02-Dec-2007

Working woman

I have always been strongly suspicious of initiatives to bring a more balanced representation of women to any work force. This is not to say I don’t support any moves for a women’s reservation bill in politics. I still believe that ours is a very patriarchicial society and if we waited for the society to evolve to a state where it would be natural for as many women to be governing as men, we could wait till the cows came home, or till homo plasmians (or whatever name you would give the next evolutionary beings after homo sapiens) came home. Besides, if women have been artificially dumbed down to their homes, no harm in artificially boosting them up. I am quite confident they would display the same level of competence or incompetence as men when it comes to leadership and governance. All they lack is experience, and this can be easily fast tracked through a reservation bill. But wait, I am getting completely sidetracked.

Ah yes, Diversity initiatives. It has now become highly fashionable for organizations to talk about the number of women in their ranks and how x % of senior executives are women, x defined as something that is respectably double digit without making it seem like the Board is a happy kitty party in progress.

B School had 17% women. From being in all-girls schools and colleges, I was suddenly in an environment, where there was less than one in a five chance of seeing women at any given point. Worse still, a large part of the male community had been in all boys schools or all boys colleges (most engineering colleges would count as one given the number of women in them) and some genuinely believed that men are superior to women. This meant that you had to fight your way to be heard (not too loudly though lest you be mistaken for a harridan.). Not having really interacted with too many men before, I was shaken. Were men actually more intelligent than women? After all how come there are so many of them in B School as opposed to a handful of women? It took me time to realise that confidence and attitude should not be mistaken for intelligence. Most men in my batch were only as clever or as smart as more women. True, the toppers in my batch were all men. Not so in my junior batch though. Besides, given how our society has evolved, the probability of a bright woman being brought up in a conducive environment that allows her to be ambitious and stride into traditional male bastions like higher education in B-Schools is low.

Move to first job. The place was full of women. It was not uncommon to be in a lift with 5 women and 1 guy. And we were not in a school or other such traditional areas where women are plentiful. It was perfectly ok for a boss to be late for a Saturday morning meeting because she had to go for her child’s parent-teacher meeting. As long as you delivered your results like everyone else, you went home happy.

Moving into my second job, I realised not all places are as conducive for women to be themselves. A lot of the corporate world expects that you act like a guy. So saying that you had to take your child to the doc makes it seem like the organization wasted good money on employing you, a woman, who spends valuable office hours mothering. Never mind that the father of the child could not be bothered doing it and the human race would come to an eventual halt if women also refused to do this job. Never mind that three other male colleagues were late on the same day because one had to pay his insurance premium, one had to test drive the new car which he is getting on his promotion and the third had to pick up his mother from the airport. The first two jobs are seen as important things to be done for normal life to proceed. The third is seen as a Raymond’s man who has a sensitive, caring side to him.

Sure there are women who always have a ready excuse about how their child is falling sick, how their mother in law is in town and how they have to get the house ready for Avani Avitam and hence they can’t make it to office on time. But aren’t there as many men who come into work and spend two hours by the coffee machine, another couple of hours talking to various colleagues in person and over phone? Everyone, who intends to shrug work, will do so, irrespective of his or her gender. However be a woman and give ‘female’ excuses to not do work and hear another nail being driven into the equality coffin.

The other thing I can’t get is obscenity. Men swear. And swear a lot. I cannot hear a day pass by without someone yelling ‘Tell that fucking bastard to release the deal or expect him to get a kick in his balls’. They will yell all this in a voice loud enough for their mothers back home to hear them. But in a closed room conversation where there are women, they will mention fuck, redden, and then apologize and substitute it with a chaste word. What is the deal with that? I remember a colleague in FMCG who mentioned that her male boss said having women around cramps their style. They cannot be their true selves and swear all they want. Implied in the sentence are (1) my natural style is to swear and (2) I am comfortable swearing in front of a guy so let us hire a male even if he is slightly inferior to the woman. As for the first argument, your natural style could also be to rave and rant about that unreasonable boss of yours. But do you do it? How come you can resist the temptation to do that yet find it impossible to go light on the swearing. The second argument begs the question how exactly will it help an organization achieve its strategic objectives.

Actually go ahead and use the swear words. I am not personally too fond of them but I can live with them. What I can’t live with are the subtly sexist jokes. I don’t mean the really gross ones where you can hear the slap of a sexual harassment case. I mean the snide ones that you can’t really protest against without looking like a prude but which clearly objectify women. Men being men immediately laugh at it lest they be seen as a pansy.
Sample this

Male Boss on conference call (presenting a slide to show there are 27% women in our office thus showing we are keeping in mind the Diversity and Inclusion objective of the bank) – These are the number of women in the regional office

Unknown male voice across the conf call – Lucky guy. Send some here

Unknown male voices – ha ha ha

The casual use of below-average sexist humour as a bonding tool is almost a given in the corporate world. It no longer is considered offensive. Seriously. Stop. And if you are going to crack a joke about gender, race, religious or other stereotypes, atleast take the effort to make them funny! I will be happy to laugh.

