#MeToo must address the power imbalance that hurts women — which climate change could worsen

The #MeToo movement is a protest against a specific manifestation (harassment) of gender inequality and power imbalance. There are few forces as powerful as climate change in exacerbating that inequality and tilting the power balance away from women, which makes it imperative to ask how a warming climate will affect women.

Mridula Ramesh October 23, 2018 14:27:07 IST
#MeToo must address the power imbalance that hurts women — which climate change could worsen

These past couple of weeks have been eventful for gender relations, what with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a judge in the Supreme Court of the US, and the outbreak of the second wave of the #MeToo movement in India. But this is a column on climate change — why should it weigh in on gender relations?

To do so, let us consider a few questions:

1. What is the #MeToo movement?
2. Why is it happening?
3. What do we need to change?
4. How does climate change affect this equilibrium?
5. What can we do?

What is the #MeToo Movement?

My understanding of the #MeToo movement is this: a section of women are vocally highlighting the crossing of a line in gender relations which they have been uncomfortable with.

Harassment is a spectrum, and a subjective one at that: From verbal insinuation, to ogling, fondling, groping, abuse and outright rape — it spans an ocean of churn, confusion, guilt, anger and harm.

Archana Kalpathi, CEO of AGS Cinemas, says, “Women have felt and continue to feel ashamed to share their stories [of harassment]. Men have hidden behind the shield of this shame and continued to abuse their power. I am glad some strong women who have shared their stories to show there is no shame or stigma in this. A lot of men seem to think coercion is not so different from consent as long as no physical damage has been done. This is changing.”

As such, the public ‘coming out’ and a trial by media is an integral part of the movement — it announces the shift of a cultural line and removal of the veil of stigma.

While there can (and should) be a discussion on whether or not some of the claims under #MeToo qualify as harassment, we cannot dispute that lines are being crossed — in numbers, and in force, far too numerous and meaningful to ignore.

Why was this line crossed, by so many, for so long, and so often?

MeToo must address the power imbalance that hurts women  which climate change could worsen

Workforce participation by Indian women has fallen from a poor 35 percent in 1990 to a terrible 27 percent in 2017. Image courtesy REUTERS

Why has the harassment been happening? And why is it now being called out?

One answer is power: On average, men have had and continue to have more power than women. While men are harassed too, and women have been harassers, for the purposes of this article, I am limiting myself to the ‘women as victim/survivor’ subsect.

Power comes in many forms. In soft power, some religions and moral codes paint men as being superior to women; even now, many movies and books (that influence generations) cast a man in leadership and heroic roles (with the mandatory scantily-clad, simpering woman next to him); many professional networks tend to be dominated by men, and as such, sensitive (and career-advancing) information and opportunities that come via the network tend to be privy to mostly men.

In hard power, men are physically stronger than women (resulting in the question: is it fair to pay winners of men’s tennis tournaments more than women?); money, a potent source of power, tends to be male dominated — both in wealth and in income. Using one metric for wealth: Just over 10 percent of the world’s billionaires are women (even fewer self-made), and women tend to earn substantially less than men. While some part of this income difference is explained by industry of work, occupation and experience, a large fraction of the difference remains unexplained. Further, the higher echelons in an organisation are overwhelmingly occupied by men, meaning they have power in deciding salaries, providing plum assignments, deciding training opportunities and shaping careers of a greater proportion of the workforce.

What does this entail? As Lord Acton eloquently puts it: “Power corrupts; Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Those in power sometimes (often?) develop a narcissistic echo chamber that shields them from feedback. They believe themselves to be impregnable and invincible and misbehave. Very often they don’t get caught, thus reinforcing the walls of hubris. Eventually, they do.

The tide appears to be turning. Politically, women appear to be doing better — nearly 24 percent of parliament seats in the world are held by women, up from about 12 percent in 1997.

In movies, a strong female lead is becoming bankable phenomenon in the box office: witness the success of movies helmed by Deepika Padukone or Jennifer Lawrence. The Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit TV series, which, with its violence and nudity, seemed to cater to the male audience, has almost an entirely female-cast of victors left standing (seriously, who would have predicted Sansa would outlast Rob Stark, if they hadn’t read the books beforehand?).

