Monthly Archives: May 2014

Three’s Company

Threes Company*Image (without text) via audfriday13 on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I love him. I love her. He loves her. She loves him. They both adore me. We’re not a threesome or anything as radical as that. We’re three people who know each other from different times and places. There’s love and loyalty and warmth and sparks, some romantic, some platonic.

She’s the newest entrant into this nexus, new to him as well as to me. But oddly, I think she actually balances us. Not balances each of us individually (that’s so ‘You complete me’) but balances the entire structure. We’re like a three-legged stool in that sense, teetering uncertainly with the first two but perfectly solid and steady as three.

It’s not because we have that much in common, I think. Well, there is stuff but it’s what started our conversations, not what’s keeping them going. He and I are more similar than it appears. And we drive each other nuts when things are imperfect as they usually are. Something about her presence has a way of running our respective electrifying natures to ground and earthing them. And there’s light instead of short circuiting.

Of course it’s more complex than our current natures, being that human nature is constantly shifting. He and I have a history, a long, long time ago, a complex one where attraction charred into hurt, froze into loyalty and solidified into friendship. We also have a history of anger, of heated words, of dramatic declarations and of intense closeness. She’s not part of that history. Maybe because of that, she clears the space of its high voltage intensity and makes it possible for him and me to be regular human beings again.

It hasn’t always been that way.  It only got this way after the two of them became a couple. I would never do anything to hurt her. He wouldn’t either. And because inflicting wounds on each other would mean bloodying the space that she is now a part of, we sheath our poisonous words and put away our tears. Then we all go out to dinner together and laugh about mundane things, like regular people do.

Three is company indeed.

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The Human Resources Princess

In my first year in college, one of my classmates laughed loudly and said,

“I am only here to do two years of time pass before getting married. I don’t want to get so serious and all.”

She was pretty, girly and fluttery. She was also the topper from a reputed engineering college. I rounded on her in fury and gave her a tongue-lashing which included phrases like ‘giving women a bad name’ and ‘wasting a seat’. I wasn’t winning any popularity contests in college anyway but this incident stands out in my mind because it split the factions for good.

HR Princess*Image (without text) via stockimages on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

During the first week, a professor had walked up to me, seated all eager-beaver at the first bench and said,

“Why are you here? You should be at home learning to cook.”

I flushed, all 21 year old awkwardness, belligerence, peer pressure and need for approval rolled into one. The class laughed. The incidents built, one by one. The snide remarks of ‘anyone with boobs gets marks’, the ‘Topper kisko banana hain, I just want to pass’, ‘Main apni biwi ko kaam nahin karne doonga. Bachchon ko kaun dekhega?’ and the ‘Why do you want to work after this?’. Whether I wanted to or not, I was suddenly crusading for a cause I hadn’t even realised needed championing. And here I’d thought all you needed to become a management professional was to study hard and work smart. At the college interview, the dean had asked me why I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I said,

“Because it’s largely Marketing or Finance people who go on to become CEOs of companies.”

He had knitted his eyebrows together and asked,

“You want to be a CEO?”

The question surprised me and I was on the verge of blurting out “Doesn’t everyone here?” but instead I said,

“I’d like to have the option.”

He pursed his lips and told me that not everyone thought that way. It really should have prepared me. Later in the year, we had to declare our majors. The girl who said the above, picked Human Resources. At the time, I was only thankful that I wouldn’t have to endure her attitude on group projects after that. I was going into Marketing. Naively I assumed everyone else was making their choices the way I had. It wasn’t till I heard a conversation among the soon-to-be HR class (all of them in the girls’ bathroom – that should have been another clue). One brushed her hair and said,

“Finance needs too much brains. Marketing is so much travel. HR is best. It’ll be easy.”

Unsurprisingly, when third semester began, the HR class was also occasionally referred to as ‘the kitty party’. What bothered me most was that it didn’t bother the girls in the class in the least bit. Maybe not every woman is a feminist but I did think that women professionals who had worked hard to be there, would want to take some pride in themselves.

