Dear ladies, your ambition is showing (gasp)

She puts her career before her only child. “I’m sorry kid. I really want to come. But something’s come up at work.” The disappointed 10-year-old shoots back: “You’re working every day. You don’t like to do anything else.”

That’s the script for when Jagruti Phatak, single mom and investigative journalist, tells her son she can’t take him for the movie they had planned to watch. The TV series is Scoop on Netflix and it is based on the true story of crime reporter Jigna Vora.

Jagruti’s ambitions are pretty straightforward and include (though not necessarily in this order): To become the first woman in her family to buy an apartment, to give her son a good education and to keep getting the scoops that keep her byline on page 1.

There is much to take away from the show—the relationship between journalists and their sources, the cutthroat race for page 1, trial by media—but there is no escape from the underlying message of what ambition means for women, particularly in a field like crime reporting that is dominated by men.

Morality tale on the Ambitious Woman

(Source: Netflix)

“It was a conscious decision to comment on the very judgmental way we look at women in the workplace,” Hansal Mehta, the creator and director of Scoop tells me on the phone. “Everybody rushed to judge her [Jigna Vora] because of her gender. And she was judged not just by men but also by women.”

Jagruti/Jigna’s rise to deputy bureau chief in just seven years and her ability to land scoops leads to speculation much of which stems from jealousy. After all if a woman is doing well in her career, there must be (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) some reason other than her talent and hard work. “Was Jagruti’s ambition the cause for her downfall?” asks the Netflix promo. Can you imagine the same question being framed if she was a man?

The assumption was she had used unconventional means to get what she wanted, explains Mehta. “There were insinuations about her relationship with cops, with her sources and even her editor,” he says “It happens in every industry. It happens in my business and in corporates as well.”

Double standards

Ambition has been a pretty loaded term for women. Back in 2004, psychologist Anna Fels wrote in the Harvard Business Review that for men, ambition was considered a necessary and desirable trait whereas for women it was associated with egotism, self-aggrandisement and manipulation.

Even Barack Obama weighed in, telling a journalist in 2016: “When men are ambitious, it’s just taken for granted…when women are ambitious—why?”

“It’s like an unconscious bias where women are asked to order the lunch or pour the tea,” says Preeti Reddy, erstwhile chairwoman and CEO, Kantar Insights, South Asia. “Women still can’t openly say they are ambitious or working hard for a promotion because they feel they will be judged for it, by women as well as men.”

But biases against women persist all over the world. A newly released UN Report on gender social norms finds that nine out of 10 people, men as well as women, hold these biases.

For instance, in 80 countries, half the people believe that men make better political leaders; 40% say they are better business executives than women and a worrying 25% believe it is justified for a man to beat his wife.

The UN study comes on the heels of another report that finds that gender bias and discrimination have held women back in the workplace for generations.

Researchers of this study, a summary of which was published in Fast Company, identified 30 common personality traits women say are used against them at work. Age is the most persistent with women being told either they are too young to lead or too old.

Men did not face the same bias; a young man is hungry and ambitious; an older man is mature and experienced.

Women are criticized so often that they assume what they are hearing as truths and work even harder to make improvements.

The problem doesn’t lie with women but with attitudes to them, that they are “never quite right”, If they have kids, there’s an assumption that they won’t be able to commit to the job. If they are childless, there’s the assumption that it’s ok to dump even more work on them.

Weigh in: Is it ok for a woman to be ambitious? Does society judge ambitious women differently from ambitious men? Write to me at:

In numbers

79% of women aged 60 and above are dependent on their children for their finances. 66% do not own any assets and 75% have no savings.

Source: A recently released Helpage survey of 7,911 respondents found that 16% of older women also faced some kind of abuse with the son being the perpetrator in 40% of cases.

The big update

Wrestlers’ protest

Brij Bhushan (Source: PTI)

On Thursday, the Delhi police finally filed a charge-sheet against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the six-time BJP MP who headed the Wrestling Federation of India for 12 years.

Singh has been accused of sexual harassment by six women wrestlers. A seventh wrestler, a minor at the time she says she was molested by Singh, has withdrawn her statement. Her father has spoken about receiving threats, but has not named the source of these threats.

Singh is off the hook on POCSO, India’s stringent protection of children from sexual offences law that would have meant automatic jail for him. He is now accused of a variety of lesser charges such as outraging the modesty of women. The maximum jail term under these charges is five years, should he be found guilty.

Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshee Mallik told HT that she was disappointed but for now the wrestlers have put their protest on hold.

[Read also,the minor wrestler’s father tells a story riddled with contradictions.]


(Source: PARI)

There’s a lovely photo feature in PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) on the first Pride March held at Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. With participants from villages and small towns in the state, the march was the first ever public gathering in support of the LGBTQI+ community.

