Understanding Gender Attitudes in India: What Women Can and Should Do?

The recently released report on gender attitudes in India by Pew Research Centre offers insights that has to be considered seriously as regard fighting the prevailing stereotypes and attaining a gender egalitarian future. While enquiring on this aspect from adult men and women in India, the various common aspects of enquiry related to a range of subjects like women's competence in political arena to that of decision making, culturally sanctioned roles, discrimination and many others.

With India's distinction of having women political heads of state since long, there is a common admission regarding women making equally efficient political leaders as that of men and in fact about 10% of adult respondents feel that women make better political leaders than men. However, such a preference reverse when we move from public space to the private ones like domestic settings where the overwhelming perception is in favour of women obeying men i.e. wife should obey husbands among two third of the respondents.

Although in this perception there is gender divide with women respondents too expressing assent to this view which remains marginally lower compared with men. Besides this apparent contradiction on perception regarding women in public and private space, there is an egalitarian tendency on account of child care responsibility wherein about two-third agree on it being a joint responsibility which is not without a one third of the respondents expressing the traditional normative of women to be the primary care giver of children.

However, when it comes to earning livelihood, near about half of the respondents feel women and men should be equally responsible for earning money, but an underlying notion of men to be sole bread winner of the household persists as 43% of the respondents consider earning money is men's job. In this regard, it is further stated by a majority that men should have priority in employment in situations of short supply of jobs. These perceptions are undoubtedly disappointing but when contrasted against the level of education, there seems to be marginal improvement with graduate level of education compared with the lesser educated.

While observing such preference manifested in desired sex composition of children, the tendency of a majority is towards having at least one son in a family which is also complemented equally for the need of at least one daughter in a family. This positive spirit of a balance between having both sex children does not translate in equal proportion when it comes to inheritance or responsibility of parental care in old age.

Two- third of the respondents agree to equal inheritance rights of sons and daughters and about 60 per cent consider parental care to be a responsibility of both of them. However, in the cultural domain of performing last rites or burial rituals, men seem to have an exclusive preference although there are instances of non-conformity with this ritual by the educated and the elite.

In analysis of these gender roles as opined by men and women places men to be more conservative than women in general. Such conservatism is revealed when more of men prefer decision making roles, advantage in job market, to be primary income provider for the household as well as dominance is other familial and cultural roles. Similar analysis made in age segregation between the younger and older adults places the younger adults to be relatively progressive compared with their older counterparts. Further a regional divide between the south and the north offers a contradictory pattern against expectation, as gender stereotypes seems stronger in the southern region in comparison with the northern Hindi belt. This contradiction counters the effect of development on gender stereotypes.

Besides these perceptions of gender stereotype that is revealed by Indian adults, an assessment was taken to such discrimination in comparison with discrimination according to caste and religion wherein 16 per cent reported to have faced discrimination for being women while similar extent of discrimination was owing to caste and religion as well. While on the whole a quarter of Indian women are reported to have faced one or the other form of discrimination, it seems to be less frequent among Christians and more among the marginalised caste groups.

Reading this Indian situation in a global context, there is more disappointment as regard equal rights for women, prioritizing men over women in the job market as well as conformity with gender roles in marital union when compared in a global context. When it comes to equal rights, India is placed above many nations with 72 per cent favouring equal rights as against half of the nations are at 70 per cent in such agreement. But preference for men in job market is opined by 55 per cent of the respondents when in half of the nations it merely receives 17 per cent approval.

Finally, in conformity with traditional gender roles in marriage for women is asserted by about 40 per cent in India when compared with half of the world nations have a similar conformity to a tune of less than 23 per cent. These observations on gender attitudes does confirm the slow progress in gender egalitarianism in India despite progress in education. Hence breaking this stereotype requires gendered sensitization on a wider scale initiated in formative years along with parental demonstration of gender egalitarian behaviour at home to induce the same in children.

(Udaya S Mishra is a professor at International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai and Mala Ramanathan is a professor at AMCHSS, SCTIMST, Trivandrum.)

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