One of the most amazing spokesperson on gender equality, Tena is a mother to a beautiful baby Leo and is a gender and development expert. Based in Bangalore, India with extensive experience in the Middle East, Caribbean, and South and Southeast Asia, she is the Founder of Project Kal, a social enterprise that deals with gender equality and diversity and inclusion by targeting men as partners in equality.
“Educate your children”- a phrase that has often been heard as one the best ways to combat gender inequality that has existed in our society for a very long time. This however, when thought about, makes so much more sense. When these little ones enter the world, they are unaware about all of these societal norms and biases. They enter a strange world, and explore everything that they can to learn more. If babies are born with such unbiased, fresh and a completely naïve perception, why is it that we wire them to understand their gender very early on? Why are they made to realise the difference between a girl and a boy? Why is it that everything from their clothes to their toys are divided on the basis of gender?
These questions lead us to have a very insightful conversation with Tena. This conversation will help several parents like her, to start equal parenting and imbibe such values in their babies from a very early stage.
What is Equal Parenting?
This is what Tena had to say “Gender equal parenting refers to a style of parenting in which both parents assume equal responsibilities around child-raising, free from gender norms. For instance, it means dads changing diapers and soothing the baby, and moms playing sports with the child. It breaks away from the binary way of looking at roles of parents: mother, the caretaker and father, the provider. It helps free kids of gender norms and expectations, which in most cases are fully internalized by age 3! It is so important to start them young!”
How do you both balance out your work life and take care of Leo?
Tena says “First things first, allow me to check my privilege: we are lucky enough to have amazing nanny and house keeper. That allows us both to still work, while making sure that every minute we spend with Leo is quality time spend. Research has shown that it doesn’t really matter how much time you spend with your kids, rather how you spend that time- so working moms, stop feeling guilty! When we are with Leo, we make sure phones are off (except for taking photos of course), we are fully present and focused. I breastfeed so I take many breaks during my workday for cuddles, feeds and songs. I feel so lucky to be able to work from home this year!”
What is the definition of mutual respect in front of your children?
Tena: “Kids internalize everything. You think they are too little to understand the words, but they pick up on the feelings. Even at work, I have come across boys not accepting female authority, and it was almost always because their fathers had not been respectful of their mothers- where she was put down to her role in the house. Make sure that you give and demand respect, so that you can really be a role model for your children. “
As a Spokesperson on Equality, How would you like to inspire other parents and set an example, when it comes to your own life as a parent?
Tena: “We are very new parents, so our lived experience is still limited! However, I think the most important thing is being open and honest about your own struggles, be it with postpartum depression or gender roles. For instance, I have worked in gender for a decade and I caught myself telling Leo “don’t cry, you’re a big boy”- when he was six weeks old! If I still have so much internalized bias, imagine what it is like for those who do not have the training and the vocabulary of feminism. I hope that by sharing these stories, we will create a safe space for conversations around gender, norms, equality and equity. I am also compiling a resource sheet for feminist parenthood, something I found to be lacking when I needed it.”
What are the simple everyday practices that helps children understand Equality?
Tena: “No gendering of everyday items, such as clothes and toys. When I was pregnant, I got a brown-skinned doll for the baby, because I wanted the baby to have a doll that looked like them. My mother in law asked me what I would do with the doll if I have a boy. Even if parents are doing a great job with respect to equality, other family members might be lagging behind. In joint families, especially it becomes very important to break those habits. No gender division of labour- make sure your kids see the father cooking and doing house chores and the mother working (if she is a working mom). Buy kids’ books and stories that feature strong female leads and gentle boys. Allow them to choose their clothes and toys based on what they like, not on what is for boys and girls.”
How do you see Children’s brands playing an important role in a new parent’s life? What value does?
Tena: “When you have a new baby, everything is scary and overwhelming! All of a sudden, the world is full of danger, from toxic dyes to scratchy zippers to toys that can poke their eye out. Choosing brands like Aagghhoo takes away that worry and gives you more mental bandwidth to focus on other things.”
What are the terminologies/ language you use with children to establish mutual respect and teach equality?
Tena: “Language is so, so important, not only in how we speak to kids, but how we speak to one another and how we speak to ourselves! For example, when telling stories about doctors, engineers, scientists, switch between pronouns or use gender-neutral “they". Catch yourself saying things like “ladylike”, “bossy”, “boys will be boys”, “all boys…”, “all girls…” We have all internalized a lot of patriarchal thinking, and it is important to work on ourselves first! For instance, I have to fight the urge to tell my husband how to do something with the baby. We have been parents for exactly the same amount of time, so why do I think I know better? Because every time the baby fusses, other people have been giving him to me, not even giving my husband a chance to learn the art of soothing the baby. All of these small actions amount to further reinforcement of gender norms. Also, stop glorying men who take interest and part in their children’s lives!”
What is your take on “Gender Equality in Education systems”?
Tena: “Non-existent. Even the new education policy makes no mention of boys when it talks about gender equality, as if only girls have a gender. There are also major issues with a lack of sex education and a cloud of shame around bodies and their normal functions, such as menstruation. All of these are major issues that spill over into greater attitude towards sex and gender. A major overhaul of how we talk about gender is needed, but luckily, there are amazing NGOs and grassroots organizations doing exactly that.”
Why do you support gender-neutral brands?
Tena: “Because nothing makes me want to buy from a brand less than seeing nonsense such as “moms love our diaper bags”. Dads don’t need a diaper bag? And speaking of diapers, why are there no changing facilities in male toilets? Even in baby hospitals, only changing facilities are in nursing rooms. Why is there an assumptions that a dad will never take the baby somewhere alone? What about single dads? Putting an onus of responsibility solely on moms is terribly unfair to men and I do not want to use my money to support that. We all vote with our wallets, and I choose to use my resources to support those businesses that are aligned with my values.”
As a parent, what do you expect the gender-neutral brands to be like with respect to products/service?
Tena: Open, honest and transparent and proudly feminist! We need more brands making a stand, not just, because it is the right thing to do, but also because it makes business sense. I also want to see more colours! It seems like when you go gender-neutral everything is grey, but there is a world of colours out there that everyone can wear.”
A conversation with Tena, already opened our eyes to so many things that we mindlessly do, because it is considered to be normal or natural. Having lived in a patriarchal society, it is about time, we break the gender stereotyped roles and change the perception of the coming generation to be more sensitive. It is what we teach our kids, is what they grow up to become.
Let the change begin from home and build a world, where everyone is treated equally irrespective of the gender. Let us begin this journey, of bringing a change, and make this world a better place to live in!
A very insightful TedTalk by Tena on gender equality is linked below.
To know more about her work, you could click on the link below.