See the pictures in PARI here.

Can’t make this up

Eight days ago Justice Samir Dave of the Gujarat high court advised a minor rape victim who was seeking the court’s permission to abort the foetus born out of that rape to read the Manusmriti and lectured her on how in previous generations, girls were married off by 14 and became mothers by 16. But that’s not all. This week, the good judge asked for the man accused of raping the girl to be produced in court so that he could find out what “compromise” was possible with the girl he had raped. Turns out the man is already married. So, no “compromise”.

The girl’s advocate has told the court that the family of daily wage labourers is not willing to keep the baby. The judge has said he will not allow an abortion at this stage. Legally, abortions are permissable only until 24 weeks but the courts have made exceptions, the most recent of which was in January this year when the Bombay high court allowed it at 33 weeks.

What’s making news

Interfaith couples can breathe a sigh of relief, in Karnataka at least

Keeping its campaign promise, the Congress government in Karnataka has announced it will be repealing the state’s Right to Freedom of Religion act enacted by the earlier BJP government in 2022.

As in nine other BJP-ruled states, the law adds to the already existing prohibition on religious conversion through misrepresentation and fraud by including marriage. It carries a punishment of up to 10 years in jail, making it hard for interfaith couples to marry. In Uttarakhand, for instance, interfaith couples who intend to marry through conversion must have the permission of a magistrate at least a month before.

The law is premised on the unproven theory that gullible Hindu women can be entrapped into marriage by wily Muslim men with the sole purpose of getting them to convert. The Congress had called the law anti-Constitution and anti-minority.

But in BJP-ruled Uttarakhand all interfaith marriages since 2018 will be scrutinised by the state police.

UCC redux

With the general elections barely a year away, talk of a Uniform Civil Code has popped up again with the 22nd Law Commission inviting religious organisations and the general public to send in their views. The commission is headed by Ritu Raj Awasthi who, as former Karnataka high court chief justice, had upheld the hijab ban in the state.

At present, citizens follow their respective personal, religious laws in matters concerning inheritance, adoption, marriage, divorce and maintenance. The BJP had promised to bring in a UCC in its 2019 manifesto. In October 2022, the central government had told the Supreme Court that the Constitution obliged the State to have a uniform civil code for all.

[I had written about the implications of a UCC in an earlier newsletter here]

Big breaking

Former Tamil Nadu special director general of police, Rajesh Das has been convicted and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for sexually harassing a woman superintendent of police while on duty in February 2021. Divya Chandrababu has the details.

…And the good news

Source: Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah’s Twitter Handle

Coming out of Karnataka again, the Congress government has kept another poll promise, this one of free bus rides to all women passengers. Women’s mobility, or lack of it, has long been understood to be a key to their more equal participation in society. A “pink ridership” scheme introduced by the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi for the first time anywhere in India in October 2019 has seen 118 crore rides (till May 2023).


In New Orleans, the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination with 13.2 m adherents, expelled five churches over the appointment of women as pastors. But things were not always so doctrinaire, reports The Economist.

In Santiago, Chile, Nos Buscamos, a small non-profit, is trying to help thousands of Chileans who were illegally adopted during the Pinochet regime to find their biological families. Rest of the World has the story.

In Japan, law-makers have cleared a bill to raise the age of consent from 13, amongst the lowest in the world, to 16. The bill also clarifies rape prosecution requirements and criminalises voyeurism. The age of consent in other countries varies from 14 in Germany and China to 18 in India. Ambika Pandit of the Times of India has a story on the Law Commission exploring possibilities of lowering the age back to 16 as it was to avoid the spate of mandatory rape charges being slapped on consenting couples.

Busting the myth of the “superwoman”

You’ve heard the story. That amazing woman who has it all, does it all – and always with a smile. Kids homework. Check. Taking mom for her doctor’s appointment. Check. Employee of the month. Check. Home-cooked nutritious meals. Check. Partner’s go-to shoulder to lean on. Check. Mentor to younger women at work. Check, check, check.

An increasing number of women don’t want kids. They shouldn’t have to face a backlash for what’s a personal decision

Picture credits: @yolandayoungesq/ The Guardian

Early in February, Sidra Aziz tweeted: “I am 31 years old and over the last few years I have very consciously chosen not to have children ever. Marriage, maybe. Children, no.”

It was an innocuous enough tweet but the 31-year-old data product manager was taken aback by the response. Within hours, it had generated 42,330 impressions and over 500 replies.

The kinder ones advised her to have “one kid at least” for “positive energy”. Others called her a child-hater and still others warned that she would die alone with nobody to bury her.

“Nearly all the men were telling me how I was the worst human being and a bad Muslim woman for not wanting kids,” Aziz told me on the phone. “The women were nearly all empathetic and said it was my decision.”

