By Subhashini Chandran
I have days that are hard to forget, times I wish looking back had no place on the calendar. I know others who have such dates, days that bind us to our past. We fall asleep hoping when we wake up our memories have erased or at least eclipsed those days in the twilight zone of a previous life.
My “erase from memory” day was 5 June 2012, when I was told my services were no longer needed at our family business. Before that day, I had been the chief executive, spending 18 years of my life growing our modest enterprise into one of India’s largest tea companies with 10,000 employees.
When I was told to leave, the company’s financials were solid, our relationships with clients, suppliers and employees were stellar, and we had earned an excellent reputation within government and industry.
So what did I do wrong?
Well, to put it bluntly, I was born the wrong gender. On that fateful day in the summer of 2012, my mother delivered the news, in her docile yet withering way, by saying I ought to be spending more time at home and that my brother would take over the business. There was nothing to be discussed. This was the way.
In my mother’s mind, having a son was an essential part of life; a daughter was merely a tolerable, dispensable addition, regardless of skill or accomplishment. Despite our company’s staggering success under my leadership, in my mother’s eyes I was not an equal and therefore undeserving to steward our family’s legacy.
The news was crushing, albeit not unexpected. I was born into a patriarchal society in which I had a certain knowledge that as a woman, I could only take things so far.
I had a choice to make – as a daughter, sister, lawyer and most of all, as a woman – to succumb or fight back. If I chose to fight, which fight should I pick? The obvious answer given to me by those I sought comfort and guidance from at the time was: “Seek your pound of flesh.” Instinctively I knew this would not be my choice. The very idea depleted my energy and sapped my strength. It’s not how I operate.
I decided to step away, not by spending more time at home as my mother had advised, but by embarking on a solo journey across India.
I visited 63 pilgrim sites from Rameshwaram on the southern tip of the peninsula to Haji Ali and the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Four years later, I still cannot say why I went on this journey or how it came to be 63 sites. What I can tell you is that I found my choice along the way.
I resigned from my family’s business. While that gave a measure of closure, what I have not been able to walk away from is the cutting realization that a female must accept less space in her mother’s heart (and in society).
I am a karma yogi: to heal, I need to do. I began pouring my energy into girls and women. I taught English at an all-girls school and paid more attention to female students in the MBA programmes I taught. In every conversation that included women I created room for their voices. When asked to sit on family business boards I sought commitments on equal access to succession opportunities for daughters. While suggesting candidates for jobs I proposed the best women I knew. When I had to choose between supporting the progress of a woman or man, my default setting became the former. I began to see a pattern to my behaviour and a thread in my thoughts.
I had unconsciously developed a rule: I will offer my talent, capacities, networks, reputation and friendship only to those who are living examples of gender equity in action.
A person is called to action by circumstance, chance and conscience. We can choose a personal or universal fight, but I have learned that what matters is to act. I have discovered choosing a universal fight can be a powerful healer. It is not my mother who is to blame; it is historical perceptions and behaviours that had seeped into her DNA that require a shift. It is therefore imperative that our generation consciously models its behaviour to infiltrate the universal subconscious and act by act, move the needle by the millimetre. As Gandhi put it: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
For me this change was moving to Nepal to work on women’s economic empowerment as part of a programme focused on alleviating poverty in a sustainable way. I worked on ways to increase the number of women-owned enterprises and the participation of women in agri-business supply chains in six of the remotest districts of western Nepal. Within a year we have created connections and routes between local businesses and external markets, new business opportunities and jobs for 2,127 rural women. We hope to reach thousands more in the next two years.
While the events of 5 June 2012 shattered me to the core, I have healed somewhat. I wouldn’t want any young woman with potential and talent to have her dreams snatched away and be sidelined as I was, simply because of her gender. My country and the world needs a shift in attitudes and more targeted action towards achieving gender equality. One way to tackle this would be to extend college education to all young women. Furthermore, the gender divide in C-suites and boards of family businesses needs to be obliterated.
In addition to the well-established economic case for gender equity, there is a moral case for empowering women. As the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report has highlighted, we will compromise innovation and risk a rise in inequality if half the world’s talent is not integrated as a beneficiary and shaper of our common destinies.
The Forum’s report tells us that, based on the current trajectory and with all else remaining equal, it will take 170 years for the world to completely close the gender equality gap between men and women. I will be 213 years old by then. I am proud to be a daughter today and I hope it doesn’t take 170 years for every parent to view their daughter with that same pride. Humanity’s well-being depends on it.