Episode 65: Transcending tradition - women in India

Women face this one universal problem, which is that men mostly cannot deal with women around them...it’s the whole ego issue.
— Shaili Chopra
Shaili Chopra

Shaili Chopra

India is the world's largest democracy, with a population of more than 1.2 billion. Still, just a third of women are in the workforce. India-watchers say if more women contributed to the economy the country's GDP would shoot up. 

In this show I talk to Indian journalist and author Shaili Chopra. She says Indian women lack role models. She's out to change that with her media company She The People. We talk about the obstacles Indian women face that western women don't, the influence caste still has on society, and why Shaili's nanny has a nanny of her own. We also debate the meaning of the word 'feminist'. 

Don't forget to check out my sponsor this week at Doodle.com - it's free, and it takes the hassle out of arranging meetings.

India has a huge problem with sexual violence and sexual molestation (imagine sitting in your car when a hand comes through the window to grab your breast). In this video Samhita Arni talks to Meghna Pant about the problem and her initiative, Mapping Sexual Violence


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, 1.2 billion people live in India. And women work everywhere from big offices to call centers to other people’s homes…

“The people who work for me and my child actually have babysitters of their own because she today can work in my house only because she has somebody who will go and get her child back from school, so I think it works at different levels in India.”

My guest wants to empower more women in India – but she wouldn’t say she’s one of the sisterhood.

“An extreme sense of feminism is possibly hurting more women than helping them. I mean I’m an observer of that debate because I don’t call myself a feminist.”

Coming up, we look at how women are faring in the world’s biggest democracy.

India has the next largest population on earth after China. But in China around 65 percent of women are in the workforce. In India it’s closer to 30 percent. And that number has dropped during the last decade.

There are lots of reasons for that.  A woman’s place is still considered to be firmly in the home. And it’s not just children who pull women out of the workforce. The Center for Talent Innovation did a survey of educated Indian women a few years ago. 80 percent of those who quit work said they did so to look after parents or in-laws. There are safety issues for women just getting to and from work in India. And companies aren’t exactly radiating support for women either. That said, I’ve read a couple of pieces of research this week and they both say young Indian women are more ambitious than their American counterparts – they just get stymied faster on their way up the career ladder. 

Shaili Chopra wants to change the odds of women’s success. She is a journalist, author, and media entrepreneur. She lives in Mumbai and she’s married with a baby son. Recently she did something a bit like me – she struck out on her own to found a media company largely for women. It’s called She The People.

Shaili grew up actively studying how to project herself. She did a lot of debating at school and she took elocution lessons.

“But what fascinated me was how women on television read news.”

She knew she wanted to be on TV. And she made it – she studied economics and she got into business journalism at a time when it was just taking off in India. Her first job was at CNBC. She became a well known anchor.

As usual I wanted to know about her upbringing. She says her dad was a big influence. He grew up in a family where it was expected he’d go into the family business. In India there is a lot of pressure to do what your family wants and expects of you. But at the age of 5 he announced he wasn’t interested and he stuck to his guns. He wanted to become an airforce pilot. And he did.  

“Now having had a father who decided to change his own destiny and go with every thought that he had for his ambition, that made it easier for me to being born in a family of two girls, I have a younger sister, at a time in the 80s when most families would tell their children what they should be.”

She says her father didn’t tell them what they should do – he introduced them to all sorts of things when they were young. He taught them chess – they were quite competitive at that – and he took them around factories so they could see how things were made. That was one of their weekend activities. They had a different experience than a lot of other girls…

“We grew up with people who had parents who were very clear the daughter would have to get married at 19, 21, whatever…so often enough we’d come back and have a dining room discussion, as in most families, of ‘what we saw today is not how things will be in our home.’ So that was that learning by watching what others were up to, and I think that strengthened us as people, because India is not a very safe place for women in general but when we grew up we grew up with a sense of free spiritedness that let us be more perceptive as human beings, as we don’t see all the time around us.”