Women like Aziz who decide to not have children should not have to be shamed for it. But they are.

Despite the abuse, Aziz said she’s happy her tweet has opened up a conversation not often heard in South Asia where most women follow the cyclical rinse-repeat pattern of their mothers’ lives: Study, work, get married, have kids.

Mere paas maa hai

The role of women as mothers from religious literature to popular culture is so ubiquitous that it makes you wonder if women actually have an authentic choice in the matter, said Amrita Nandy, author, Motherhood and Choice: Uncommon Mothers, Childless Women. “We are a pro-natalist culture where, as South Asians, we imagine children as the emotional pivot of our lives.”

In such an environment, choosing to be child-free is seen as subversive. “It’s beyond radical. To choose to be child-free is almost seen as evil,” Nandy said. It challenges the very roots of the social fabric where girls are raised to marry and become mothers, she said.

The choice to be child-free seems limited to women of privilege. They tend to be highly educated professionals with a relatively strong degree of autonomy.

Right from the time when she was in college, Aishwarya Iyer now 27, knew she didn’t want to have children. “I can barely take care of myself, I don’t want to have to take care of another human being,” she said, clarifying that she loves children, just doesn’t want her own.

Her partner of eight years was at first surprised to learn of her decision but now has come around to her point of view. “For him it’s a question of finances, having to spend our lives saving for children, for their education and care.”

While both sets of parents are aware of the couple’s decision, her mother still hopes she will change her mind. “What is the purpose of your life without children?” she asks. Her partner’s mother too has questions: “Who will take care of you when you are old?”

Iyer said both are in “a state of disbelief. They think it’s just a phase – one that I will outgrow.”

M – who didn’t want her name to be used — has been married for seven years with no children and no plans to have any. “I love kids,” she said. “In my extended family, I am everyone’s favourite baby-sitter.”

But her own children? Not for her. She’s thought it through. 1. Her husband’s job has crazy hours that would leave her as “virtually a single parent”. 2. “Looking at the world and especially our country, it just wouldn’t be responsible for me to have a child.” And, 3. There is no state economic support for children and “we’d be slogging our a**es off to bring up and educate a child.”

The lack of support extends to family as well, said M. Yes, the grand-mothers would pitch in but then they would also have their own ideas about how to bring up a child.

And finally, there’s this: “Women tend to lose themselves once they become mothers,” she said. “Both my husband and I value our freedom of movement and choice and we don’t want to lose that.”

The motherhood penalty

A post-pandemic 2021 Pew Survey in the US found that 44% of people in the age group 18-49 said they were not at all likely to have children – an increase of 7 percentage points since 2018. The reasons varied from “I just don’t want one”, to financial pressure and cost of living, the state of the world, and climate change

Source: Economic Times

Another somewhat alarmist study predicted that Koreans will become extinct by 2750 if its low birth rates don’t improve. South Korea has the world’s lowest fertility rate at 0.78 in 2022, down from 0.81 a year ago. The government has been pumping billions of dollars into schemes including childcare subsidies but has failed to reverse the decline.

In the UK, the gender pay gap of 15% widens “dramatically” after women have children, new analysis shows.

With a population of 1.3 billion people, 67.51% of whom are in the age group of 15 and 64, fertility rates in India are not a concern – yet. But by 2050, the United Nations estimates that Indians over 60 will double to constitute almost 19.6% of the population.

Across the world, mothers are the primary caregivers of their children, but in south Asia, motherhood has been elevated to near divine status and mothers are expected to put their children’s needs above their own. A woman who prioritises career over family (+ children) is nearly inevitably going to be judged – as Sidra Aziz was.

But motherhood comes at a cost. Labour force participation at 16.1% for women in India who have even one child younger than six is significantly lower than 23.6% by women who have no children, finds a 2017 World Bank paper by Maitreyi Bordia Das and Ieva Zumbyte.

“When do you decide what is a good time to take a career pause?” asked Kanksshi Agarwal, the 30-year-old founder of Netri Foundation, an NGO that aims to increase the number of women in politics. “When you look at the economy, most marriages need two incomes.”

But most women, she said, don’t get a chance to think it through. “Women are expected to go ahead and have children without realising what they’re signing up for. So you first have one child, then you have a second child as a sibling for the one you already have. And if both happen to be girls, you might be pressured into having a third child, so that you have a son. It’s never ending.”

For S, a single lawyer in her twenties who didn’t want to be named, care work is never shared equally, even with past relationships with “progressive” men. She’s chosen to be childfree because “I know the extra work, emotion and physical, will fall on me.”

Moreover, she said, a growing awareness of climate change has only confirmed her decision to not have children. “I don’t see the point in adding one more child to the impending doom.”

So, what if she finds herself in a relationship where the man absolutely wants a child? “It would be a deal breaker. Not having a child is absolutely non-negotiable for me.”

