Sunday, March 22

Women's day - Part 1

( The views represented in this blog are my own and do not represent the views of my firm or owe allegiance to any other firm I worked for.)

I am not into Women's day.

This paper approach to assuage International guilt for the “supposedly second gender” held professional significance for me last year. As diversity head for Lehman’s India office, had to think through economical gifts for 700 odd women.

And then last Friday, I discovered a lone, drying rose on my table, an economical gift by our engagement team to celebrate womanhood at the workplace.

I kept it aside with amusement.

And it set me thinking,

What does it mean to be a woman in an Indian organization? Or a woman at workplace? Or maybe just a woman?

I am not going to be writing any of this as I can never know what is it not to be a woman?

I was designing a training program on “Gender sensitization at workplace” and I met this trainer who brought home the point that our gender roles at home and the society at large would have some likelihood to play at our workplace situations.

This premise, logical hit home real hard.

I remember starting school at a convent in Patna, much ahead of its times. Notre Dame taught me expression. Those expressions however, were too many to be contained in a milieu ridden by small town perversions.

At home, my mom, a teacher of the old world, worked on a strict Rewards and Punishment model for her three kids and gender never figured as a parameter. I or any of my friends didn’t grow up in homes where the chicken leg was preserved for the male child.

So when I went to the good old KV after 6 years in Notre Dame, I lacked on several counts. I didn’t know the first thing about guys and I soon had a reputation in school for being the domineering, too big for her boots, would not get contained girl in the class.

My reputation preceded me when I joined college. That I wrote on “then thinking topics” for the Times as a freelancer made me a very poor representative of my gender stereotype. For no reason, I was at the receiving end of perverse curiosity or plain curiosity in college. Its manifestation came in rude jokes, eve teasing, blank calls, bikes chasing and what nots in college.

I hated my college life. I clutched my bag close to my chest and entered the class after the professor and left it before he (SHE, trust me, women professors had their own battles to fight) left. Our gender ratio of 10 women in the Science section against a 100 boys made it impossible for us to be anything but a neglected minority.

Those of you who saw the movie “Gulaal” and did not relate to the ignominy of the women professor stripped and locked in a room, do take a conducted tour of Allahabad, Patna or any like minded University. The graffiti on the walls (if the universities haven’t had the funds for whitewashing) are a telltale story of stifled expression, college environment and gender ridicule.

A sample (I still go crimson to the roots, when I remember this)

Ek daal per saat kaboootar, satoon maange dana
Jab Jab (so & so) pair pasare sex kare deewana

This for a woman in my class who was among the 100 toppers of the State, whose father would have fought hundred financial battles to see to his daughter’s education, and the daughter who must have fought another thousand battles to live in a hostel. I can’t fathom what pair of eyes would see her like that, for when I saw her, it was a whole generation of women from her family seeking redemption through her degree. They were all at stake If she made it they would all know it was possible. If she failed there hopes would die.

Touché’ but true.

While I love my hometown in ways more than one, memories are bitter sweet. That whole “be pasted on the wall” approach in University egged me to leave its smugness for an environment where one could breathe easy.

A heroine of a professor remains my role model for ever. We were at the most neglected English class at Science College where the male behavior used to get worst. The lady Prof was taking attendance. She called a roll number and a boorish voice boomed “Present sir” and 100 men laughed as though the most intelligent joke had been cracked.

The professor looked up and said in the firmest of voice that could have come about only after decades of being treated like shit. “If he called me sir, because he is not used to being taught by women professors, he should be forgiven because to err is human and to forgive is divine. But if he did that to evoke slapstick humor he should be ignored because that kind of humor is the cheapest and most readily available.”

I knew her incisive putting people in their place may have escaped many people in the class but in my imagination I walked up to her and gave her a tight squeeze.

I am sure this would have played out in my MBA or the entrances tests too. I recall not speaking at the TISS GD till a good 5 minutes had passed by, though the I had almost slept with the anticipated topics several times over.

One cold train ride from Patna to Anand and a hurried trip from Baroda to Bombay changed my life for ever. I was to join TISS.

Honestly it was difficult in the beginning. Expression was the way of life at TISS, experimentation floated in the air. Social stereotypes were jettisoned in favor of alternative lifestyles. Deities were traded for defiance. Even gender ratios were reversed.

It must have taken some time to be able to express myself. I am sure that the effort showed.

At work, I did not or could not find too many gender differences. May be, I was many levels away from the proverbial glass ceiling. (I still am!!!) But I am sure they existed like gender differences exist otherwise why would there be only 7% women representation in board for India Inc. I thought it would be a lot easier if one is in a metro (Delhi?) but I guess that would be simplifying a complicated issue. From Manhattan to Mumbai, the issue remains topical.

