To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, May 06, 2013

Do business executives in general stand for more gender equality?

I recently attended a seminar organized by an industry body.  One of the topics of discussion included Ethics, and this was sought to be illustrated through dilemmas we frequently face in life.  In an innovative effort, the medium chosen was a 'live' case study, with a theatre group helping focused groups of participants consider different aspects of a supposed question of ethics, including by enacting 'freeze frames' of different aspects related to the issue.  

The case study distributed was:

Rashid is an entrepreneur with a social conscience who sets greate value in being morally upright.  He and Anurag met while they were at college and have been friends ever since, having had a common passion for many things: wildlife, conservation, the environment.  Over a period of time, Anurag got married and started his own NGO.  Rashid was an integral part of the process.  Not only was he one of the largest funders - a position he retains - but due to his own goodwill and connections, he brought many more funders to Anurag's project.

Anurag's NGO works with the Bahelia-Pardhi tribe, historically stigmatised as a 'criminal tribe' in the colonial listing of 1871.  They are traditionally hunters and, more recently, poachers.  The NGO works towards rehabilitating them by creating alternate employement for both the men and women of the tribe - a significant challenge as hunting is what they primarily know.  It also runs a school for their children.  Rashid was proud and happy to be a part of this.

Vandana is Anurag's wife.  One day, Rashid received a call fromher; she sounded upset and explained that she was making this call because she wanted him to know that Anurag had been violent with her and had hit her.  He learnt that this wasn't the first time.  Needless to say, Rashid was upset and shaken by this.  He connected with Anurag who was indignantat the accusation.  When Rashid tried to speak to Vandana again, she was non-committal and vague.  After much debate and angst within himself, Rashid pulled funding from the NGO.

The first part consisted of play acting/'freeze frames' by groups of participants on different aspects of the situation.  The views and prejudices of many of the participants seemed to be visible even at this stage.  Some were seen to be in a contemplative mood (in a 'freeze frame') since, as they explained when prompted, the situation involved 'larger questions'.  Some others were seen to be advising the 'wife' either to "take a step back" and coolly analyze the situation, or (more directly) to look at a compromise.

The last part of the feature had two actors on stage fielding questions from the audience - a male actor playing Anurag (let's call him 'husband') and a woman actor playing Rashid (the 'friend').  The moderator asked the audience the opening question: Was the 'friend' right in pulling funding from the NGO?  'No' was the overwhelming majority response on a hand count.  And this was also reflected in the questions (more like thinly veiled accusations and imputations) put to the 'friend' and to the 'husband' by the group of business executives in the audience, which seemed overwhelmingly one-sided (about 4:1 majority) across age and gender divide.  Most of the 'questions' were directed at the 'friend'.  Some of the 'questions' were:

(a) Were you not acting in haste? (The 'friend' explained that he had worked for a month to establish the facts.)
(b) Were your conclusions not based on incomplete/unestablished facts? OR How could you believe only one side? (The 'friend' said that when he asked the 'husband', a long time buddy, point blank whether he had been violent with his wife, the 'husband' was non-committal and aggressive.)
(c) What right did you have to interfere in personal matters?
(d) [The 'rationalizing' thought] Were you not harming the larger purpose of the NGO by pulling funding on the basis of a personal issue of the NGO's CEO?

There were also suggestions, direct and oblique, for the two parties (the 'husband' and the 'friend') to sit together and resolve the issue (on the same lines as India and Pakistan were advised to do after 1947, as a member of the audience remarked!).  This suggestion the 'friend' was okay with (on a personal level, but standing by his decision to pull funding from the NGO), but which the 'husband' rejected outright (with a resolve to have no truck with the 'frined' in future), saying the 'friend' had ruined his life by harming his life's work.

Our much smaller group tried to argue that personal conduct could not be totally disjointed from the professional, especially when the NGO's work involved communities, and the 'husband' was also involved in 'counselling' community members sometimes.  One question we asked the 'husband' was, given that he had said that work was life and life was work for him (and turning this argument around), wouldn't his personal conduct and outlook on personal issues also affect his work with communities and his ability to deliver appropriate counselling and other services?  To this the hypocritical response from the 'husband' was that he had never held himself up as a role model.  Going on with the '1947 analogy' earlier, we also reminded the audience that in 1942, Gandhiji had suspended the Quit India Movement when a group of people at Chauri Chaura had indulged in violence against security forces - and, so, the ends do NOT justify the means.

Most amazing perhaps was the question from a woman colleague in the audience.  She asked the 'friend': Don't you think that your acting against the already frustrated 'husband' could lead to his indulging in more violence towards his wife?!

While the session ended with the moderator saying that questions of ethics were in general confusing, with no absolute rights and wrongs clearly demarcated, it made me somewhat sad about the social mores of a so-called 'distinguished' group of business-people.  This was especially so as the above session came after an earlier session where (a) an academic briefed the audience on a multi-disciplinary study on gender rights, one of the findings of which had been that the way women are treated in workplaces has an effect on how they are treated in society and households (and not only the other way round, as is conventionally believed); and (b) a briefing on the task force of the industry body on measures proposed to strengthen women's safety at the workplace.

To play the devil's advocate, I may've been acting as an 'armchair practitioner', while the larger group may've consisted of (at least some) people who've to take a stand on such issues on a day-to-day basis.  But does that condone the overall regressive mindset on display among such a group, who are supposed to be 'educated and enlightened' as compared to perhaps some other parts of society?

Such ambivalence may not bode well for women's safety, especially in the workplace, and as a wider portent, for gender equality whether in the work sphere or society in general.

1 comment:

Babbles said...

I think it may look personal/private and professional life is seperate, but actually both are interdependent. One affects the other. Here we have to go through root cause. What's the reason of frustration and agression. For example: if a person is disturbed in home front, his/her work has to suffer or vice versa. Secondly Indian society is a male dominated society. Whatever the case may be, the woman has to be blamed or made responsible and above all she has to receive the brunt. This gender issue has to be solve at the earliest. We don't give priority to women safety,women harassment in work places and other atrocities on women. So lots of issues to be resolved.Then only we can reach to a constructive result.