MAITREYI SRIVASTAVA | 9 NOVEMBER, 2021
No amount of economic equality can bring about sociopolitical change
“We already have an elderly man and a woman, so the rest need to be all men.”
“What if they make us play Elastics or Gonggi? Women are better at those.”
“That’s true, but probability wise, men are better at most games.”
The above set of dialogues introduce one of the most nailbiting sequences in Squid Game, the most watched Netflix show to date. The simple games juxtaposed against the cruelty of debilitating debt struck a chord worldwide, including in India.
Although South Korea is an OECD country with a per capita income and cost of living much higher than India’s, many commonalities could be drawn, including the miseries of poverty, envy and appreciation for students from “top” universities, love for mothers, and complex human nature.
But what intrigued me most was the perception of women’s capacities.
In episode 4, the players wonder what the criteria should be for selecting their team members. The smart guy, Sang-Woo (an alumni of Seoul National University) asks the teammates to bring back men to complete the team. When the kind guy, Gi-hun, wonders if they may be challenged to play a game that doesn’t require strength, the smart guy says that in most cases, no matter what game it is, men play better than women.
It is strange that despite the economic, societal, and cultural differences, the perception of women is similar around the world. As in the team sport in the Squid Game, women are less likely to be selected even in cases where no one knows if it’s a game of strength, wisdom, or any other - or not a game at all.
We are often told that education and economic development can change the cultural perceptions and social status of everyone, including women. However, a character like Sang-Woo, highly educated in a high-income country, who in just the previous game succeeded based on his wit and the information shared by a woman, thinks that women should be disfavoured for any unknown.
It puts things in perspective. Even in more economically equitable situations, educated men (or not) do not consider women worthy of equal status, say, or value.
Most working women have met many Sang-Woos in their lives. These men are well behaved individuals, well versed in their craft, willing to share their wisdom for the common benefit, careful of what they say and how they communicate.
Yet, they are not able to shed their internal bias against women.
Socialization enforcing stereotypes has so profoundly ingrained gender bias that a man is less likely to select women as team members over men if given a choice. In most cases, women fill in just the token seats to convey that the men on the team are not averse to working with women.
This preference of working with men over women gives men less opportunity to experience working with women, especially with multiple women, working as a team, which could change their perception.
Further, the token woman team member feels constantly pressured to prove that she deserves the (token) space. She is often under-acknowledged and, most of the time, overworked.
Often she reaches that token position after competing with similarly competent women, who perhaps were cut out because there was only one token space.
The problem is that no amount of economic equality or justice can bring about sociopolitical change without specific intervention. No matter that capitalism, like other dreams, adequately advertises gender equity as one of its benefits.
The big private businesses use gender issues to sell their products, curate their brand image and create a buzz. But they fail to create an inclusive working space.
There is a lot of data supporting this statement. Female labour force participation is barely 24% in India, an evident decline in the last two decades when private business has been allowed to increase manifold. In urban areas, seen as the engines of this growth, it is a modest 14% to 11% below the average.
Despite dreams of an era of disruptive automation and artificial intelligence, cyber analytics, technology customization for any shape and size, gender bias remains a prominent barrier in society.
The effect of such gender bias is to reinforce the same. For instance, India has a thriving automobile sector that aims to create smart green cars, but it still does not have a car with in-built height adjusting features in the driving seat, to better suit women of average or short heights.
Nor has the world made motorbikes that are ergonomically suitable for women. Nor is a design safe for driving during pregnancy ever a selling point. Between men and women, men continue to be considered more suitable to drive a vehicle, designed for them, and thus become better candidates for operating the vehicle.
Such discriminatory standards at all stages cause the under-representation of women in the workforce, all the way up to the teams that take decisions, design policies, and run the organization.
Thus it is safe to say that the gender issue will not go away on its own, even in an economically equitable society. To create a gender-inclusive society, we need to develop gender-sensitive policies, training modules, audits, checks, etc. – an education system that includes all genders and sexes.
In Squid Game, in the tug of war, the team ultimately wins when it applies strategy over strength and uses its human resource well. The hope is that the audience take this lesson, and create opportunities to adequately utilize the knowledge, capacity, and skill of the so-called secondary genders, the other genders.
Maitreyi Srivastava studies social work at TISS