By Malavika Eby
My name is Malavika, I’m seventeen years old, and a first-generation immigrant to the United States as of 2008. My parents shifted their lives from South India to Northern California in their early-twenties, and while they may have physically left behind their relatives, childhood homes, and family pets, they never shed the values and thought patterns instilled in them by their closest influences from home.
Referring back to the old nature-versus-nurture debate, it’s my feeling that my mom’s adherence to gender roles can be owed to the lessons she picked up from her parents, teachers, friends, and role models rather than any biological marker that’s innately tied her identity as a woman to cooking, cleaning, and homemaking.
To tell you the truth, my mom isn’t a homemaker; rather, she’s an artist and art teacher, talented, award-winning, and great at her job. Still, I see her struggle with an internalized lack of confidence in her own abilities, stemming from her belief that her natural abilities are limited to those pertaining to her role as a wife and mother. Despite successfully running her own business–Colorful Moments Art School–and having a Distinguished Artist Award from the city of Cupertino under her belt, she regularly refers to herself as unemployed rather than an artist or entrepreneur or teacher (all of which she is).
I know my mom’s hesitation and self-doubt when it comes to picking up new skills or speaking to people about her work doesn’t arise from her inability to complete these tasks. Instead, these limitations directly result from her belief that certain tasks are outside the scope of her capabilities.
I think the vast majority of us have women in our lives who could use a stronger support system to assure them that they’re entitled to their own hopes and dreams and an identity outside of their family roles. Even beyond that, with a limitless ability to learn, each of them are capable of changing the world in whichever capacity they wish to.
In addition to rewriting the subconscious gender-guided biases in our own thinking as such, I’ve put together this short list of approaches we can take to empower the women in our lives.
- Pay careful attention to imbalances in the division of labor in your households, workplaces and school environments.
Many of you will find that it exists much more commonly than you ever noticed. When that happens and whenever possible, gently point out these discrepancies to the people involved and make a personal commitment to help strike a balance where there currently is none. Educate yourself and the people in your life to pick up some of the burdens the women in your life may have carried far longer than they ever chose to.
- Treat women (and everyone) in ways which make them feel uplifted and supported.
As many of us grow accustomed to and comfortable with female coworkers and family members picking up traditionally “feminine” duties, we unintentionally internalize a sexist and male supremacist mode of thinking. With this in mind, while gender and women’s rights are social issues complete with many critical lenses, studies and papers published on the topic, our priority is to empower the women in our lives with the kind of support that they need, not the kind of support we think they need. Be open to learning and adapting to what your moms, sisters, friends, peers, etc. would truly appreciate from you as a pillar of support, which is a word of advice that applies to allyship with any marginalized group in our community.
- Recognize that there’s a difference between when people partake in activities out of societal pressure versus personal interest.
As a sort of “low-stakes” example, being a girl who’s enjoyed the color pink since childhood, I’m still not sure whether it was my choice to love pink or whether I was simply one of the many victims of the “girls like pink” stereotype. At the same time, I know I can change my favorite color whenever I wish, which means I feel completely alright in being a fan of the color pink.
As an ally and source of empowerment, our job is to remind the women in our lives that they are allowed to and capable of growing in ways outside of societal expectations of women. We aren’t owed our mothers’ and sisters’ cooking/cleaning/homemaking, and the women in our lives reserve the right to choose without judgement, just like any other individual.
So that’s it for my pointers, and Happy Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day! I know I’ll be spending this time recognizing both myself and the women in my life of our strength, excellence and beauty, both as individuals and as a collective community. On this incredible day (and every other day of the year!), I hope all of you will be doing the same with your family members, colleagues, classmates, friends and selves.