Social media provides an outlet to overcome organised interests, which could explain why movements such as #MeToo begin and flourish there. Perhaps that’s why the #MeToo movement is concentrated in those sectors such as media and entertainment, with a strong social media presence.

But the #MeToo movement is a catharsis – a symptom but not a cure.

Will the battle be won? What do we need to change?

In getting to the cure — equalising the power between sexes — we run into a major stumbling block. Female workforce participation is falling. Working is a necessary requirement of building both financial independence and thus, some degree of self-determination. It’s not guaranteed, but for most, it’s a necessary if not sufficient condition, for gaining some power over their own lives. But worldwide, female workforce participation has fallen from about 51 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2017. Closer to home, workforce participation by Indian women has fallen from a poor 35 percent in 1990 to a terrible 27 percent in 2017.

But averages, as always, hide all manner of sins. Let us delve into this data by state, courtesy the NSSO data.

MeToo must address the power imbalance that hurts women  which climate change could worsen

(Just for comparison, among our neighbours, Pakistan is at 25 percent, Bangladesh is at 33 percent, Sri Lanka is at 35 percent, Bhutan is at 58 percent and Nepal is has a whopping 85 percent of its women working)

Going through the state data, I was surprised. Female workforce participation appears to be not directly correlated with education or development, as one might presume. Kerala (!) — educated, matriarchal and developed — sees only a quarter of its women working, while Punjab, one of India’s richest states sees < 10 percent of its women working.

Let’s go deeper.

The workforce participation rate for urban Indian women is a shocking 15.5 percent! And here the state-wise data is even more revealing. Thirty-two percent of Gujarat’s rural women work, but only 11 percent of its urban women did. The numbers are starker for Maharashtra: 42 percent of rural women work, while only 17 percent of urban female Maharashtrian work. And, yes, Mumbai is in that mix. That’s puzzling. Tamil Nadu reinforces this trend. Forty one percent of rural Tamilian women work, but only 22 percent of urban Tamilian women work. A greater fraction of Saudi Arabian women (!) work than urban Tamilian women.

Why don’t (urban) women work?

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, cultural factors: families prefer the (married) woman not work outside the house if her husband earns well. A recent study by Coffey et al, provided numbers to back up this claim. The study asked ‘In your opinion, should a married woman, whose husband earns a good living, work outside the home or not?’ About half the men they spoke to in Delhi, Mumbai and urban Rajasthan thought she should not. Slightly fewer of the women they spoke to agreed. In urban Uttar Pradesh, nearly 60 percent of men they spoke to thought married women should not work outside the home.

Now, consider the implications of this: as the economy develops, a greater proportion of men (hopefully) will make a good living — this means a greater proportion of women are unlikely to work — this is one explanation for the falling workforce participation rate. Consider the Kerala paradox — a better educated woman is more likely to marry a better educated man who in turn is more likely to earn a good living — resulting in her quitting the workforce. So, both development and education (too common prescriptions) may come to naught if this cultural prejudice is allowed to fester.

Another reason for not working is the higher priority women place on domestic duties. This includes opting out of more strenuous (but more rewarding) work, or dropping out if and when a family crisis erupts, thus jeopardising their chances of promotion. I live in Tamil Nadu, and the factories I help manage employ hundreds of women. Unmarried girls quit almost entirely when they get married (some re-join a decade later after their children grow up a little). Amongst our staff, women quit overwhelmingly for family reasons — a child’s education, caring for an older family member — sacrificing a promising career.

Reason#3 could be there are not enough jobs, especially flexible, part-time jobs, to go around, if more women choose to work. One opinion is that female workforce participation fell after 2016, because the kinds of informal jobs were hit by the increasing formalisation of the economy. But do keep in mind, that the numbers were poor even before that.

Reason#4:  The lack of convenient and safe door-to-door transportation, harassment at work, the highlighting of horrific forms of gender-violence are other reasons cited for poor female labour force participation. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying ‘Don’t highlight’ — it’s critical that we do. But the harassment and the threat of serious violence is factored into the decision-making of a woman and her family regarding her participation in the workforce.

