Being a woman meant landing in Tokyo at 6:30 in the morning, catching up with a dear friend over a coffee in her car while being picked up from the airport, ending up at the Hotel at 9:00, only to run straight to the restroom to change and hurry out with luggage, not even having time to check in, and ultimately carrying the same bag to the conference, without being able to leave it with the concierge in the absence of a room number.
That’s being a woman.
Being a woman means having taken the last possible flight, in order to maximise the time spent at the office back at home on the day of departure. Being a woman means writing an op-ed piece for The Daily Star, on her way back home, in the transit area of a quiet airport, at the ungodly hour of 4:00 in the morning.
Being a woman means always wearing a “rush” label.
Well, this woman is incidentally your columnist, who was heading for the office of Google in Tokyo. She had forgotten that Japan runs on time and there’s no waiting for anyone. So the two hour long ride from the airport killed her dreams of being on time. After her briefest ever encounter with the hotel lobby (not even check-in), she had hopped into a car with strangers who were women and still strangers at that time.
Less than 20 of us (all Asian women) ended up being part of a discussion hosted by Google on its initiative for economic empowerment. Google calls it “Womenwill”, a name which entertains the power of today along with the promise of tomorrow. And indeed, Womenwill had truly brought together a group of truly diverse women. The group had it all: serial entrepreneurs, a musician, a talk show host, a writer, a racing car driver, a professor, editor et al. A few of us were “multi-hyphenates,” though a few were also focused on single issues and were yet curious about almost everything in life. All of us also had only one thing in common: passion for enabling the full potential of women through economic empowerment. We were carefully reminded that though attainment in education for women has gone up, though political empowerment is on the rise, though health has dropped a bit, economic participation and opportunity still happen to be hugely dipping. We needed to remember that in spite of World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Davos being chaired entirely by women for the first time in 48 years, the statistics from their own end told a grim tale.
Globally women make less than men for work of equal value. The wage gap is around 23 percent. Fifety-five percent women, even in the European Union, have experienced sexual harassment at least once since they were 15. Thirty-two percent of these women experienced this at their workplaces. One out of every five women under 50 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within the year. In 89 countries, women and girls make up for 330 million of the poor. Almost 81 percent men of working age are in the workforce whereas only 54 percent women take part in the formal economy. Currently women generate only 37 percent of the GDP. A bare minimum of 14 percent of economically active women serve in leadership roles, compared to 30 percent of men. Latest statistics from UN Women also shares that by optimising the women labour force, the global GDP could jump from USD 12 trillion to USD 28 trillion by 2025.
These are not merely numbers. These are all stories by their own merit. These are chapters that we don’t write about or aptly address. Can leaders champion this agenda? Can digital literacy help? Can inclusive workplaces become a reality?
In an active discussion, by noon, all of us at Google’s office in Tokyo, had become immersed in each other’s work.
While discussing India’s Internet Saathi programme, it became apparent that somewhere as close as rural India, in spite of the world becoming connected, there’s an online gender gap. Only one in ten internet users is a woman. Google is now attempting to bridge this divide and has started targeting 300,000 women through this initiative, where women ambassadors train and educate women on the benefits of internet in their daily lives. Suggestion of launching a voice triggered application for women in Bangladesh had instantly become a point of discussion. Women need to be taught about the best uses of their phone, simply because online liberates. For instance, online spaces like “Sheroes”, founded by Sairee Chahal aims to put 100 million women on the growth road map by 2022. Clad in sneakers, Sairee, an Aspen Leadership Fellow and a serial entrepreneur from India, also has a “Dude Alert” when a male joins the community and fakes the profile of a woman. While I only speak of her, there were others amongst who founded the only TV channel for women, one who taught in universities while racing, a few who wore hijabs and yet pursued their supremely successful businesses, one who wrote and inspired women to be brave and many more.
I, at my humble end, remained focused on the internet access challenges and limitations of our female readymade garment workers. Would they ever be able to calculate their own wages, track their benefits online? Could Google help us address digital challenges of almost 3 million female workers in Bangladesh? Could Womenwill come to Bangladesh?
Meanwhile, by the end of the day, I had learnt two useful Japanese words: 1) Mottinai; 2) Gaman.
All of us in the room on the 43rd floor of Google’s office agreed that Mottainai, an expression of regret relating to a useful thing going to waste, is not how we would allow other women to define their lives. The second agreement was refusing to let Gaman, (a Japanese term of Zen Buddhist origin meaning stoic endurance) turn us into complicit creatures and that, in spite of our pressures and losses, we must move on and spread courage in a contagious manner.
After all, in Tokyo and beyond, we were all passionate women, inseparable on critical issues, hell bent on creating empowerment spaces by unboxing leadership biases and challenging norms.