Avoiding the gaze

In a few months, I had adjusted to the reality of being ogled at and had come up with a survival strategy

Komal Shakeel December 21, 2017
The writer is an economic and development policy consultant/researcher with a focus on investment climate, entrepreneurship and neuro-economics. She has a Master’s degrees from London School of Economics and Peking University. She tweets @komalshakeel

Gallup finds one in five women in Pakistan have experienced inappropriate stares from men, twice in urban than in rural areas. I would have expected a different ratio, but then we know how women can be evasive about such experiences. Simply because it might just eat up their mental bandwidth; conjuring up memories of unpleasant incidents. I feel the same predicament recalling my daily walk from the gate of the government office compound to the entrance of the office itself.

I walk in a straight line with my horse blinders on, trying to avoid the gaze of the many bystanders I walk among. No, these are not security personnel. They are just men who happen to be there, insistent on staring down all members of a different gender.

The first few months, I would carefully scan myself in the mirror before I left the house. I stopped wearing make-up and bright colours. A year passed and I was still not immune to the feeling of ‘being on the ramp for show’. I would wake up well rested and full of energy each day, enjoy the beautiful drive on the Constitution Avenue, listen to FM 89 and reach the gates of the secretariat in a good mood, until: I had to walk through the gates leading to my office. By the time, I would reach my desk I would be exhausted and would need 10 minutes to ‘prime’ my brain into finding my existence worthwhile. I had no name for this feeling until I read Sendhil Mullainathan’s and Elder Shafir work, ‘Scarcity’.

Mullainathan and Shafir introduce the concept of ‘Mental Bandwidth’ and tout it as the most important resource of all. They add it to the repertoire of resources that economists talk about allocating all the time. While capital and labour are necessary inputs, what about the ‘labour input’ that makes it relevant to the wellbeing of human welfare? These scholars say it’s the brains energy to process information and make decisions. Simply put, it means all the effort that goes into carrying out daily routine chores and tasks that require critical thinking. We might believe that an economist might think that, we use the brain only when we are calculating our taxes or making household budgets. However, a neuro-economist might disagree and argue that biologically, the brain is wired to fire up those neurons when we eat food, listen to our favourite song, interact with other humans. Or in my case, try not to interact with other humans ogling at me in my own office’s parking.

In a few months, I had adjusted to the reality of being ogled at and had come up with a survival strategy: zero eye contact or observing my surroundings. Evolutionary biologists of the last century might turn in their graves, as this might appear to be an oxymoron to them. Not being aware of your environment as a survival strategy? This woman is definitely setting herself up for failure. However, my sense is that the modern society we live in has to have new social norms and rules. So ‘civil in-attention’ was a perfectly acceptable survival strategy in my opinion, until…

A colleague of mine relayed to another acquaintance that Ms Komal Shakeel suffers from a lack of manners or may have a haughty head on her shoulders, for she fails to greet her senior colleagues and acquaintances pretending not to notice them while she walks past them. Anyone slightly familiar with the rules of the game in high powered work environments would understand what blasphemy it is to not greet seniors upon chance ‘running into each other’. One’s career progression might be at stake. So I had just committed a cardinal sin and all I was trying to do was minimise the discomfort to my brain, trying to avoid the ‘gaze’ and in the process failed to notice the presence of someone I should not have ignored. This is just one example of the ‘tax on mental bandwidth’ and strategy to avoid it resulting in ‘costs’ to a career.

On a daily basis, women face this additional tax. From running simple errands, such as, grocery shopping to making presentations at work. Women-led businesses in Pakistan have to sometimes hire an ‘errand boy’ well versed in the language of patwaris and personal assistants to officers handling these processes. The implicit costs of not being able to network in a traditional sarkari are also incurred by these women who are asked for bribes more often than men. Constantly, they are aware of the way they look, the way people might perceive them from the posture they have or the colour of the lipstick they wear. Just the mere act of existing is work for those billion brain cells toiling hard to compete in a male-dominated world.

To add to this, is the additional labour of the female anatomy. Women would have to show up to work with a smile on their face, on the first day of their period. If they happen to sensitise others to this natural plight, they are met with awkward, uncomfortable shifts by their male colleagues. Sometimes, self-censorship gets into the way, because one may not want to appear weak or incapacitated in comparison to male colleagues. However, hiding something under the rug does not make it go away. Dilemmas like this pose an additional tax on the mental bandwidth, something Harvard economists value the most among all the resource inputs that go into creating value in the economy.

With uncomfortable workplaces — one simply needs to look at the washrooms in various public sector offices, even the ministries to understand a real life basic struggle — a mere 22% of women in Pakistan are currently engaged in any economic activity, compared to a 67.8% of men. Historically, the State Bank uses an employment elasticity approximated at 0.11-0.3, which translates into one percentage growth in GDP creating a 0.11-0.3 per cent growth in workforce. If we are keeping away a significant portion of our population from entering or remaining in the workforce, simply because policymakers are failing to understand the existential experience of a woman, we are imposing a substantial cost to not just national economic growth, but also hindering the global economy from growing.

Here is where policymakers need to step in. It is easy to get lost in policy recommendations when mainstreaming gender. Having 10% women on the boards of all companies, allowing paid maternity leaves or having quotas for women to enter universities are all good policy suggestions, but they fall short, simply because they are treating the symptoms not the cause.

The driving philosophy behind policymaking is where the spotlight needs to rest. Are we taking into account the additional labour that a woman’s mind has to bear in order to compete in the job market? Are we really understanding the experience of existing in a particular type of biological structure? Will women ever really have equal opportunity? Is there really a new social contract where men do realise that their privileged position in society is a result of no skill of their own, but simply a lottery by nature? As policymakers, shall we not move for equality to equity? Simply because equality is making sure each one has equal access to resources to help them reach their potential, but equity is about enabling individuals to reach their potential even if it means facilitating one more than the other, because as John Rawl’s aptly puts it, we are not all born equal under ‘the veil of ignorance’.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2017.

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