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Are women conditioned to be submissive? | Women Uninterrupted Podcast | Season 2, Episode 5

When women say ‘no’, is it considered aggression? Are women conditioned to be less assertive as a function of femininity? 

August 27, 2022 09:26 am | Updated August 31, 2022 09:18 am IST

Women Uninterrupted is an inter-generational podcast bringing you difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations about being a woman.

In Season 2 Episode 10, a round table discussion between five women: a psychologist, a mother of teenage children who are always saying ‘No’, two 12-year-olds and an older woman conditioned to please the world without stepping on anyone’s toes with a No.

Host: Anna; Guests: Anuja, Vandana, Maya & Saanvi

Editing: Saanvi & Maya; Title music: The Carpet Beat by Maya

The Women Uninterrupted podcast was produced by The Scribbling Pad for The Hindu.

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Femininity: a pre-teen’s POV

By Saanvi Khetan, 12

Femininity is defined as qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of women. These aren’t inherent in women but are regarded as acceptable by society. One of these qualities is never saying No.

While we were making this episode, I observed that while the rest of us had an upbringing where we were never forced to abide by what is considered feminine, our host, Anna, did. She had to learn to skirt around her Noes, in a way that might be considered manipulative, in contrast with my own upbringing, where I was told to stand my ground.

When women say No, or present ideas or thoughts considered unconventional or bold, they are considered aggressive, whereas if men did the same thing, they are thought to be assertive. Women feel pressured not to say No, taking up meaningless tasks; things that would benefit those around them more than themselves, like getting coffee for a meeting, etc.

Society still expects women to be feminine, and finds it threatening if they aren’t. These expectations of being quiet, sophisticated, elegant, caring, kind, gentle, poised, sensitive, and never saying No are ingrained from birth and enforced on women all over the globe.

Some parents raise and condition their daughters to be feminine and submissive. Traditional fairytales which they read to their daughters make little girls believe that men are superior, and that they need to be saved by their Prince Charming.

As for me, I wasn't presented with expectations of never saying No. I was taught that I was just as good as men, and that I could do anything they could do. As a child, I didn’t watch Disney princess movies which encourage ‘femininity’, like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. On the other hand, I watched movies like Frozen, Moana and Brave, Disney’s more recent films that had contrary perspectives. I even read a book called Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls every night.

All in all, I think that women should be brought up in an environment where it is socially acceptable to say No when needed. No, straight up No.

Full text of the conversation

The text has been edited for clarity

Maya: This is the Women Uninterrupted podcast brought to you by The Hindu. This is the space where we host difficult conversations between different generations of women.

Anna: Hello, I'm your host Anna on Women Uninterrupted and with me, I have Vandana, a counsellor. I have also Anuja, a professional working now for 23 years. And two 12-year-olds, Maya and Saanvi. This episode is about women and assertiveness, about women making their presence felt, about women saying no and setting boundaries.

A very warm welcome to Maya, who inspired this episode, with her unique and confident ways of saying No.

Maya: No, straight up No. I just said no.

Anna: Let me pass this mic on to Anuja, who's been at the receiving end for 12 years as Maya’s mother. How does Maya’s No make you feel, Anuja?

Anuja: Distraught, annoyed, angry, but in the longer run, happy, because I feel that Maya will grow up into a woman who is able to assert herself and able to say No. But currently, Vandana, I need some help. How does one handle children who constantly are saying no?

Vandana: There are certain things that you can definitely try, especially when they are a little bit young. So one is called as the reward and punishment. There's another thing that you can try, which is called as the token economics. So over here, whenever the child has a particular chore, you give them a token. Ensure that this token does not have any particular value. They need to collect some tokens, say 11 to 12, and exchange it to a reward that they really want.

Anuja: Vandana, I have used some of these techniques in my parenting. But now when I have a pre-teen and a teenager, I try and explain to them the consequences, the differences and what that No really means.

Anna: Anuja, personally, I watch Maya and I learn from her. Let me tell you, from all the conversations I had with the four of you women before we recorded this episode, I realized that well, I am the only one who was under pressure to be less visible, less assertive as I was growing up into a woman in the 1980s. Every summer when I was a child, I went back to my hometown with my parents. And when I hit puberty, it was quite startling how the girl cousins were suddenly expected to change. In many of our relatives’ houses, women did not sit down in front of men, and I started noticing that. We cooked what the men wanted; we made sure the men got their tea, their water, and food - more and more food all the time. Really good food, yes. I remember in grade seven, I was sitting at my grandmother's table. She lived in this house by the river. I was listening to an older relative telling me about his travels. And my grandmother was rolling her eyes at me and I could not understand why she was pacing up and down till she told me finally, “Go to the kitchen; I'm sure there's something for you to do there.” I was not really at the age where I had started cooking for the family. I was confused. I was hurt. She was telling me that this is not your place. This kind of subtle se… it’s not subtle…this kind of sexism stays with you - this regulation of women's conversations and invisiblisation. And it is sometimes enforced by other women and you have to really work on yourself to break out of it and to understand that well, being yourself and having a voice does not mean you are aggressive and forward - as they used to put it back then.

