On March 8, we mark International Women’s Day, created to celebrate our social, economic, cultural and political achievements. To create a rallying call for awareness and the continued push towards gender equality.
As many South Asian women who have been working for a long time will testify, things have gotten a lot easier. We celebrate Diwali nationally with non-Hindu and non-South Asian colleagues and enjoy new motherhood with maternity and paternity leave. But the world is not yet where it could be. Intersectionality can help with that.
In spite of the best efforts of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) sector, we still find that women are, especially after the pandemic, struggling to remain at work and care for themselves, families and mental health at the same time.
We propose a way to look at things that’s growing less and less radical: Intersectional Feminism, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.
Why is intersectionality important to South Asian women?
When we peel apart the layers of identity within South Asian and other women of color we might see how prejudice affects individuals uniquely. This affects their access to opportunities, pay, and likeliness to succeed.
Take race and gender. In 2020, white women in the U.S. earned 81 cents for every dollar a white man earns; however, for American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, African American, and Hispanic women, this number was 75 cents.
Companies have tried to address this for decades because DEI has been proven to impact the bottom line by reducing attrition rates and fostering a great organizational culture. But there are several gaps in understanding that make these efforts fall short.
For instance, in many statistical reports and studies that HR professionals use to develop their initiatives, Asians are often represented as belonging to one homogenous pool, instead of appreciating the diversity not just regionally but also within countries. Take for example South Koreans and North Indians. Not the same, but still classified as Asian. Intersectionality takes care of this.
Similarly, there exist other intersecting minorities that impact women within South Asian communities. We explore three.
Marriage and Motherhood
Even as they embark on a new life as mothers, women still work. Sometimes they love their careers, other times it’s because they have to. Yet, working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women are leaving their jobs in droves post-pandemic, according to McKinsey.
South Asian motherhood is a unique experience. Parents tend to be more involved in their children’s upbringing; there is an extensive focus on grades as well as extracurricular activities. Chhaya Putrevu, senior product manager at Kaiser Permanente, observes.
She was able to stay at work through the pandemic. She says “Even if your better half pitches in equally, still as a mom, you have to go to that extra step to get things done.”
And even mothers need different things throughout their working lives. New moms, widowed moms, divorced moms, pregnant women. Can there ever really be one policy to help them all?
Women have it hard enough and then queer women are more likely than cis-heterosexual women to face increased rates of sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender and this is thrice as likely when they are out.
And there are the microaggressions and subtle harassment when living as a homosexual. In one study, many queer employees reported engaging in “covering” behaviors in order to avoid harassment or discrimination at work, including “…changing their physical appearance; changing when, where, or how frequently they used the bathroom; and avoiding talking about their families or social lives at work.”
Further, queer women are more underrepresented across every management stage and queer women of color struggle more with their mental health and access to opportunities than their counterparts.
Statistics are just numbers until you read stories. Many Dalit individuals in good positions are there because of generations of antecedents who have faced unspeakable crimes and discrimination even within their home states, cities and villages. It is likely that their families have through hard work, and controversial reservation policies in India, made their way to be able to provide good opportunities to their children, who still face indecent and humiliating odds to get the same wonderful white collar opportunities in the US that in turn are now beginning to take cognizance of caste.
Anti-caste discrimination policies have just begun to gather pace across the U.S. A 2018 report from Equality Labs “found 67% of Indian Dalits living in the U.S. reporting that they faced caste-based harassment at the workplace, and 27% reporting physical assault based on their caste.”
At a public hearing on a proposal to recognize caste discrimination in Santa Clara, Hindu American Foundation Executive Director, Suhag Shukla argued that if caste were added as a protected category, it would be used to “…uniquely target South Asians, Indians, and Hindus for ethno-religious profiling, monitoring, and policing.” Many people share his views.
This is a complex and heavily polarizing issue challenging the best of us. To be able to come up with a constructive way of providing equal opportunities to all, DEI professionals have to understand it.
And they cannot, without access to studies and resources that appreciate the distinction in every individual’s experience even among women — and some introspection.
Women exist across all divisions. Race, class, sexuality and caste. Even within these divisions, subdivisions and more, no two women share the exact same lived experience. An appreciation of intersectionality is critical if we are to achieve the vision of a world where every woman is treated equally — and not just by her partner, parents, neighbors, or colleagues — irrespective of her ability, marital status, sexuality, caste, immigrant status, or choice about motherhood.
Statistics show that the vision of a truly equal world for all individuals is going to be a slow and painful process. While women patiently wait for things to fall in place, there is only one thing that can get us through and that’s leaning in.
Support one another and recognize that women who don’t look like you, or have the same beliefs, including those with special needs. Recognize your own blind spots and actively participate in making your workplace and your world a psychologically safe space for every woman.
After all, no one is free until we are all free.