To my utter horror, I keep meeting versions of this girl all through my career. She’s the one the men ogle at, say things like ‘She’s so distracting. They shouldn’t expect us to do work when she’s sitting in that seat.’ about. She is supposed to be approached with flattery and wheedling (depending on your gender) instead of approvals and processes like the rest of us professionals. Misplaced documents, incomplete work, rude behaviour to internal and external people – these things, not normally tolerated in others are glossed over when one of these girls commits the folly. Some of them have worked in their organisations for several years. This ineptness seems to be especially tolerated in functions like HR, recruitment and administration.

There is a certain type of woman we all know from the workplace. I am not saying Human Resources is unnecessary. On the contrary, I believe that most business situations require not just the ‘hard’ skills but also the ability to handle human issues. There’s a vicious cycle at work here. Pay little heed to the function, hire the wrong people who are in it for the wrong reasons, do not hold them to professional standards that the other functions require. What’s the end result? A bitchy girl who gets candidates names wrong, delays payments except for the young men who ‘charm’ her and is a part of cliques & factions rather than helping manage them.

I don’t believe that I’m being sexist. In fact, at a workplace, shouldn’t gender be of little to no importance? Why then, should I have to make allowances for a woman being a woman, when she is in this role? I’ve never had allowances made for me and I’ve never asked for them either. The responses I’ve had, usually hint that I’m slightly jealous of ‘the HR babe’ for the attention she gets from men. My father, also a management professional, vigorously protests my observation. He points out that he has hired female HR professionals and directs my attention to one that I know who has done a great job. He also tells me about how most companies don’t value their HR function or enable them to do the job that they can do, well.

One of my good friends is a former HR professional too and I’m sure he’d be able to point out female peers who’ve done great work. Yet, the numbers seem to speak and I must wonder whether those women are the exceptions rather than the norm. Is the average HR woman like my classmate who just wanted an easy ride or is she an independent, equal business professional to me? This feels like a terribly important question to me.

A long time ago, much before b-school, I considered being a Human Resources professional. I only began preparing for MBA entrances when I discovered the HR function. Looking back, I’m glad that Marketing’s glamour distracted me and I didn’t go the HR way. I may or may not have been a good fit. But it would have been heart-breaking to work so hard only to be around people who didn’t even take themselves (let alone me) seriously.

~O~O~O~O~O~

Update: Gautam shared this post on Facebook, asking his vast network of HR professionals to comment. Considering the kind of comments that came up, I feel the need to clarify the following:

  • This is not an HR-bashing post. I do not subscribe to the notion that Human Resources is an accessorial function. On the contrary, I think it is a very important role, one that involves being able to look beyond short-range tactics or numbers, working with ambiguous references and managing non-templatized situations. So I think it is even more startling that the job is represented by so many disinterested and clearly inept people.
  • In addition, as a woman professional, I feel the constant pressure to prove that my gender deserves equal standing in the workplace (and everywhere else). Instances like the ones I’ve detailed in the post, enable our detractors. They make it easier for people to be chauvinistic to women and to the HR function.
  • And finally, I didn’t mention this but since this post seems to have touched a raw nerve, I should clarify. I studied Marketing but I was never a specialised Marketing person. My jobs have all been in more generalist/other areas like business processes, consulting, research and content. I have no reason to pick a side in the Marketing/Finance versus HR debate. I think it’s just silly.  The qualifications conferred by the program are in Business, not one of the specialisations and each function operates in tandem with the others.

An Older Man

I went out with an older man, recently.

The last time there was an older man was way back when. He didn’t add much to my life, except some invaluable professional wisdom (I was a new manager and in agony over it. He told me it wasn’t a popularity contest and that I needed my team to respect me, not like me. It was solid advice.). Then he dumped me over Facebook, proving the male stereotype that men never really grow up. But that was a long time ago, when I was still in my mid-twenties. Post thirty, the men I’ve gone out with, have almost all been a few years younger than me. It’s been an interesting experience of all sorts.

