real life

'At 18, my parents discovered my secret boyfriend. Days later they arranged my marriage.'

Like many women, I’m no stranger to gender discrimination.

My parents moved to Australia when I was just one year old. From the very beginning, I saw my mum and dad work together in the household, in the workplace, and in the kitchen. Seeing is believing, I say this all the time. And for me, it taught me so much about gender roles – in my world you both pitched in with the work that happens outside and inside the home. No matter what your gender.

I grew up as a patriotic Australian girl, with a hybrid personality as I call it – or a mirror with two reflections. I’d leave the house as an everyday Aussie, and re-enter it as a good Indian girl. It was a balance that worked me, and could continue to work for me… or so I thought.

You see, there were certain things you did as an Indian woman. You were expected to study really hard and get good grades; you were expected to respect your elders; you were expected to stay away from boys but then magically get married at a certain point.

Like any rebellious teen, I had a “secret” boyfriend. However, like any rebellious teen, my parents also soon found out. I was fortunate enough to have a boyfriend who was a sweet and wonderful guy, but unfortunately he too came from a “good Indian family”. This meant that when our parents found out, a dinner was arranged, and at that dinner, so too was our marriage.

Once I was married at age 20, things didn’t necessarily become easier either. I felt like I was playing a role that didn’t come naturally to me. I’m the girl who wanted to be a lawyer at the age of five. Whilst my choice of career kept changing, my ambitious mindset never did. And yet every day I felt as though I was being pushed into a limited, pre-prescribed mould. The judgement of not having the house clean enough, not cooking enough, not having the laundry done, the shirts ironed or the lunch packed (all the while working full time and studying a masters degree) left me feeling like a shell of my former self.

None of my career or academic achievements in comparison seemed to matter. When I graduated from my masters I was told by a warm supportive lecturer that I should consider a PhD – only to be met with a response by an in-law, “I hope not! She should be having children soon!”

Shivani. Image: supplied.
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The thing is, sometimes the most jarring gender discrimination happens within the four walls of your home by people you trust. For me, it was the all to often passing comment from an in-law about my inability to keep my house together in the perfect shining condition that left me feeling full of shame and incapable of keeping it together.

But the wonderful thing about perspective, time, age and experience is this - you get to digest your experiences, learn from it, grow from it, and seek meaning.

Here’s what I learnt from that early phase on my life:

  • You are a multi-faceted, person. Capable of being both good and bad at things. Neither of these defines you. Only you decide what defines you and what your legacy is going to be.
  • There is so much more to life than being a domestic goddess. Don’t let the shine of the kitchen bench define your worth.
  • People will only support your goals to the extent of the courage they have to pursue their own. When you get naysayers advice, telling you all the reasons why you shouldn’t do something, trying to hold you back, telling you that you’ll fail, just smile and say this: “thank you for sharing what works for you, but that’s just not going to work for me.” And walk away.
  • Your independence by way of mind, career and finances are of utmost importance. It affords you the opportunity to make choices that are right for you. You can take that job interstate, buy that home, start that business, or leave a relationship that isn’t right for you. The choice is always yours, and that is the most powerful gift you can ever give to yourself.

Unfortunately, we know that gender discrimination doesn’t stop there, and when we think of them we can almost see a 3D movie play out in our minds of all the times we’ve seen it in the workplace.

I’ve worked in the finance industry for a number of years and sadly, many of my experiences with discrimination occurred in the office. There are so many other instances where I’ve walked into a conference room at networking drinks, and I’ve been asked to “do a twirl”. No! I’m your colleague and I’m your equal and I will not be doing a twirl for you.

Video by Mamamia

So why am I telling you this?

Because for too long, these experiences have become the norm. We need to stop being and feeling encouraged to be a good sport about things, or as Gillian Flynn puts it in Gone Girl, the “cool girl”.

And to do that it's important that we talk about it - that we share our experiences and bring them out into the light. So that this kind of experience is no longer ‘normal’. It’s important that we stand up and share our stories, because only by acknowledging that bad behaviour exists can we start to change our reality.

Because there’s something incredibly powerful about sharing your story. It allows you and others to learn from the past. It opens the doors for important discussions and debates. But most importantly, it challenges you to ask the question, “What can I do to change it?”

For all the times that I felt voiceless in my early life, I’ve realised the power of using your voice and your story. It has the power to connect, ignite and inspire you and others into action of wanting a better life. One that is equal, because after all, we deserve it.

And now I want to make sure that I provide the opportunity for as many women as possible to do what I’m doing now. To share their story, their experiences and use their voice. Because you really can change the world from it.

Shivani Gopal is the Founder of The Remarkable Woman and will be hosting a Talks event at the Ivy Sunroom in Sydney on Tuesday, October 23 to share the stories of remarkable women breaking the glass ceiling. For event details, click here.

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