I think what misses at the workplace is creating an environment where differences are respected or not considered a taboo to discuss. There is a lack of support group, mentoring, or even plain sensitization to women on their roles in families and how it would or could play out in their career. I represent a miniscule minority of women in this country who derive freedom of expression and sometimes even identity from their career. Despite that I never sat and thought about other roles I was expected to play. Marriage. Motherhood. Taking time off for creative pursuits. Nobody sat me down and chatted with me on these issues at workplace. Organizations wallow in complete gender indifference. Even individuals pretend they are neither from Mars nor Venus.

As the trainer and I chatted about these issues during the design of gender sensitization program for the first time I walked few paces away from myself and took a long hard look at myself. My whole life was led without asking some of these questions. Without making some of these choices. It all fell into place. In another life I knew someone who hated the “M” word. She wanted to fly and thought being pinned down to a man would come in the way of that. Little solace was offered by families and friends who reminded her of biological clock rather rudely. There were very few role models around her, those who were working had either stumbled into careers or were in it for financial pressures like divorce, widowhood, negligent husband etc.

Her marriage broke down. She could not balance the ever increasing emotional demands of her beau with her own ambitions. Fifteen years back she had to choose.

Have things changed today?

Yes and No.

Women still chose both ways. Women still may not have to choose both ways.

Organization citizens are now resources. Life time employment is now stints. Competitive pressures have increased manifold.

Is there bandwidth for allowances?

One may have designed the fanciest of Flexible work arrangements but how do you fight the ignominy of being on one? How do you reassure someone that their career do won’t slow down if they work 4 days instead of 5 amidst menacing colleagues and hyperventilating bosses?

Where is the appetite to train supervisor on remote working? The insecurities that it throws up. How to even have a measure of output for someone who is “officially not working as hard” in a context where sitting late is a celebrated behavior?

Demanding is not competitive

Many women even find it difficult to ask. We are a generation that grew under the scepter of Hindu rate of growth and the scarcity it spawned. Across the board, women would admit in an alcoholic moment of truth that they would find it uncompetitive to find out about crèches at workplace, bus services or even take leaves.

My friends even find it difficult to negotiate compensation when they change jobs. Talk about social context playing out in a work environment, deep down some of them feel guilty of their success or feel its fluke that someone would want to pay them so much.

Superwoman any one?

Many times I have heard even CEOs commenting if women break the glass ceiling in India they are super women. Not an exaggerated thought. But I firmly believe this super woman, super mom image fueled by media is actually a very small minority. Extraordinary women. I think it’s a pressure to live up to an image of a woman who can juggle work with office, success with mother hood, a fab figure with hectic travels, hobbies with cooking, drinking with sobriety. The list goes on.

I have heard guys acerbically complaining so and so is a mom at home, what right she had to waste a seat at TISS or IIM? I mean what right anyone has to assume that women coz they got that seat they deserved should carry it to their funerals. I mean how many times we expect an IIM grad to baby sit at home?

Even women who left work for the family and kids are forever guilty and have a sense of shame. “No yaar, couldn’t manage it with the baby.” as though they almost failed the sisters in Abbey.

Mindsets need to change in early for workforce

I remember shouting at a management trainee batch mate for a sexist remark. I made him apologize to me. It was probably my coming of age from Patna days where expressions were hard to come by. Several years later I subtly pointed out to a business manager about his prejudices during hiring. He was diffident of hiring a woman in his team. I also had to remind a fresher to mind his language when he had refused to play cricket because the team had women players too. These mindsets exist and acknowledgement may be half the battle won. We live in a society where a woman was murdered because she refused somebody a drink. We live in a state where progressive chief ministers make loose remarks like “the woman had an assault coming if she traveled at midnight” and the police commissioner in Mumbai commented “don’t blow it out of proportions, its just eve teasing” on a drunken revelry at a suburban hotel on New Year’s Eve. All these people have kids at home and do not expect these kids to model their behavior at workplace when they join. Work on these mindsets through interventions.

It may be a good beginning.

So this woman’s day

• May organizations commit few interventions towards gender sensitization.

• May recession not affect diversity momentum in firms

• May superwoman go out of fashion.

• May Patna & Allahabad University have a fund for whitewash.


Tracey said...

Hey, I love this subject.....and all its compexities Tried to add you on FB but link expired Tracey

Raaga said...

and Amen!

Sneha said...

I loved this post and could absolutely relate to it! Thanks for this.