‘”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 nail-biting sequences in Squid Game — the most-watched Netflix show to date. The simple games juxtaposed against miseries of a debilitating debt struck a chord worldwide, including in India. Despite South Korea being an OECD country with a per capita income and cost of living much higher than India, many commonalities could be drawn, including miseries of poverty, envy and appreciation for students from top universities, love for mothers, and complex human nature. But what I would like to highlight here is 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, ponders what if it is some game that does not 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 across 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 whether it was a game of strength, wisdom, or any other. It is often propagated that education and economic development can change the cultural perceptions and social status of all, including women. However, when Sang Woo, a highly-educated person in a high-income country, who in just the previous game succeeded based on his wit and information shared by a woman, thinks that women should be less likely for any unknown game to be selected, it puts things into perspective.
Even in economically equitable situations, educated men (or not) do not consider women worthy of equal status, say, and 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 speak and how they communicate. Yet, they are not able to shed their internal bias against women. Gender bias has been so profoundly ingrained in us 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 at work in same or higher positions, especially with multiple women working in a team which could change the perception or approach of the team in itself.
Further, the token woman team member feels constantly pressured to prove that she deserves that (token) space. She is often under-acknowledged and, most of the time, overworked. And if she belongs to a marginalised caste, class or religious identity, multiple layers of oppression press onto her, in addition to her oppressed gender status. Moreover, she often reaches that token position after competing with similarly competent women, who perhaps were cut out because there was only one seat allotted for tokenism. This, further creates disparities among women themselves.
The issue is that no amount of economic upliftment can bring about socio-political change without specific interventions. Capitalism, like other dreams, has adequately advertised gender equity as one of its benefits.
The big private labels use gender issue to sell products, curate its brand image, and create a buzz. But, they failed to create an inclusive working space with equal opportunities. There is a lot of data supporting this statement. The female labour force participation is barely 24%, which indicates an evident decline in the last two decades when privatisation has increased manifold. In the urban areas, seen as engines of growth, the female participation rate is modest 14% to 11% below the total average. The economic survey of 2017-18 released by the government of India accepts that economic development does not lead to labour force participation.
Despite 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 reinforcing the same. For instance, India has a thriving automobile sector that aims to create smart green cars and yet does not have a car with inbuilt height adjusting features in the driving seat, which suits average and short women. Nor does India have the world-made motorbikes that are ergonomically suitable for women. Many will ask why should anyone? But then, why not? Nor is a design safe for driving during pregnancy ever a selling point. So then, between men and women, men continue to be seen as the more suitable to drive a vehicle designed for them and thus a better candidate for operating the vehicle.
Such exclusive standards at all stages cause lack of 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 space. To create a gender-inclusive society, we need to develop gender-sensitive policies, training modules, audits, checks, etc., a gender inclusive education system.
In Squid Game, in the tug of war, the team wins when it applies strategy over strength and uses its human resource well. The hope is the audience takes this lesson and creates opportunities for adequately utilizing the knowledge, capacity, and skill of the conventionally marginalised gender communities.