Note: Please read “hero” in a gender-neutral sense in this post.
Earlier this month, I attended a women’s day event. There were professional men and women there, discussing different issues about – well – women in workplaces (perhaps it was specifically about the tech industry, but that doesn’t matter for the purpose of this post).
A familiar phenomenon played out. A lot of chest-thumping by women who have “made it”.
I will come to what the problem was, but before that let me clarify that the chest-thumping was not undeserved. Most women who make it anywhere in the professional world have to do it against societal expectations and pressures. Sometimes by outright fighting, at other times by at least ignoring the expectations and taunts. If a younger woman asks me for advice today, I will also tell her all these stories to encourage her to do her own thing and not give in to what the society expects from her.
But a problem arises here. A problem arises when these stories start overwhelming the larger, real social issues. When you have gathered to discuss the situation of women in workplaces, it is not the time to sweep aside the societal issues by chest-thumping. This is how it typically goes:
Person 1 raises issue X which limits women.
A professional woman who has “made it” jumps up and objects. “That’s not really true. I have faced issue X and overcome it. Look where I am today. So why should it stop others? All you need are A/B/C qualities.”
(Replace A/B/C with things like self-confidence, talent, hard-work etc.)
Everyone else claps.
More similar stories are told and it is decided that issue X doesn’t really exist.
To understand what I find problematic in this, let’s consider a parallel hypothetical discussion in a society from middle ages. It is ravaged by constant wars.
Person 1 says that because of the wars, the farmers are not able to peacefully do their work and raise crops. Not only is there a shortage of grains in the country, but the farmers are also poor and hungry. Their condition is deteriorating every day.
A farmer jumps up and objects. “That’s not really true. It’s just an excuse of the coward and the lazy. I am a farmer, but I learned to wield weapons and I can protect my farms. Why can’t others do the same? You just need some resourcefulness, weapon wielding skills and courage.”
Everyone else claps and it is decided that constant wars in the land are not really a problem for the farmers.
Does that sound right? Not to me! We like our current society better than the ones in middle ages because we don’t need to be warriors to be reasonably certain that we will live out our natural lives and won’t be killed by a stray weapon or a raging soldier. Wars create many heroes like the ones in the above fable, but as a society, the creation of heroes doesn’t justify constant wars.
It is the same with women’s issues. Or with pretty much any social issue that involves a suppressed or an underprivileged group.
The heroes are good as an inspiration. They should be the means of proving that the discrimination is uncalled for. They should be the means of bringing about changes. They shouldn’t be used for brushing the issues aside. It is good to have women who make it against all odds. But as a society, we need to move in a direction where someone doesn’t have to overcome an odd just because she is a woman. Such a society will not consider a successful career woman any more of a hero than a successful career man. But despite fewer heroes that is the society we want.
Next time, please think about that before using a heroic story to sweep an issue aside.