There is such a thing as an institutionalised, internal bias. Take a headline from 2016 when Katie Ledecky set a world record in the women’s 800-metre freestyle. The Bryan-College Station Eagle’s report of the event, in which Michael Phelps won the silver, set off a social media tsunami.
A woman’s achievement is not significant because she manages her home. It’s because she does it despite that and our stories should reflect that
The banner headline read: ‘Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly’. Positioned below it in much smaller font was the header ‘Ledecky sets world record in women’s 800 freestyle’. A woman reading that headline would instinctively know that it ironically summed up her experience in the real world and her “place” in society.
When Dipika Pallikal clinched a bronze at the Asian Games recently, media outlet Catch News chose to tweet out news about the milestone by referring to her as cricketer Dinesh Karthik’s wife, drawing ire from both men and women who’ve followed her career as one of India’s top squash players.
When tabloids reported that she charged Rs 5 crore for a five-minute performance at the Zee Cine Awards, Quantico star Priyanka Chopra, among India’s top-earning actors, shot back: “boys are never asked this question”.
The dissociation from stereotypical gender expectations is a challenge for mainstream media reporting women’s achievements anywhere in the world. The temptation to glorify and bracket women in their conventional roles often clouds their achievements as experts in their field.
The dissociation from stereotypical gender expectations is a challenge for mainstream media reporting
A piece in the BBC about India’s ‘Rocket Woman’ — BP Dakshayani, the former group director of the Flight Dynamics and Space Navigation groups of the Indian Space Research Organisation Satellite Centre — has set in motion an intense debate on how to write about women achievers without the subconscious bias that helps maintain the status quo about traditional gender roles. How do you write about a woman who has successfully sent a spacecraft to the Mars orbit without diminishing her struggles at home?
Of all the male scientists and engineers who have been interviewed before Dakshayani, how many have had their achievements contrasted with their work at home?
Before we address that, it’s important to know why that question is a necessary test of our understanding of women’s agency. Should lived experiences be glossed over in the interest of the greater good? Of all the male scientists and engineers who have been interviewed before Dakshayani, how many have had their achievements contrasted with their work at home? When we speak of men, we subconsciously isolate their associated roles as a father, husband, and brother from their core work. We do not refer to a cricketer as the husband of a national squash player.
When Virat Kohli hits a century after a dry spell, we do not ask him if he has to go home and cook dinner, or whether he likes cooking a curry. Because we assume that his curry-making skills have no bearing on his cricket and hence should not be a part of the story that celebrates his cricket
Language is key to intent-setting. And it’s the intent that drives the narrative. Casual endorsement of the ‘Super Women’ trope in writing upholds the patriarchy that thinks nothing of letting a woman continue to be trapped in multiple roles and spread herself thin when shared responsibilities would have helped her reach her potential faster.
Consider the headlining of the piece on Dakshayani: ‘Rocket woman: How to cook curry and get a spacecraft into Mars orbit’. Even acknowledging the fact that writers often do not have control over the final edit, the piece went into some detail about her struggle as a wife who had to wake up at 5 am to cook for a family of seven or eight before heading for work at ISRO.
Make no mistake — it’s of absolute importance that a woman be allowed to tell her own story of unfair struggles, back-breaking sacrifice and unequal duties if she so chooses without attempting to whitewash it in the name of positive example-setting.
Dakshayani’s struggles are emblematic of how a majority of women in this country live and work. To diminish that would be to ignore the uphill battle that we fight every day just to be able to work. But when we celebrate a woman’s entire life’s work, how we set the tone of the narrative matters tremendously in message-signalling.
Take this paragraph from the story, as an example: “In a traditional Indian family set-up, women are expected to bear most of the burden – and in most homes they do it uncomplainingly. Dakshayani is no exception….”
When we write about women, our job is to constantly challenge the status quo without diminishing their stories
I found a great recent example of how to write about a woman in science. This profile of control engineer V.R. Lalithambika is an exercise in gender-positive writing. “Marriage stopped her from going to IIT, but she still became ISRO’s top engineer.” The writer is not dismissive of her struggles (narrated in Lalithambika’s own words) and does not causally attempt to establish her roles, other than that of an engineer, as anything extraordinary.
As reporters and writers, we are chroniclers of history. When we write about women, our job is to constantly challenge the status quo without diminishing their stories. The point of our commentary is not to indulgently chide at the sexism at homes that hold women back and exhaust them, and accept it as given. Our job is to harshly criticise it and applaud women for having survived it. If we do not celebrate a man for sending a rocket to space “despite being a” father, husband, son and and brother, neither should we bring in similar references when we talk of women’s achievements. Discrimination is a reality for us but why would we, as writers, not want to address that through the power of our platforms and question the men who force women to choose between a home and a workplace?
A woman’s achievement is not significant because she manages her home. It’s because she does it despite that and our stories should reflect that.
Rituparna Chatterjee is a feminist journalist and writes on gender parity, women’s rights and social inequality. She started her career with The Statesman newspaper in Delhi and has worked in digital and print media for the last 15 years.