August 31 2019


C3S Event Report No: 018/2019


A Roundtable Discussion on “Women in Leadership” was organized by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), Red Elephant Foundation (REF) and the Center for Soft Power (CSP) on August 31 2019 at CSP, Kotturpuram, Chennai.

The opening remarks were given by Mr. Sudarshan Ramabadran, Deputy Director, India Foundation. He threw light on the fact that many Indian women like Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Hansa Mehta to name a few, have donned leadership roles effortlessly. However very rarely are people sensitized to stupendous strides such as these.

Ms. Kirthi Jayakumar, Founder and CEO, REF, chaired the event. She set the tone for the discussions by highlighting the inspiration behind this event, which lay in a publication authored by Ms. Anuja Gurele, former Research Officer, C3S. This publication, a C3S Issue Map titled “Politics & Feminism in China – Will Women Hold Up Half the Sky?” traced the journey of Chinese women in political and diplomatic roles from the ancient era till the present time. The spark for this Issue Map came from Sweden recently adopting an official feminist foreign policy, which led to the question of whether China has scope for a similar move in future (Read the Issue Map at this link). On these lines, the roundtable aimed to explore the dynamics, challenges and prospects for women in leadership roles.

Mr. Prashant Rastogi, Research Officer, C3S explained the reasons for exclusion of women in leadership roles. He took references from the Nation-States concept and from ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. A view of today’s state structures was given, by the speaker stating that theories of realism have always put men in the leadership roles and sidelined the contribution of women. A startling fact was shared that India ranks 148th out of 198 countries in the world in the women leadership ranking. This number is well behind Iraq, Rwanda and Bangladesh. Gendered stereotypes can be broken and inclusion is possible only when issues of exclusion are addressed by giving importance to individualism, competitiveness and privileged ideology.

Ms. Aparna Nagesh, Artistic Director, High Kicks Dance, Chennai, shared her experiences, via workshops and other channels. This substantiated the discussions by pointing at the root causes of gender discrimination and the need for change from the bottom up. For instance, the speaker found a lack of platforms for women in the city to express themselves. An NGO working with children was highlighted, where many of the mothers of the children there, have become community managers. Another positive development is that there is steady opening up of minds among the youth through art workshops. Although there are some youngsters who follow binary roles there are some who are showing potential in questioning existing gender norms. The process is slow but is being sustained. The opinionated, prejudiced and stereotyping approaches of the older generations are putting boundaries for the younger generation. Most ideas are conditioned into the minds of the women and men by parents, peers and society in general thus making self-drawn identities less possible. The change can only occur when women are given freedom and liberty to think and live for themselves.

Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash, Founder-Director, Sunshine Millennium; Chief Programming Officer, REF and Associate Member, C3S, spoke on grassroots politics and women leaders. It was viewed that women who perform extremely well in grassroots are not provided with the support to venture into the urban and higher levels. Both Indian and Chinese women are given opportunities to be active in local politics but do not often see progress when it comes to mainstream politics. Women in China depend on all women associations to gain access to training on how to enter politics and execute their campaigns. Providing opportunities for women in the political spheres is only one aspect. It is mechanisms like confidence-building and networking that truly equip women in China to fully partake in the mainstream political front. A paradigm can be seen in Amy Schumer’s reference to how young girls are made to believe in a ‘Santa Claus’ that is the phrase, “You can be anything you want to be”, but the unfortunate reality is that as girls become women they are told that this is not real and that they cannot be what they aspire to be. Moreover, if a woman leader fails politically, she is perceived to fail all other women, thereby creating a negative result in both women’s political participation as well as their political image. Media can and must highlight the reasons for women’s success in politics, which would then lead to active participation.

Mr. R. K. Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor, Frontline, Chennai stressed that there is more to politics than a gender divide. One must consider caste conflict, class conflict, majoritarianism, conflict transformation in society, lack of transparency and corrupt structures, the reservation issue, and policies at the state level (within India) that empower women to establish themselves in larger roles. Policies at state level which aim to empower women from rural areas can be seen in the example of ‘Thali scheme’ in Tamil Nadu. The speaker narrated an incident about a girl who completed tenth standard. Her father had agreed to her education due to the benefits offered for such girl children from state government, namely, being granted 25,000 ruppees in cash and a thali. His daughter turned out to be a topper in the examination and eventually became a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Hence the far-sighted vision of leaders encourages women to break barriers. The speaker suggested that women tag themselves as a minority and not fight for reservation.

Ms Asma Masood, Research Officer & Programme Director-Internships, C3S, spoke about the portrayal of women leaders in the media, the dominance of male leadership roles in China based on the concept of Confucianism and how media coverage is linked to power or influence of the leader. The media can be one of the major agents of change in lieu of the current scenario of women leaders worldwide. Social media was emphasized upon, as it acts as a horizontal medium of interaction between a leader and the citizens. The speaker drew an analogy from the work conducted by Red Elephant Foundation whereby it promotes gender equality education through workshops. This can be emulated among political parties and their youth wings. The media can promote new ways of thinking, similar to how the American  children’s television programme Sesame Street implicitly shared the country’s values. Similarly, India with its expertise in the animation industry, can also reach out to the younger generations, especially girl children, thereby encouraging them to enter into politics. The concept of ‘double bind’ as proposed by American scholar Jamieson was also underlined, wherein a woman politician risks being seen as either as too aggressive (masculine) or too soft (feminine). It cannot be ignored that in China, the media is controlled by the government, which, like the Chinese society, is highly patriarchal. Chinese women leaders have comparatively little representation to men in the Politburo. The Chinese media and the society itself have assigned specific derogatory terms to women belonging to age groups beyond 27-30, single marital status, and advanced educational brackets. The Chinese government has now realized the impact that social media can have, and is working towards using such technology to promote political involvement. It remains to be seen whether women politicians are also being assigned social media accounts in China in order to better connect with the citizens.

Ms. Sudha Meiyappan, Economist, TAC Economics, Chennai gave insights on how economics plays a vital role when it comes to women leaders and women entrepreneurs. The speaker pointed out that a women’s success as a leader and entrepreneur is never really acknowledged. Even the terminologies used are a matter of sensitivity when it comes to women. There is interlinkage between both the social and the economic aspects relating to women being elected as leaders of state. The number of women leaders or heads of state in the South Asian region is much higher but the results of women being leaders have not always translated for the better in economic terms. The example quoted was that of Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and the ongoing atrocities conducted on certain ethnic minorities in the country.  Therefore it can be understood that political leadership does not translate to economic empowerment. Intriguingly, there are more women entrepreneurs in developing countries than in developed countries due to the lack of education opportunities in the former. With the aim of being financially stable despite not having an education, forces women to set up their own means of living like petty shops.  What women lack most in this context is funding or credit. A reference was made to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, wherein it is seen that social conditioning could be the reason why women put barriers around themselves in the workforce and there is an issue of drop or stagnation in employment by women despite being highly qualified or educated. Nevertheless women occupy the topmost levels of management in companies. Hillary Clinton was described as an example whereby the former Secretary of State does not use the woman card and carries herself more in unisex fashion to enhance her leadership image. The start, as always, is women’s education and altering society’s perception to be geared positively towards women.

A round of questions was answered by the panellists, followed by closing comments and a session summary delivered by Ms. Kirthi. The Vote of Thanks was delivered by Cmde. R. S.  Vasan IN (Retd.), Director, C3S.

(The views expressed are the speakers’ own.)

(Compiled by Aishwarya S. Menon and Harani Saravanan, 2nd year M.A International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai, and Interns, C3S.)

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