The New Change Wave - 'Womanism'

The Economic Times - 21 July, 2003

There is a slow but definite wave of change happening - one that politicians and marketers would do well to ride on, rather than ignore. Women are on the move in India, inching their way away from being doormats, away from the socially ordained straitjacket that Hindi movies of yesteryear so glorified "yours is not to question why, yours is but to do … and die…in the finest tradition of the adarsh bharatiya nari". I deliberately chose the words "inching their way away from" rather than "marching determinedly towards breaking free", because that is the truth of the matter.

So, why is this slow burn such a big deal to qualify as a change wave? Because, force = mass x acceleration, and the force of change caused by a large mass of people moving even at a very slow speed is huge enough to qualify as a change wave. Because change is multiplicative - lots of little changes, each negligible in itself, multiply together to cause a big change. India changes in such an insidious, morphing sort of way, it is easy to completely miss seeing the change, and hence miss the opportunity that any environmental change brings for upsetting status quo and seizing competitive advantage.

Perhaps the most salient feature of this change, best described by someone as the rise of 'womanism', a gentler and less individualisatic form of feminism, is that it is a change in the core of the woman's mind, and not on the periphery of her behaviour. It is a change in the mental attitude of women to themselves, and their role in their world, and not just a change in how they dress or carry out their household chores. In fact, as one researcher put it, even for the most forward looking Indian woman, mental emancipation achieved in the past few years has been far greater than the physical emancipation. Which is another reason why this change is not easy to see, but will drive sustainable behaviour change over the next few generations.

Womanism is about women saying "I am a person too, I want my space and place", "I want my opinion to count', "I want to be productive / do something worthwhile and remunerative", "I value my own time', "I need to look after my own interest too, there is no glory in self denial". A Mc Cann Advertising study in Rural India says that the biggest change that struck the researchers was the changing role of women in villages, and how she was beginning to get a mind of her own and express her own opinions. Village girls insist on going to schools, and their mothers are letting them do so, even if against the wishes of the father. As has been often said in Hindi movies dialogues, the education of women is the beginning of their 'downfall', and researchers confirm that even six or seven years of schooling is enough to make the 'worm turn'. Studies by market research and advertising agencies amongst urban Indian women in all social classes, reflect this trend in different ways. According to Research International, the first step up the womanism ladder is when the traditional woman becomes 'less traditional". She begins experimenting, seeks a better role for women, especially her girl child, starts negotiating with the male, albeit tactfully, but not blindly accepting his dominance, but is still suspicious of excessive modernity. The next step is to be 'forward looking'. Family centred but individualistic, arrived at a balance of modern and traditional, with mental emancipation being far greater than physical emancipation.

FCB ulka and IMRB studies point out that urban women see their role as being a far more 'value added' one - than that of the intellectual nurturer, helping her child to be competitive and achieving, and in being the "CEO" of the household. De-emphasizing traditional low value added household chores does not bring with it the stereotypical old world mountains of guilt because, time released is going towards fulfilling more productive roles.

What are the forces driving this change wave? One is the increase in education amongst women of all social strata, especially urban women. Adding up the number of years of school and college in the women pool, it is easy to see that the total 'education capital' is definitely higher than before.

Economic independence is quietly arriving. Surveys show that the "ever worked outside the home' proportion of women is increasing across all social classes, as is the 'doing some remunerative activity from home', even if the proportion of full time working women at any point of time is only slowly increasing. (Interestingly, working women are not an upper class phenomenon. In fact the proportion of women working outside the home drops in the highest urban income group). With the service industry growth, the number of employment opportunities for women is increasing too. As much as 25 to 30% of the work force in financial services and call centre type businesses is women - a huge leap from the number in traditional manufacturing industries.

Attitudinally, the desire to be productive, and improve self worth by turning talent into money is huge. It is this that companies like Amway and Herbal Life and other non retail marketers are tapping into. The Self Help Group experience of ICICI and Hindustan Lever is making some inroads in states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, showing that the networking benefits along with finance availability unleashes a lot of woman power - a definite rise in self esteem and a demand for recognition from the rest of the family. While self help groups often do not sustain over time, they throw up the occasional successful woman entrepreneur who serves as role models to the rest.

The reservation of seats in Panchayats for women has brought them into the public decision making domain and a news report says that in UP alone there are 20,000 gram pradhans. If the figure is right, that's an awful lot of role models to show the way for the rest.

Then, there is that most primordial force - television. Whatever may be our intellectually critical judgement on the retrograde stereotypes of women shown in serials, television has widened her frame of reference and given her the information resources to imagine and aspire. And finally, with two thirds of urban women living in nuclear families, the onus to do 'outdoor work' and to manage without the support of elders is giving her a new found confidence.

Marketers will do well to at a minimum, recognise and acknowledge this new woman, and study how it impacts behaviour in their categories. Two wheeler makers have noticed the creation of a whole new market for girls and women who want the freedom that comes with mobility. There is a strong case for financial services companies to specifically create a 'women's business cell', and go beyond offering the odd add on credit card to her husband for the well heeled rich. The home manager is ready to manage finances better, and wants to know how. In almost every category, there is the opportunity for forward looking companies to be the 'knight on a shining white charger', and actively encourage this movement and secure a lion's share of the future of what will be an increasingly valuable target group as generations evolve.

With an election around the corner, there is some merit in considering women as a special constituency that needs to be spoken to as intelligent voters in their own rights, rather than blindly assuming that they will vote the way their men tell them to. Sonia, Jaya, Mamata, Shushma, Mayawati should take the lead. And see themselves as key drivers of this movement.