What’s Keeping Girls in the Backseat


Feb 5, 2018


With the dawn of the latest Wonder Woman era, I like to think that a children’s costume party might look better today than it did when I attended a birthday party, in 2011, in the leafy suburb of Bandra, Mumbai. My 5-year-old was the only girl-Spiderman in a room full of girl-princesses and boy-action heroes. At the time, I thought I was doing something right, not raising her on a diet saturated with fairy tales and cable television. Imagine my surprise, when on her eleventh birthday in 2016, I found her spontaneously taking the backseat – literally, and figuratively – to a boy.

It was mid-morning, and we were on our way to an activity centre; the boys had piled into the back, the girls, into the middle row of an SUV. My daughter was the DJ and was consistently booed by the boys until one of them offered to take over. By the time I turned around to look, four girls had moved into the back, and the boys were in the middle seat – and in charge of the iPhone that played music through the car stereo. It was a large, flightless migration, performed on instinct. Not one, but four girls gave way at once, and in a pack, without attempting to defend something as subjective as a taste in music.

Whether these children were reflecting their own family dynamics or responding to what they thought was the norm of good behavior is hard to say, but what’s clear is that this kind of thing is not an anomaly. In a paper titled “Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation,” published online by Stanford Education, researchers Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West study the way male privilege typically works itself out in micro institutions – such as regular conversation. Their study reveals that an assumed asymmetrical right to control topics results in men denying equal status to women as conversational partners. It details how often seemingly insignificant male behavior — like constant interruptions, talking over, and inattentiveness — adds up to a lack of support for the female development of topics.

This plays out over the car’s iPod, but also in classroom dynamics, which is where boys and girls first begin to differentiate themselves. I spoke with an ICSE science teacher based in Delhi who says, excepting personality differences, some broad generalizations between the two genders can be made from her two decades of experience. “When I ask a question I typically see boys raising their hands even when they don’t know the facts – they just want to get their voice out and will turn to jokes or disruption,” she explains. “Girls are more likely to raise their hands when they know the answer and rarely talk over boys the way boys do with girls.”

Aditi Vaze, a clinical psychologist who works with students aged 13 to 18 years at a school in South Mumbai has a similar reading of the situation. It is her opinion that girls require more encouragement to speak up, and tend to be subdued, whereas, “boys are more vocal and participative and ready to share their opinions during a class discussion.” She puts it down to inhibitions. Girls are, “more scared to make mistakes,” Vaze says. “They have good points to make, however, they will not voice them, as they feel they will be judged harshly if they goof up. In this aspect, boys are more confident.” She suggests this degree of homogeneity is a result of adolescent “peer pressure to talk, dress or behave in a certain way. This is also largely influenced by social media.”

Yet, it’s not something boys and girls grow out of, as much as settle further into it. In “When the Boss is a Woman,” a chapter in the anthology The Psychology of Women at Work: Challenges and Solutions for Our Female Workforce, authors Joan Chrisler and Sarah K. Clapp reference a study in which researchers used a one-way mirror to observe participants in a discussion group with trained confederates. They noticed that male leaders elicited more smiles and nods than female leaders. On the other hand, female leaders met with more frowns than male leaders. These subtle but consistent differences in how female and male leadership are received are illuminating of socio-cultural patterns that appear to have been in place for as long as most markers of recorded history.

Putting these gender differences down to evolutionary biological imperatives is an outdated evasion, and more theorists today are interested in how much a generation’s societal norms, culture and environment create different opportunities for men and women. This is most obvious at the two different ends of the spectrum. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 31 million girls of primary school age do not attend school, 17 million of whom are unlikely even to have the opportunity to do so. Even for those girls who have the opportunities and environments to achieve academic success, what awaits them is still an unequal world. Fortune magazine reported a record-breaking number of women CEO’s leading Fortune 500 companies in 2017 — a meagre 6.4%. This gap is often credited to an abject shortage of both role models and female mentors, but it also points to the difficulties women face in a corporate world largely circumscribed by men. On one hand, more women than ever before are stepping into the workplace — yet it is largely still a working environment built to sustain men, who typically have few or no attendant pressures of domestic duties and child rearing.

To add to the ironies, barring the recent legislation in Iceland mandating equal pay, women who do successfully navigate this weighted workplace must reconcile to less pay for the same hours and responsibilities as their male peers. Imagine the message sent to young people when, centuries after the Industrial Revolution, we still have millions of the working population denied equal pay because of their gender.

Unsurprisingly, in a more flexible and open environment, women thrive. Ramu Ramanathan, a Mumbai-based columnist, award-winning playwright, and editor of PrintWeek, has worked with young people as a mentor across decades. His experience of student gender dynamics spanning readings, workshops, lectures, and drama rehearsals, leads him to conclude that “most of the young girls and women I meet are trailblazing,” in a way, perhaps, more welcomed in the Arts than within a more rigid corporate setup. “They are active in their work in bastis, or local mohallas, and I see them leading a new wave of assertion in journalism, law, literature, social media and women’s studies,” he says. “In fact, the top ten talents in Mumbai’s theatre for the past two to three years are young women with extraordinary talent. They are transforming the way performance is seen, as well as how rehearsals and shows are conducted.”

Outside of the Arts, though, it appears it’s a lot easier to be conventional in a society that rewards submissive girls with approbation. To speak up, stick out and try to win power in areas where men have traditionally had the advantage can leave girls at best feeling their way through without role modeling, and at worse mimicking skills and talents that don’t come easily to their personality or gender. What will it take to create an environment conducive to bringing out the best in both genders? Much, obvious work at the institutional level to afford boys and girls the same educational and professional opportunities. But also acknowledgment of the subtle and intangible ways that girls are pushed into the backseat – and kept there.


Written By Karishma Attari

Karishma Attari is a Mumbai-based writer, book reviewer and sunshine generator. She is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down and runs a workshop series titled ‘Shakespeare for Dummies.’


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