Now, an older man again, about 7-8 years ahead. He’s tasted 40. Professional disillusionment, social impositions – these aren’t new to him. Breaking free of forced labels, struggling with diverse identities – he has experienced all these grand adventures of life that I have, as well. He’s rather nice looking, especially for his age, well-groomed and fit. It’s nice, no, who am I kidding, it’s wonderful to know that there are men like that too. Age, steadily creeping up on me, doesn’t seem as scary if it looks the way he does a few years from now.

An older man*Image (without text) via Victor Habbick on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Then again, there’s the uncertainty, the drifting which is still there and THAT is an incredibly scary thought. You always think that you’ll have figured it out by such-and-such age (and that age keeps shifting as you get to it). You vaguely imagine that people older than you are ahead of you on the life learning and making-sense road. It is always disconcerting, unpleasant even, to remember that’s not true.

I’m not going to say that it was nice to be able to have a real conversation for a change because that would be doing a grave disservice to the younger men I’ve gone out with in the past. Every person I’ve dated has been intelligent and articulate, age regardless and their lives, whatever point they’re at, have been of immense interest to me. For the same reasons I mentioned above, a 28-year-old may have figured out things that I still haven’t. And the pressures of closing in on 25 are different now than they were for me. It’s not that.

I wish I could pretend that it was comforting to talk to someone who had experienced what I have. But that was minor. Does commiseration matter less to me now than it did, in 2008? Yes, perhaps. He was kind, helpful even, but respectfully. I guess he has lived long enough to be generous without needing a payback in the form of control. This, I liked very, very much. I didn’t take his proffered offer (something professional) but I appreciated it greatly, anyway.

What surprised me was how thankful he was, for my time and attention. Younger men are not that. They’re in awe, sometimes surprise, even fear but rarely thankful. Appreciation without obsequiousness is learnt over time, I guess. At that moment, I felt disheartened. It made me think that men and their relationship with me would always be that way – awestruck at that beginning, gradually cooling off to indifference and then, bad behaviour. But a little later, I realised it was different. It was ‘I’m very happy you agreed to come out with me and now we can both have a nice day.’ rather than ‘OhmigodohmigodOMG you said yes can we do this now can we do that wait I’m awesome tell me I’m wonderful no you can’t say that no I don’t like what you’re saying no no no you’re horrible go away I don’t like you anymore’. It was graciousness and it was graceful. I liked it.

But you know what I liked best about going out with him? That fact that I did not fall in love with him or feel the need to. I didn’t do the female equivalent of that desperate emotion diarrhoea either (yes, I realise I’ve done that too in my past). I liked him, he liked me. We laughed, we pontificated, we both talked and we both listened. And I didn’t feel the need to put a deadline on caring. I didn’t assign any metrics in my head to the various components of each date. And I didn’t run complex equations with these to figure out ‘Will he love me or not?’ I didn’t do any of those things and it was a good date. I actually spent the whole day with him on the 14th of February and it was fun untainted by the pressure to make it more than it was. That’s not just a memorable Valentine’s Day, it’s a personal milestone for me.

Where does it go from here? Oh, nowhere, I think. He has moved to another country, following a different destiny. And I’m going my way. Hail good person and well met. I’m pretty sure this is all part of why life only gets better post 30. Older men may be just as interesting as younger men. And they don’t necessarily have more to teach you than anybody else. After all, the only real lessons are the ones you learn about yourself.

I Want To Be A Modern, Female Superman…

…only in that I have a smartphone app called ‘PhoneBooth’ that lets me change clothes at lightning speed.