I appreciate the Diversity and Inclusion initiative in most places. Most cultures have a philosophy that speaks of the Yin Yang balance. Organisations these days are beginning to recognize that achieving this balance means being able to connect with your environment better, having a balanced set of skills and viewpoints leading to optimal conflict levels and better results. The pressure is on to increase representation across gender, communities, abilities, races etc. How it can be translated into a crude joke at a personal level is however appalling. I was introduced in a meeting as ‘a representative of the diversity and inclusion initiative’. Which was demeaning to say the least because I was certainly not hired because I was a woman. I did not get into B-School and be in the top quartile because I was a woman. I don’t remember being given any out-of-turn promotions or pay hikes because I am a woman. Why exactly would someone suggest that I am where I am because my organization is sympathetic to the female sex at the moment!

Especially given that all my life, I have hated even the hint of a suggestion that I gain some benefit for being a woman. I have never been happy with women being given ‘the best woman entrepreneur’ award or ‘the best woman employee’ award. It makes my achievement seen very cheap when the only person I am going to be benchmarked against are other women. Someone senior I know (a very balanced gentleman) did make a very important point. The award is as much about recognizing the achievement of a woman in a male dominated society as it is about providing encouragement to millions of women across the country and the world who are still trapped in lives where they sincerely believe women are inferior to men and who need to be told that women are capable of achieving something.

This is not to say that I do not believe that there is no hope. On the contrary, these are times of change. The one main reason for this is as more women come into the corporate world, it gives men a chance to build a better understanding on how to behave in a workplace with women around. My first organization was an excellent example of that. Men did not find it odd going out for dinner with a bunch of female colleagues (and they could handle snide remarks about being in a Krishna leela). Men did not crib how the female boss took time off to do female stuff. They were trained into seeing the final results and appreciating all of us had to necessarily do gender based roles in a society. The level of vulgar jokes were far and few in between (and this substantially raised the overall humour and creativity levels of the team). Sure they sent each other pics of naked women. But as long as they don’t crib about how hiring a woman means one less person to send nakes pics to, I am fine. The surprise news is that this organization is not going down the drain on account of the high proportion of females in the workforce. To all men (especially some B-School batchmates of mine), this might come as a shock. But what do you know!

So men are slowly no longer treating workplaces like an old boys club. Yet we are far from achieving true equity. And in some sense, I would think equity is not just about equal representation of women. It is about women being women and not having to completely change themselves to fit into a professional life. It is about not having to pretend that you were ok with that client’s offsite in Thailand involving massage parlours lest you be seen as a ‘non-team player’. Which is where a lot of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives lack. They focus on the number but very few places focus on the culture shift that is required. Of course, numbers themselves would enable a lot of the cultural shift as I have experienced.

There are some initiatives that do help cultural shifts. Firstly consciously hiring more women in the male bastions. For instance, in banks treasury jobs are seen more often than not as traditionally male roles and at some level it is assumed very few women can do the job. Perpetuating the culture that it is ok to act like teenager with a raging hormone in a dealing room. Breaking male bastions would go a longer way than hiring more women in your back office processing.

Secondly, give women more leadership roles. No, I am not saying hire a woman CEO. All things being equal, employees who have had more leadership roles usually have a career path right up to the senior management. Most male bosses bring the typical society attitude to jobs – whether it be of ‘protecting’ women from taking tougher roles or simply assuming that a guy can do certain jobs better. Sadly it is these roles that ensure one has got the ability to finally get to the top. If I had a chance to grab even the smallest of these roles, I would go all out and do it.

Thirdly, encourage your men to be more actively involved in their personal lives. The corporate world can’t single-handedly change society’s attitude to child rearing and the like. But providing day care and encouraging even the men to use it actively, making it easy for men to move cities because their wives got a transfer, giving paternity leave will certainly help.

Finally, senior management consciously taking the effort to get the sexist attitudes out. Right from assuming your female employee will not be interested in an overseas internship to cracking those terrible jokes. No culture forms because the guy who does the photocopying thinks like a mcp. It is bosses who set the standards on what is acceptable speech or thinking aloud. Louder raps on the knuckle need to be given to them for even a hint of inappropriate behaviour.

Perhaps someday women can actually cry in front of a male boss when they get an unfair performance review. Oh relax; I am not suggesting the water pots burst. Everyone knows, when upset, men get angry and women cry. So can women be themselves?
Update: This post got featured in the 49th carnival of feminists. The carnival had some fabulous posts well worth reading

9 comments:

Aqua said...

You have been tagged!

come on over! :)

apu said...

excellent piece. true. inclusiveness is not just about numbers, and in that regard, while we've progressed, we still have a long way to go.

bendinggender said...

this piece hit the spot. can identify with much that you say.

Anita said...

aqua - ah. will do it soon.

apu and bendinggender - thanks!

Rohini said...

Nicely done...

What gets my goat is that the diversity initiatives are often lip service and focus more on hiring women than retaining them.

You do know that Megha (Tamil Punkster) linked you up right?

Anita said...

rohini - thanks. yup. saw the link. plus read some of the other stuff and was most impressed by the balanced viewpoints.

Bharati said...

great article.......i have never related so much to any other article on working woman till date...

gr8 goin.......

Anonymous said...

very nicely articulated!! keep up the good work:)

Anita said...

bharti, annoymous - thanks!