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Of Broken Stools and Firm Ceilings

Education Employment Empowerment

The three legs of the stool on which women need to stand, to break the glass ceiling.

When any one of these legs is weak, breaking that reinforced glass ceiling is that much more difficult.


There is no doubt that this is the foundation. There has been tremendous progress in getting the girl child educated. But it is not without its share of issues. Some related to culture, some to ignorance and some to plain apathy. There are still miles to go before this leg of the stool gets evenly strong for all girls. Until there is a level playing field here for both boys and girls, the stool will not be strong enough. Just to highlight, here are a few examples. In some cultures, girls reaching puberty are stopped from going to school. Because now they have a higher risk of eloping or getting pregnant. As far as I know, boys of that age are not stopped from school because they can elope or get someone pregnant. Some schools do not have toilets. So girls can’t ‘go’. Another example. In a discussion with young students of an engineering college in rural India, I asked the girls why they were pursuing engineering. One response was that this would help get an educated husband, and that their parents can brag that their daughter is an engineer. But most likely, she would not have a say if she could pursue a career or not. Many agreed with her. To their credit, there were many girls who said that they had dreams of building careers and having their own businesses as well. But most agreed that they will not be the final decision makers. Either their parents or their husband or their future in-laws would decide that. Strangely, the male students did not say that anything depended on their future wife or in-laws.

If education does not transform the thinking patterns of boys and girls, women and men, this leg of the stool is still weak.


Educated or not, financial independence is desired by every woman. Let’s say some girls are fortunate to have the right education and the education of their choice. The next challenge is to find a job. In most countries at the entry level of the job market, women seem to be faring just as well as men. But there are some glitches even at the entry level. Studies seem to indicate that almost all women tend to underestimate their skill sets and hence do not negotiate their salaries well. This disparity continues as they grow in their careers. To that, are added challenges like biological clocks and gender based biases. Translated, they are marriage, child bearing and nurture. Not just child related, the whole home front is kind of assumed to be the woman’s domain. Everyone accepts this. This is normalised.

By all accounts, the man seems just incidental to this whole funny business called home.

No one denies that more and more women have been leaving the homestead and stepping into a job. But the unspoken understanding is that they are doing that at their own risk. A woman is free to get a job but she still has to run the home. Her domain is her home. A man has to bust his butt at work and get the moolah. After getting home, he can put his feet up. Not so a woman. She has to bust her butt, only doubly, to get noticed that she has worth, get the moolah, get home and roll up the sleeves for the home job. Most working women have two jobs. Everyone knows this but nobody sees it. It is normalised. I am only scratching the surface of the issues here. But does this leg of the stool look strong? Not to me.


This is the third leg of the stool. Just having educated and employed women is not changing much for women. Unless more women get into policy making and governance there will not be much progress. We have normalised everything that keeps women from being equal partners in the social and business spheres. Stereotyped, gender based role definitions stack the odds heavily against women. This won’t change unless policies change. This I believe will not happen unless there are more decision makers who are women. AND a lot more men, who support this movement.

Political power is undeniably the single most powerful tool to bring about change.

This has conventionally been with men, due to the aforementioned two other legs not being strong enough. And this leg needs to be strengthened as well.

Break the ceiling.

So, all you women who are students, be aware that your education is important. Your dreams matter. Your quest and curiosity matter. You have the power to create the future of your choice. Speak up for what is your right and learn to raise questions about what is not fair. Break the ceiling.

All you women who have made career choices, or are working to support yourself and family, know that you matter to the economy of your country. Be aware that your income is not secondary to anyone else’s. Your voice matters, your opinion matters. Stand up. Sit up. Speak up. Shake up. Lean in. Raise your hand. Break the ceiling.

All you women who have overcome the two challenges of education and employment please work on getting into decision making roles. Any number of obstacles are in your way. It’s a long and arduous journey for you but the outcomes will be sweet. Your gender and the associated biology, your culture and its associated role expectations at home and at work, the policies and laws related to work and wages, the conscious and unconscious biases – all these are stacked against you. But you can change so much for so many other women just by getting into political, policy making, decision making, leadership roles. We desperately need role models for the girls. Break the ceiling.

All those who are reading this, men and women, for your sake and the sake of many girls and women who are standing on shaky broken stools, or worse still, for those who have no stools, please do what you can to make stronger stools so they can reach up and break the ceiling.

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