Phonebooth

*Images without text courtesy Gualberto107 (Phonebooth) and photostock (Clothes rack) on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

No, this is serious. I am friend, businesswoman, creative thinker, socially aware voice, family woman, hot single girl, gal pal and a host of other things. Each of these come with their own dress code. I exercise my individuality adequately in each uniform. And I exercise the rare privilege afforded to few Indian women, in just being able to be so many things.

In addition, I’ve come around to accepting and then even embracing vanity. I am a woman and impressions about me are formed and sustained by my physicality a lot. How I look determines a large part of the response I get. I’ve been a marketing professional in another lifetime. It would be silly to forget the lessons from then. When packaging plays such a large part of reactions and hence relationships, I would be a fool to disregard them. Also, it’s not worth the effort of dealing with the backlash of wearing something that people don’t deem appropriate for an occasion.

I’ve found a comfortable zone now, where I know what to wear that is the right blend of appropriate, individualistic, practical and eye-catching. To almost any situation that I find myself in. I’m also a compulsive organiser and juggle several engagements as efficiently as I can.

Where it gets tricky is when different uniforms jostle for consecutive time-space on my calendar. Time planning now involves not only figuring out optimal routes of travel, energy level/mindframe required for that particular engagement and location feasibility, but also what I can wear that will cover everything adequately.

Take last week for instance. I had a semi-casual meeting with a friend who I’m helping out, professionally. Lunch was on the cards with some old colleagues. After that, I was to have a conversation with a prospective client. Then, I had to proceed to cultural event with a networking session among artsy/business people. All of this on a scorching day in Mumbai, at locations clean across the city. What could I wear that wouldn’t crumple or drench me in perspiration, look formal but not severe, would be casual enough to be friendly, seem cool and also arty? I thanked my stars that I’d begun wearing sarees last year and picked out a Kalamkari cotton. Sarees work like Superwoman costumes (complete with capes). Nobody in India questions a saree. It’s considered dignified for any occasion. I was counting on my personality and general rarity of women in sarees to pull off the individualist vibe. It did surprise my colleagues a bit but overall I think it worked.

My last two jobs had little to no dress restrictions, which allowed me to practise, even perfect this perfect-for-every-occasion look. I managed to go seamlessly from train travel to client meeting to afternoon-behind-computer-screen to partygoer a few times. Accessorising helped, as did layering with such delightful things like scarves, dupattas, shawls and shrugs. Summer brings its own challenges though.

Next week, I have a casual date, a feminist play and a kids birthday party to attend. It’s not for a few days but I’m going to need that time to figure out what I can wear that will work for everything. Sarees are out (I could work a draped length of cloth anytime with safety pins but NOT around toddlers). So are jeans (what, are you crazy in this weather?). What does that leave? Dresses or skirts? Hmm, mostly okay but these might bring in more undue attention than required, while travelling back. I still have some time though.

*Sigh* That’s why I wish I had a phone app, that allowed me to dart in and out in a matter of seconds, rocking a new look each time. Tech-entrepreneurs, are you listening?

A Woman’s Right To Say No, Just No

A womans right to say no just no

*Image (without text) via Ambro on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here’s the latest accusation that falls on me – RUDE. Also, inconsiderate, unkind, impolite. Hang on, who is calling me all these names? Yes, men. But what kind of men? Men I’ve said NO to.

These are NO to sexual advances. NO to implied interest. NO to having to listen to them at 5 a.m. NO to pandering to their delusions. NO to lying about what I think of them (“Tell me honestly!”). NO to letting them get away with sexist remarks. NO to whining about how men have it worse off than women (“Women getting beaten? So what, I’ve also been beaten.”).

It takes everything I have to not throw something at these people. It takes every minute of my good breeding to not rip open their fallacies. It takes every ounce of meditation/yoga/self-help/improvement/healing activities I’ve ever done to not yell at them. I reign it all in and say, “No.”

What are some of the consequences? Let’s look at the past month.

