Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

We need to get real about our role models: Shaili Chopra

Shaili Chopra on putting a monetary value to women's work, breaking down gender roles and why modern-day feminism equals financial freedom

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jun 12, 2023 07:54:27 PM IST
Updated: Jun 12, 2023 08:20:38 PM IST

We need to get real about our role models: Shaili ChopraShaili Chopra, former journalist and founder of the digital platform SheThePeople

How do women in India navigate their everyday freedoms, both big and small? Are they able to turn their aspirations into reality, or are systemic odds still stacked against them? From an economic standpoint, the numbers are telling: India’s workforce is rapidly masculinising, with the labour force participation of women (as per government statistics) low and stagnant at less than 25 percent. The World Economic Forum, in its latest Global Gender Gap Report, says there is a wide gap between men and women when it comes to economic opportunities and parity, apart from gaps existing in social, political and healthcare access.

In her new book Sisterhood Economy, Shaili Chopra, a former journalist and founder of the digital platform SheThePeople, addresses all these issues and more. Edited excerpts from an interview for the podcast From the Bookshelves:

Q. An overarching theme in your book is putting financial value to women’s work. How does one do that?
What’s very important is to recognise that women are not considered givers of many invaluable inputs just because we are not able to put a financial price tag on it. Unpaid work, unrecognised pressure, sidelined stereotypes, the environment in which they are raised and operate… all of them have lent themselves to a historical notion that anybody who needs to work needs to be able to get a paycheck after that, and that paycheck is not offered to women, largely because their work goes unrecognised as the four-letter word ‘work’. That needs to change and there are many challenges as to how will one recognise the ability of a woman to pack lunch, make food, raise children, do her own work, just manage a household, and provide care and warmth, all of that.

The complexities involved in our traditional mindsets on what these works are, what they should be valued at, and at what price tag they should be valued on, is making the process of putting a price to the unpaid labour of women very complicated. To think that somebody’s coding on a laptop or working in a factory is work, but those who are creating the environment for them is not, is problematic.

Listen: Women in IT: Is the return to office hurting their prospects, and what can help?

Q. Is putting financial value to women’s work the short-term impetus we need to bring about a long-term solution that is behavioural change?
There are no short-term impetuses required for anyone to recognise that what women do is invaluable contribution, whether they are at a workplace or at home. Because the more we try and make it like that, it does seem like we’re trying to give a short carrot for the moment. What is needed is a couple of things. First, we start putting financial value to it, so there is an imputed cost of what is actually being offered on the table. This means nobody can turn around and tell women that what they are doing is unimportant. Second, the way we approach our conversations, the way our advertisements show that the person at the chulha is always a woman, but show the man at the top of the fundraising pile.

Third, as we try and value this, we start recognising that this is the new economy, this is where women want to stake full claim to their rights, which means we should normalise the idea of men sitting at home and working. The notion that men always want to go to office in a traditional concept of workforce is itself flawed. Many men would say this, but only in private. Many women are dying to not do what they have to do in the household kitchens, and actually be at offices. Once we start trying to break down gender roles, that’ll also help.

Also read: The TCS annual report shows women continue to pay a price for flexibility

Q. How do we get people in our homes to think differently about gender roles?
I think we start calling out parents. We need to ask the question–are our parents requiring a shift in the way they raise gharelu (homely) daughters. If you raise your daughter to be somebody who is a gharelu girl, because she should cut her ambitions and present herself on a nice platter to her husband and in-laws, that the house has no space for her after she’s married or given her share of money, if at all. So we need to start at various points to solve this issue. One such piece of patriarchy beginning at home is the problem with how girls are raised, and we need to start calling it out. That will only happen if there is a ground-up level of conversations between parents and their children, and how we communicate this in the environment around us.

Q. You say that financial freedom is not about having money, but having your own money. How does this play out for women, considering there are various limiting factors like fewer opportunities, low labour force participation, gender pay gaps and other prejudices?
Girls, when they are unmarried, are dependent on their parents’ money if they do not have a job of their own. They are asked to get married to a rich guy, because the expectation is that [his] money takes care of everything. Women are constantly put in a construct where they have to ask for money. When you have your own money, you get agency that nothing else can give you. To me, the idea of modern-day feminism equals financial freedom. Because it gives you the access to say no. No to abusive marriage, no to somebody who harasses you at work, all kinds of situations can be said no to by women when they have their own money.

Also read: Almost 60 percent Indian women worried about rights, financial security at the workplace

Q. How can we have more role models that women can look up to?
It’s extremely important for women to have role models, but let’s not create role models who lead large companies. Let’s create role models who are making new benchmarks every single day. Let’s make role models inspiring, but approachable. Because for a girl sitting in Mandi Gobindgarh, is her inspiration the woman who is running a big bank in Mumbai, or is it that other girl from Mandi Gobindgarh who has decided to do her master’s or PhD or get a job in Ludhiana, which is about an hour away? We have to be clear about what is the definition of role models in our lives.

When we were growing up, role models were only in the newspapers, of a certain kind. The ten women who rotated over 20 years across all magazines. The same women got all the awards, the same women set up the big companies, the same women exist till now. Can we find people who remind us that you don’t have to run a $2-billion empire to be a role model? You can be a girl who learns carpentry because very few women do that, that is a role model. You can be a single mother who makes enough to raise her daughters well, that is a role model. Can we be real about role models? That, to me, is the most critical thing.