This is where the #MeToo movement plays it role. When harassment keeps women away from the workforce, as a country, we are paying too high a price — not just in terms of inequality but also in terms of the economy — and the hit it takes.

Reason#5 could be that there is not enough of an economic incentive to work. With the joint family system disintegrating, childcare becomes both precarious and expensive. Add freebies to the mix, it may not be worthwhile to pursue a job (let alone a career) especially when you must do a second shift at home and potentially face violence on your way to and at work.

Dr Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president AVTAR group, which works in the space of women’s workforce participation, says “The poor urban female is fully employed. It’s only when we move up the employment and income scale that the participation falls.” The economically disadvantaged NEED the money, for other women it’s a nice to have — and when everything is weighed in balance, one that families are increasingly saying ‘No’ to.

So, not only is the power equation skewed in favour of men, if this falling participation persists, it will skew further in this direction. It’s difficult to imagine a more equal India without a greater proportion of women working.

This is now. Now add to this the hammer of a warming climate.

MeToo must address the power imbalance that hurts women  which climate change could worsen

How will women continue to do strenuous manual work as the world heats up? Image courtesy REUTERS

What does climate change do to women?

We can divide the climatic blows into three: First, is the blow to employment.

Of Indian women who do work, a large share work in agriculture. This group has few alternatives, neither in alternate rural employment (textiles being the notable exception) nor in the ability to migrate. The biggest personal risk is heat exposure — how will they continue to do strenuous manual work as the world heats up? There are indirect risks as well. A warming climate lowers agricultural yields, reducing the ‘surplus’ to pay for labour. Automation, a burgeoning trend, will reduce the need for labour. Less work = Less power.

The second blow pertains to the roles that women perform: child and household care. Both the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases and the incidence of health problems are set to rise as the climate warms. With children being a vulnerable group, child carers, who are overwhelmingly women, are set for a bad time. They will have less time to work or to relax, thus reducing their well-being. As the incidence of drought increases, more and more girls must walk further each day to collect water — stealing time that could have been used for school or leisure. A study by the WHO shows that as drought increases and the available nutrition available for a family falls, women often forego their share in such scenarios so that their families benefit, worsening their own health in the process. Less spare time/More calls on their purse/ Less nutrition = Less power.

The third blow is the increase of violence against women. Studies show that domestic violence reports in the US increase by 7-11 percent for every degree Celsius rise in temperature. There is already a cultural tolerance for domestic violence in India; rising temperatures could simply exacerbate this risk. Most incidences of violence go unreported or under-reported, but a death, especially a dowry death, is much harder to hide.

A study by Sekhri and Storeygard, looking at data from more than 500 districts in India over the past decade, found that whenever rains fall by a standard deviation, dowry deaths in that district rise by 8 percent. The authors explain that the groom’s family sees the killing of the wife as a form of ‘income smoothing’. Farm incomes fall during droughts. Killing a woman and marrying a new wife means there is a fresh source of income for the family. Horrifying as that sounds, it is a plausible explanation for the data.

More violence = Less power.

What can we do?

The #MeToo movement is a cry against the perceived abuse of power. And, right now, it’s loud. But soon, we will need to move to a cure. Structurally, the tilt of power seems shifting against women — for both climate-related and other reasons. This is what we need to address.

Moreover, there will, no doubt, be a backlash against the #MeToo movement — a #ScrewYou moment, like the Economist so pithily put it. Organisations may well think its just not worth it to include more women when there is this kind of embarrassment to face, and when most women are ‘unlikely to become leaders’. So, the training, the investment and the plum opportunities may increasingly shift to men.

Can the #MeToo cry for help, turn into a rallying cry of a different form?

It may — but it needs action on various fronts: Media, advertisement, cinema and TV serials need to portray women differently. Family expectations and support needs to change. Those in power need to recognise all of us hurt if such a large segment fare poorly. Training needs have to be rethought and role models need to be highlighted.

Arguably, the most important change is a paradigm shift within the mind of the wealthier, urban female. She will need to recognise the power that comes from her job. “The woman must be intentional about her career,” says Dr Rajesh. That intention maybe the key needed to leverage the #MeToo movement into shifting the power imbalance decisively.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution - India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net.


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