AM-T: “Mmm, and I’m curious, did your mother feel the same way?”

“That’s a very good question. So my mother stepped out of the house for the first time at 21 and that’s when she got married. She was the most educated of all her siblings and when she got married that’s possibly the first time she was exposed to cheese, pasta, how to dance, how you can dance with a man who’s not your husband, it’s absolutely OK to be at a party and socialize and enjoy a drink -- these were not things my mother grew up with. So when she raised us she thought – when she grew up, was that a better way of growing? When women were highly protected within the family and that high level of protection was more like being possessive about your daughters?

So there was a bigdifference in what she was seeing and I think at every stage of, once one got out of the house and started working, we would think back and appreciate the number of changes she took on herself, and how quickly. Because once we were born she had two daughters and it was a time when India was changing, things about women were changing, there was open discussion about sex education in the country, it still remains quite a small group that would discuss this but we happened to be in that small percentage where we’d be exposed to that type of conversation. I think there were definitely times when she felt that we needed to be more traditional than we turned out to be. My sister and I both love debate. So we would not take any statement lying down, we would probably want to question it.”

And that kind of freedom still isn’t the norm for women.

“Even today I think there are thousands and millions of women in India who can’t speak their mind. And they can’t. Which is possibly why we’re still having a debate on marital rape to be a law or not. So you know, there are all kinds of things that came about. But I would say probably my mother was growing herself as she was growing us.”

AM-T: “So interesting. And I want to ask you more about women in India in a minute, but first, let’s talk about She The People. So tell me how – how you came to start that.”

“Actually I wanted to do ShethePeople.tv for one simple reason. There are very few women role models in India. And those there are, they’re possibly on every list that exists both in India and globally. I think India completely lacks the notion of celebrating women who have grown and done successful things, and it doesn’t have to be setting up a company or being a CEO. It could well be just producing great, fantastic pottery, somebody just singing brilliantly. There hasn’t been enough attention to stories beyond people who are in either a million dollar bracket or people who have done blockbuster movies.”

She says there are tons of women doing interesting things – lawyers, comedians, slum workers…but she doesn’t think many people have heard those stories.  

“I mean you possibly have heard stories about India from the December ’12 rape case to the fact that the rape documentary was not aired in India and had to be launched in YouTube.”

That rape case she’s talking about made world news two and a half years ago. A young woman was gang raped in Delhi when she and her boyfriend got on the wrong bus. She died of her injuries. A few months ago the BBC made a film about that rape. India banned it from its airwaves.

Shaili feels stories coming out of her country are at one of two extremes – terrible or wonderful…

“But we do have a very strong middle and we need to celebrate that middle because that is what sustains the country. That’s why we wanted to start She The People, to say there are more role models, look around, and if you’re still stuck just find out what these women did when they were stuck, and then move forward.”

And being stuck is a problem for Indian women. I read an article in Quartz recently called 6 Ways to Stop the Female Brain Drain at Indian Companies. It turns out almost half of Indian women drop out of corporate life between junior and mid levels. Among the reasons cited in the piece?  Pressure for women to put family first, lack of mentors, and lack of support from organizations.

AM-T: “And so it was a really interesting piece about some of the attitudes that women are up against and I just – I wonder what your experience was of that. You’re in your early 30s, right?”


AM-T: “And what about your friends…I mean have you seen this in your own life and in your business reporting?”

“So let me put it this way. Let me start from a different point, not so much from the brain drain aspect but from the fact every woman in India – all women in India have to face some discrimination no matter where they are, what sector they work in, which company they are with. The question is do they face this from the men around them, or the women around them, or both? That’s a whole different debate. But I can tell you having grown in media there have been certain organizations I grew in where the idea of women leaders was almost dead. They didn’t even think women could reach managerial positions. And that had a lot to do with the kind of men they chose to put there. That remains a problem of most organizations. Women face this one universal problem, which is that men mostly cannot deal with women around them: they find it hard to either find somebody who is more efficient or smarter than them, it’s the whole ego issue. Then there’s the whole aspect of if there is woman leader how will these men deal with it, …we may as well not make her a leader because then these guys will not be able to take instructions from her and the whole organization will have a challenge.”