Let me pass the mic on to Saanvi. She wrote the blog for this episode. She has a question on the workplace for Anuja.

Saanvi: So, I was wondering when men and women say no in the workplace, is it perceived differently by those around them?

Anuja: Quite honestly, there are biases in the workplace like anywhere else. So some of them are unconscious, some of them are conscious, and sometimes when I look back, I do realise that a woman who's being assertive when she says no is sometimes being perceived as being aggressive. It's also happened to me. And what I've realised over time is to understand where it comes from, and work my way around it because in the longer run as you grow more senior in corporate, one needs to stay focused on one's work. And one needs to be able to assert themselves and put their viewpoints across in the best possible manner. So there are many techniques of doing this and this is not really or necessarily associated to genders in my opinion.

Anna: I wonder about that. Early in 2022, four academics wrote a book called The No Club which has been making news. It has an analysis of how employees spent their time at work in a certain American company. And it found that the median woman spent about 200 more hours per year than the median man on non-promotable work. The authors of the book call it NPTs, or non-promotable tasks. Women were asked to do these tasks more often and they said ‘yes’ to them more often than men because what is considered assertive behavior in a male can be construed as aggressive in a woman. And we all know the words she-devil, shrew, dragon lady, harridan, termagant, fish wife. These words were once reserved for women who asserted themselves and set boundaries, while a man in the same place is merely opinionated. We've (certainly) come a long way.

Anuja: How’s it in your classrooms, Saanvi…do you see a difference between boys and girls in your class as to assert a No?

Saanvi: Actually, I have noticed that most of the boys in my class are more outspoken and loud than the girls. They always speak their mind whereas the girls are way more quiet and timid.

Anna: Saanvi, could I ask you why do you think that is so? Because you wrote in your blog that you have not been conditioned to be feminine in the old sense. And presumably, all the girls in your class - all those 12-year-olds - have had similar progressive upbringings. So why do you think that happens?

Saanvi: Oh, I think for me personally, it's because all the girls around me are like that. And I feel like if I decide to be loud and rowdy, I won't fit in with them. And I'm not sure, but I think that it's like that for all girls in a way. Even if they aren't trying to fit in with their classmates, they would have noticed that in their families, their mothers and grandmothers and aunts would have been less assertive than the men. And I think that they might have picked up on that, mirroring them subconsciously. I don't think they would have been told to act in a certain way, but rather learned from the actions of those around them. Of course, that's all just my guesswork.

Anuja: How about you, Maya?

Maya: Well, honestly, in my classroom, everyone speaks their mind out and wants to get heard.

Anuja: Vandana, is it something to do with the way men and women are wired differently?

Vandana: So, in counselling, this debate of nature versus nurture is something that is, you know, being spoken about a lot. So back in, you know, the caveman days, it was the men who were supposed to, you know, protect the household, protect the people from the wild animals and go and hunt - and women were more to do with, you know, taking care of the children, taking care of the family, ensuring that there is connectedness that is seen. But right now, it has changed. Men and women both are working and both are very independent from each other. So it's more about how we cope up with things, how we are responding to things, rather than, you know, sticking to the age-old beliefs of nature versus nurture.

Anna: Thank you, Vandana, for the counsellor’s point of view. I think having a voice and being able to say no is a privilege and a luxury for many women. In 2021, the UN Population Fund looked at girls and women in 57 developing countries. They found out that only 55% of them are able to decide whether to have sex, whether to use contraception and when to seek health care. Being assertive for these women can come with harsh consequences for not complying. Acid attacks, for instance, are particularly common in South Asia by men who feel entitled to a woman's attention and time. They will punish a woman for being disobedient in what they feel is the most invisiblising way. So how do we normalise all women's rights to decision making? By delinking assertiveness from femininity, and by saying No, in all sorts of ways, like the four women in front of me have done.

Maya: Signing off from Women Uninterrupted, the intergenerational space for difficult conversations brought to you by The Hindu.

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