In numbers

84% of women still need the permission of a family member, usually a man, before taking up paid work. But once in jobs, 78% said they would stick it out even if they didn’t have a financial need for it.

Source: Women and Work: How women fared in 2022 report by IWWAGE and Lead at Krea


The Seattle city council voted to add caste as a category protected by its anti-discrimination laws, thanks to legislation drawn up by Kshama Sawant, the only Indian-American on the council.

Caste-based discrimination is now banned in businesses, in places of public accommodation and transportation, in restrooms and in shops.

I found this short video clip courtesy Obed Manwatkar of this historic moment with supporters shouting Jai Jai Jai Jai Bhim incredibly moving.

Read Naomi Ishisaka on how India’s caste system manifests in Seattle-area workplaces and beyond. In The Seattle Times here.

Seen and heard

“If we lose one Hindu girl, we should trap 10 Muslim girls. If you do so, the Sri Ram Sena will take responsibility for you and provide every kind of security and employment.”

Sri Ram Sene boss Pramod Muthalik proudly displays his views on “girls” as cannon fodder in his war against India’s citizens. It should worry us that he plans to run as an independent candidate in Udupi’s Karkala constituency in the upcoming Karnataka elections.

News you may have missed

SC won’t hear period leave PIL

Saying it was a “policy decision”, the Supreme Court refused to entertain a public interest litigation that sought paid menstrual for students and employed women. The court advised the petitioners to approach the women and child development ministry with their request.

Roughly 20% of menstruators (women, trans men and non-binary persons) have PCOS. Some 25 million suffer from endometriosis, leading to heavy or painful periods.

India’s violent spree of killing partners now, sadly, includes women too

In July last year Bandana Kalita, a 32-year-old gym instructor, killed her mother-in-law, 62-year-old Shankari Dey. Less than a month later, she killed her husband, Amarjyoti Dey. Then with the help of two male friends, she chopped up the bodies and made two trips to Meghalaya to dispose the bodies.

Bandana and the two men, a taxi driver and a vegetable vendor, have been arrested in Assam’s Guwahati.

A judge by any other name

How do you address a woman judge? Gujarat high court chief justice Sonia Gokani, the sole woman chief justice right now, took exception to being called “your ladyship”. Sir, she said, would do just fine.

Women remain woefully under-represented in the higher judiciary. In 2022, of the 165 judges appointed to various high courts, only 34 were women. Since 2018, just 84 of the 554 judges appointed have been women.

…And the good news

The Indian Army has begun assigning women officers to command roles for the first time, outside of the medical stream. Around 50 women officers are set to head units in operational areas, including forward locations in the critical northern and eastern commands.

Read more here.

The long(ish) read

Text, sext, extort: A cautionary tale

Bombay Boy had registered on a leading matrimonial website when he got a WhatsApp message from a woman. After a few text exchanges she suggested they take it forward on video. He agreed.

When he accepted the call, he saw a woman in the nude touching herself. He hung up. Then began the nightmare. What he received next was a screenshot of the video call and a clip of the woman with Bombay Boy’s face superimposed on it. The next day he received a call from a “police inspector”.

Shiv Sunny, Shrinivas Deshpande, Gautam S Mengle and Vijay Kumar Yadav take a deep dive into an extortion racket that involves entire villages in Rajasthan.

Read more here.


In Japan, the developed world’s youngest age of consent at 13 set in 1907, is set to go up to 16 as part of a long overdue overhaul of sex crime laws. Parliament is yet to ratify the changes, reports Vice, that will include criminalising the grooming of minors and expanding the definition of rape to include acts committed using drugs and intoxication.

Shamima Begum’s lawyers give a statement outside Field House. (Source: Vuk Valcic/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock)

In the UK, Shamima Begum who at 15 had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State group, has lost an appeal to have her British citizenship restored, reports The Guardian. Although there was “credible suspicion” that Begum had been trafficked to Syria for sexual exploitation and there were “breaches of duty” by UK authorities in allowing her to make that journey, Begum now 23, will still lose her citizenship, nor will she be allowed the right to argue this decision in person.

Read Conor Gearty’s Guardian opinion piece here.

In South Korea, city officials in Seoul are removing women-only parking spots 14 years after they were introduced to protect women , reports BBC. Critics say the move is the latest in a string of anti-feminist policies including, for instance, removing the term “gender equality” from its school ethics curriculum and trying to shut down its gender equality ministry.

In Tennessee, USA, lawmakers are debating on whether to restrict drag performances in public or in front of children, reports Reuters. The bill is amongst a dozen advanced by Republican politicians that seeks to limit drag, which uses costumes and makeup to play with gender norms.

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That’s it for this week. Do you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you’d like to share? Write to me at:
Produced by Sukoon Wadhawan