Man 1 whined for 4 solid hours about acquaintances who according to him, were ‘saying things’ about him and a girl he liked who was cosying up to someone else. He bitched about her, moralised about PDA, listed out what his sister, best friend, mentor, former boss all had to say. And he asked me what I thought. 5 a.m. and I told him to just stop worrying about what everyone else said and live his own life. The next morning I was hit by a barrage of angry messages, ranging from “I thought you would be kind to me.” to “You used me.” It went on for 90 minutes, I kid you not. I was in a meeting, so I couldn’t pick up the phone and tell him to shut it. Instead, my phone and my peace of mind was sullied by a 31 year old man who got angry that I said NO, I don’t want to listen to you.

Man 2 had been making all manner of sexist comments couched in polite, benign language for months, things I opposed but in a friendly manner. He attacked me for weeks over ‘how hostile I was to men’ in my writing. His comments were directed to my fiction pieces where a man was a villain or a victim or a bystander (Here are the stories he objected to, on the grounds that they were hostile to men: L, N, R, W). He also took objection to the fact that my writing was ‘bitter’ (specifically this piece, where I talk about a city, not a man). He informed me that women were considerate. Then he declared that I wasn’t actually a woman. And he ended with saying that that everybody else around also thought so and didn’t like being around me. An over 50 year old man who got upset because I said NO, I don’t agree with you.

Man 3 badgered me for friendship or a conversation. I told him thank you, but no thank you. Why, what is so bad about me, he wanted to know. I’m not interested, I said. Idiot, he called me. An indeterminately aged stranger who abused me because I said NO, I’m not interested.

Man 4 is a stranger I had to contend with, in the swimming pool today. I’ve been swimming for over 20 years and have a mean rhythm of my own. I don’t talk to anybody, I’m not a part of any class and I don’t go with friends. I practice alone and at the time, was hanging by the edge of the pool, catching my breath. He splashed over in my direction clumsily (a beginner) and stopped mid-splash thrice and stared openly in my direction. I swum away as fast as I could. At the deep end, when I was practising my dives, he swum over and grinned. I ignored him and continued to jump off the board and swim back to the ladder to try again. Then he tried speaking to me. It was something along the lines of “You didn’t do that dive properly, no?” I didn’t reply, just turned away and continued. Someone else I recounted this to, said I should have just said “I know you want to talk to me and I appreciate it. But I don’t want to talk to you.” I want to ask why? What gives a stranger the right to think it’s okay to approach a lone woman and interrupt her in what is obviously a solo activity? And why am I supposed to be polite to him? Also, I believe response (any sort) is actually likely to encourage a man like this. What is this Hassi toh phassi attitude? Even smiling to soften the NO is likely to be taken as something else. So, why should I?

I have a lot of men in my life, a father, several good friends. It bothers me that I have to explain that I am a normal, functioning person with healthy relationships but I do. I get people telling me that I should learn to be ‘diplomatic’. Women tell me, men don’t like hearing no, you have to be careful when you say it to them. I have men saying women should be nicer because ‘Hey, I am a nice guy, I’m not like that’.

I’ve been taken in by the maths of it myself. Obviously not every man is likely to behave like that. But most of them (in my experience) do. Besides, what obligation do I have, other than a firm NO? Why am I supposed to dress it up in consideration and politeness and sweetness and diplomacy? If I’m saying NO, I have decided that I do not want to spend any more time or energy on that situation or person. Why am I having to spend it anyway or be treated like a deviant when I don’t? What is my obligation to assess whether the man in front of me is (as the pattern proves) unable to handle a no, or a adult human being? That problem is his, not mine.

Perhaps I am making a mistake in saying NO to a person. But that is my choice and right to make. I don’t understand this blaming of the ‘few bad men’ for a woman’s saying NO. Every man is a great guy in his own eyes. That’s got nothing to do with my right to say No to him. I am not required to offer him a nicer NO than I offer other people.

I demand my right to say NO. Without explanation. Without sweetness and cupcakes. No means NO. Just NO.

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