‘It doesn’t hurt to be aware of gender’s pervasive power’

Anagha Khare
Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Smitha Radhakrishnan, US-based feminist ethnographer of gender and globalisation was in the city on Tuesday. She opened up on work opportunities for women in India and US, feminism and more

Smitha Radhakrishnan, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Wellesley College, USA is a feminist ethnographer of gender and globalisation. Her observations and insights about women empowerment are noteworthy and her body of work is powerful and transformative. With exhaustive research in the Indian tech industry and the microfinance industries, she has a lot to say about women and their role at the workplace in contemporary times. 

We caught up with Radhakrishnan post her talk at The Loft Forum in the city on Tuesday. Excerpts...

- What are the most persistent problems relating to gender and race in the US as compared to India?
Both places have groups of women who have faced intense histories of marginalisation (black women in the US and Dalit women in India). The histories and experiences of these women remind us that anything we have to say about ‘women’ as a group, must take as its starting point the fact that women are not just women — they are differently positioned in terms of class, age, ability, caste/race, and so much more. Any organising that takes place in the name of women has to emerge from alliances between folks from many different social locations. 

In both India and the US, women face unequal opportunities for work, a devaluing of motherhood and women’s work, and various forms of misogyny and harassment, among other issues. How those broad issues get articulated in each context is very different. Though, it wouldn’t be fair to generalise since both places are extremely diverse. 

- In your research about IT professionals, what made you choose India in particular?
I got interested in the lives of Indian IT professionals in the early 2000s, when I started hearing about young women who were travelling to the US to work in software corporations. I knew that such opportunities — for independent travel abroad — were relatively new for women in India and I got interested in the broader context of their experiences. My research ended up focusing on how these changes in the possible professional trajectories for middle and upper class women in urban India reflected the broader ascension of India to a global stage. My research expanded to Silicon Valley and South Africa. In each place, Indian women were forging new meaning of Indian womanhood in relation to their professional identities as tech workers and modern/global citizens.

- In the many years of research, were your observations constant or they kept changing?
My research on the Indian IT industry was conducted from 2004-2009 and my research on gender and commercial microfinance has been underway since 2011. In IT, at least, the big change has been that gender inclusivity in the workplace has become more and more commonplace in Indian firms, whereas when I was doing my work, the implementation of such policies was piecemeal and uneven. Still, the experiences of women reported in industry reports and more recent research (of which there is not much) suggest that the experiences of limited choices, devalued work, and a masculine work culture have not changed as much as we might have hoped. 

In IT, although 51 per cent of entry level positions are occupied by women, it is a very leaky pipeline in terms of advancement, with women in top leadership remaining in the single digits (with some variation among companies). There is still a lot of work to be done to engage women and men in IT work equitably and fairly. Commercial microfinance pertains to working class women in both rural and urban areas. Access to microfinance has done little to improve the position of women in the labour market and may in many instances be trapping them in low wage work at the bottom. Or worse, women unable to bear the cost of the high interest rates may find themselves trapped in an unsustainable cycle of debt.

- Your new book talks about the relationship between working women and loan officers. Is there anything in particular that interested you about this topic?
The new book manuscript is still a work in progress, but yes, I became very interested in the relationship between loan officers and working class microfinance clients during the course of my research. I found that through these relationships, women are disciplined into becoming creditworthy women (and there are positive and negative dimensions to this disciplining), but it is not a one-way street. 

Indeed, loan officers have to get buy-in from women for their products and ideas, and that is often difficult. Women exert tremendous agency in markets for finance and have a detailed understanding of the various options that are available to them. Examining the relationship between women in various social locations and their loan officers helps us better understand the everyday politics of microfinance.

- What do you think is the way forward for women in India?
More equitable work opportunities at the top and at the bottom of the labour market, and an expansion of work opportunities for urban and rural women with moderate levels of education. In order for this to happen, we need to rethink what counts as valued work and especially think about the value of motherhood, which is valued morally, but devalued in every other way. Without this fundamental shift, we will continue to create piecemeal efforts to empowerment that are compromised at the core.

- Shouldn’t there be a better term than ‘feminist’ for people who strive for women’s rights and empowerment?
I’m not sure I understand why there is a negative set of connotations with the term. Feminist movements and organising have a long history in India and a vibrant contemporary culture. It seems to me that strengthening connections with the tremendous history of women’s organising in India and even in the present, with the Sabarimala protest going on now, can only enrich our understanding of contemporary gender politics. Without it, any discussion of women’s empowerment is hollow and individualistic.

- Does gender have an impact on all fields alike?
Gender is hidden in plain sight. Everywhere (or just about). That doesn’t mean that every field of study has to take up a gender angle, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of its pervasive power.

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