She says women also have to ask for their promotions and often they’re not granted. She says until quite recently a woman at work risked ridicule just for speaking up in meetings.  

“Luckily that’s changed in the last five to seven years because women can just open their mouths and say look I can take you to court about that statement. And that is starting to happen. But I think essentially the problem with most organizations is they don’t stop thinking of those who come with a liability baggage. The minute they start shedding that they’ll realize how fantastic it is to have women. I worked with one organization where 75% of the organization was made up of women. That organization remains one of the best organizations in India for women in media. Because they understand women, they know that when they’re going to give you 200% in the first six months and they can’t give you 200% in the next six months because they’re ill or they’re pregnant or something else happened, they’ll understand. So this is something India is really grappling with in a big way still.”

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I wanted to talk to Shaili about women and caste. India’s social caste system doesn’t determine quite as much about your life as it used to. Shaili says in cities it’s really not a big deal any more. She says in the white-collar world you get by on merit, not on your official station in life.

“But I think this whole caste factor may still be true for blue-collar jobs in India. They possibly still exist in different degrees of severity depending on north or south. Because in different parts of India there are very different approaches to what your second name is or what your surname resonates with the caste you belong to. So from an urban India point of view we can safely say that’s behind us.”

AM-T: “Because I would have thought – and I had read it was much more prevalent in rural areas. But if you come from a low caste are you even going to get the education that would get you that more professional job?”

“You know I don’t remember who said this but I heard it in a public discourse once, that in India your fate is somewhat sealed on day you’re born and in the household you’re born. And I think that somewhat speaks to what you’re referring to which is that you’re born in a certain caste, in a certain household, in a certain income level. Now opportunities for those people do remain very, very few and that is something a country like India needs to work upon because it’s something that is the majority of the country.”

A third of Indian women are illiterate. And many women work in the unorganized sector – a lot of them do domestic work. That work isn’t counted in official government figures. She says these workers and their families have stayed at the same level in society for generations.

“That said I see that changing because when I have a house help who is saying my children will not do what I’m doing – so I’m not going to cook at homes, I’m going to have children who go out there and hope to be a scientist or something like that. So there are different kinds of people who are finding that as they move from rural to urban India, as they have got some opportunities they are changing their aspirations. But no doubt if people are born in families that are economically backward there is a huge factor that plays there that there are opportunities that may not available to them.

And I’ll say that from two aspects: in India we are in such huge numbers. And I don’t say that proudly or with disdain. When you are with such large numbers you know every single job or opportunity has hundreds or thousands of people competing for that one place. When that happens you are going to find a large number of people falling off that radar with despair or disappointment. And that’s what then leads people to get into that trap, because they unfortunately cannot either match the skill of the job required or match the money it takes to pay for that job.”

The money it takes to pay for that job. India has a lot of corruption. And yes, she says, people who can afford to sometimes pay to get hired – particularly in the public sector.

“I mean you would see newspapers rampant with headlines every month that people are paying for government jobs in the country. And people pay for government jobs because they’re permanent, they come with medical facilities and other facilities…so we do live in that kind of a space in India, that’s why it has this multicultural, multi-fabric to itself, because people who live in parts of urban India are living as good a quality of life as New Yorkers. And there are people living lives which can put even Indians to depression because you don’t know that people are still scavenging in this country.”

There’s so much poverty it’s hard to fathom. But the sheer numbers of people Shaili mentioned, people who need jobs – that means a lot of middle class families in cities can afford domestic help, particularly childcare, that parents in New York or London would kill for.

“I think there’s no doubt about that, that there are more options in India. But I also think that you know most people who look for those options aren’t necessarily rich and urban. The people who work for me and my child actually have babysitters of their own because she can work in my house only because she has someone who can go and get her child back from school. So she is in turn paying someone a sliver of her salary because she wants to work…so I think it works at different levels in India. My babysitter actually has babysitters of her own because she can work only if she has a babysitter. And while I agree that India does give that opportunity I think it is held against India that we have this help…but I see this everywhere, I just got back from Hong Kong – having support in Hong Kong is absolutely normal. I think HK’s economy would shrink or collapse if they didn’t have the support they do Just like Dubai does. So I think from an in principle level I think it’s fine to have help if you are treating them well and paying them what is the good standard in the region…Now where I think we do have to change as a society is we need to start getting some systems and structures in place for people who work – particularly women who work in the unorganized sector – that’s a debate that’s been going on for some time, and it’s because of vested interests we don’t have a conclusion on it.We do need to raise the level of the people who are working there so they don’t have to have the rest of the family also join in to work at similar levels.”

Now most of the people interviewed on Shaili’s site, She the People – they’re strong advocates for women at all levels, and women’s rights are getting more attention in India today. A lot of that’s related to the highly publicized rapes in the country and the sexual molestation women encounter far too often. But Shaili says this debate on men and women – it’s a sensitive one, and it can easily stray into accusations…

“If you say anything that might be obliquely anti-women, not because you want to be anti-women but you have a point that says we need to be balanced on the matter, people will say no, you’re anti-women, and will brush you with the same brush also. I think that kind of convoluted discussion is not really helping most women in India. So an extreme sense of feminism is possibly hurting more women than helping them is what appears to be happening — I mean I’m observer of that debate because I don’t call myself a feminist.”

AM-T: “Now that’s so interesting, why don’t you call yourself a feminist?”

“Because as somebody was suggesting the other day that it’s an extreme definition. I have yet to find a definition of feminism that makes it seem like it’s balanced. And I am a balanced person, I believe in equality. I believe in gender balance. Today I don’t see why people shouldn’t pay attention to parenthood requirements of a father. Why are we only talking about pregnancy leave? So I think that at least in India… maybe if I was in a group in another place that could convince me that this is not how they look at feminism I would probably call myself a feminist depending on how they define feminism…so I am pro women, but I’m not blindly pro women. I believe one has to look at all aspects. Women are human just as much men are, they can well fall in the traps of ego, emotions and so on. So I support women, I am absolutely doggedly working towards the need to highlight the good work done by women…but yeah, I wouldn’t want to slot myself as somebody who is anti-men, as feminists in India see themselves.”

AM-T: “I was going to say, because when you look up the word, the definition is just someone who believes in equality between the sexes. There’s no definition that says feminists are anti-men, but unfortunately that seems to be the connotation the word has taken on over the decades.”

“Now if you define it the way you are I’m definitely a feminist. But if somebody comes up with a definition of their own and I kind of feel that it’s about standing in marches and being absolutely anti anything else, I’m a bit skeptical of all of that. I’m also a big believer in using conversation to take it forward rather than being confrontational. So my understanding of the world around me is more like if you can find a constructive discussion take it forward, rather than not.”

Shaili Chopra is encouraging discussion at SheThePeople.tv. I’m posting one of the latest video interviews from the site under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com. And I wonder how many of you feel the same way about the word feminist? I’d love to get a debate going about that on the Broad Experience Facebook page so head over there to take part. I will start it off. 

Also don’t forget to check out my sponsor for this show – head to Doodle.com to start making scheduling easier.

And finally thank you to my intern of the past year, April Laissle. She is moving on. April’s been so helpful in doing research for the show, logging interview tape, giving me ideas – and of course she starred in the episode on women in their twenties. If you work in public media in the US and you’re looking for a great reporter or producer let me know. I’d love to connect you with April.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.