Category Archives: Women @ Work

Being a woman. Being a professional. It’s a new balance.

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.
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A Powerful Woman Thinks Like A Woman

I’ve been enjoying the later seasons of Mad Men as the characters really come into their own and the various sub-plots develop. A lot of the time I’m startled by how 1960s New York sounds like Mumbai in 2013.

Joan Holloway in tight red blouse - Fashion of...

Joan Holloway in tight red blouse – Fashion of Mad Men (Photo credit: Deirdre Boyer)

In Season 4, an episode titled ‘The Summer Man’ shows Joey, a young
freelancer being blatantly rude to and harassing Joan Holloway, the senior office manager. His attitude is dismissive to the point of describing her to her face as ‘dressing like you want to be raped’. He also draws a pornographic cartoon of her and tacks it to her office window.

When one reads about, hears about or even sees something like this in a fictitious setting, the natural reaction is shock and horror. If it’s in a show like Mad Men, it usually gets put down to the timeframe and/or the western culture. And finally, by calling the particular propagator a few names, it gets pegged as abnormal behaviour.

The trouble is, this is not abnormal behaviour, it’s not specific to that time frame or that geography. This is the reality, here and now. Rather memorably, on my first day at b-school, the professor (an M.Tech. from I.I.T.) strode up to me seated in the first row and said,

“Why are you here? Why aren’t you at home learning to make chappatis?”

The predominantly male class laughed and the professor made some loyal fans that day. For the rest of the term, my questions were sidelined at best and turned into jokes, by the professor. I got my back at the end of the semester when I fought to take on a project that according to the professor, ‘involved a lot of maths so only engineers would be able to handle it’. I was the only non-engineer and the only woman in the group. After two weeks of being pushed around by the rest of the team, on the day before the presentation, I threw up my hands and declared that I was resigning from the team. Since I had done the bulk of the work, including the mathematical analysis, charting and the Powerpoint, the team came down on its knees. I delivered the entire presentation the next day and got a good grade (for the entire group, of course).

This sadly, has not been a stray incident but the first of several episodes where I’ve had to fight or tolerate extremely bad behaviour, as a woman professional. And as with the incident above, my approach has been to take it on like a war, fortify my defenses and attack.

What interested me about the Mad Men episode was what Peggy Olsen, a character I relate to greatly as I see my own professional journey charted out in hers, does. She is torn between the acceptance and camaraderie she enjoys from Joey & his cronies, as part of the creative team. But she also resents Joey’s harassment of Joan and the misogynistic attitude that she knows underlies it. She tries warning him and when he doesn’t listen, she takes it up to Don Draper. Don’s advice to her to is to not get him involved as it will make her look like a tattle-tale, but fire Joey, if she wants. She does just that and reports this to Joan, feeling proud and vindicated. Joan’s reply, as always, is surprising (if not cutting) but insightful.

And I learn a lesson that perhaps Peggy learns at the end of this episode too. In the bloody, dirty war between the sexes, should you accept the advice of the enemy, even if that particular one is an ally? Or does it make more sense to follow the counsel of one of your own, who leads and proves their mettle? To put it a little less dramatically, in a problem created by a man for a woman, does it make more sense to solve it by thinking like a man or a woman? Joan like a few wise women, has perfected the art of being a woman, always a woman and still keeping her independence and her dignity in a man’s world.

Unfortunately, in a society governed by rules created to pander to men, our behaviour as leaders, as power wielders are learnt from those who wielded them before us – men. I would love to have a Joan Holloway in my life, someone a little older, wiser and who has fought the battles I fight, before and with far more dignity and grace than I do. Sadly, I don’t have any real female role models. And it’s a doubly nerve-wracking realization that I may be just such a role model to younger women.

Ultimately it boils down to a simple truth. To be a powerful woman, you have to be a woman, not a man. And you can only learn to be a powerful woman, from a powerful woman, not a powerful man. And in a place devoid of such teachers, learning must happen with all its mistakes and far slower than I’d like.

Dress Restrictions: Equal Opportunity Offense

Chain

Chain (Photo credit: HeatherKaiser)

Yesterday I was denied entry into a building. I was there to attend a business event, peopled by serious professionals. The reason for my not being allowed admission is that I was wearing a dress.

I think the details of the dress are not important but anticipating debate on that, I’ll clarify. It was a printed dress, sleeveless, knee-length and loose-fitting: a summer dress. It was a Sunday after all, and a hot one. Of note, it was not the event organizers who blocked me but the college in which the event was being conducted. The college is a very reputed management college which also conducts other professional/postgraduate programs. I think it’s safe to say that the average age of a student there would be mid-twenties.

Back when I was a teenager, colleges tried to impose restrictions on our dressing. Hats/caps were not allowed. Any attire not full-length was restricted (leading to my being pulled up for wearing a pair of calf-length capris). Sleeveless was banned. Notice here that all these restrictions pretty much apply to female attire.

Over the years, the shorts/three-quarter culture got popular among men as well. I remember questioning why I was being pulled up when I could see boys/men around me showing off their knees. A few places now ban people of both genders from these. I don’t see this as progress, just equal opportunity offense.

I am not against the culture of uniforms in certain situations. There are merits to having school children in uniforms. It reduces, at least visually, the economic disparity in playground drama. It helps the authorities manage the children that they are responsible for, a little better. In the uniformed professions, especially defense & the police, it certainly helps the system and their purpose better to be identifiable with their roles. Similarly so, for nurses and other such caregivers in populous situations, where it is necessary to be able to distinguish caregiver from patient and visitors. And finally, prisoners for the same reason as schoolchildren – to be able to identify and manage better.

I cannot think of any other situation where a uniform would be necessary. Dress restrictions seem to be a milder form of uniforms, an attempt to impose control and homogeneity.

When I was studying for my management degree, there was talk of introducing a uniform dress code for the students. I was entirely surprised to find some of my classmates championing this. When I asked one of them why she believed we should be uniformly dressed, she said,

“Do you know they do this in such-and-such college? Think how bad it looks for our college when ‘corporates’ visit and see students in jeans and casual clothes.”

I didn’t buy that logic then and I still don’t. Having been a ‘corporate’ myself, I know I don’t judge a college by what its students are wearing to class. It would be important that they be appropriately dressed at interviews and later on, working situations. But those are loose norms and certainly not to be imposed on adults sitting in classrooms for lecture. On the contrary, I’d wonder about the kind of people who let themselves be sheep-herded into this kind of forced uniformity by an authority. Would they have the sense to question their surroundings? Would they have the courage and strength to make the kind of decisions a professional has to make, without succumbing to peer pressure?

I want to reiterate that I believe this imposition of dress code in situations other than the ones I listed above, has to do with society’s control over women. In places of worship and every other social setting, dress restrictions have always been imposed on women. You dress up on happy occasions, you wear Indian wear to the temple, you wear certain colours on certain days. And you don’t expose your knees, your arms or your cleavage. Why? Because it doesn’t show respect to the system. Which somehow magically translates to your being ‘bad’.

I don’t see this as any different from women being forced to wear burqas. In fact, it’s even presumptuous to force women to not wear burqas, if they want. After all, why should anybody have the right to tell an adult what they may or may not wear?

I expect to be treated like I know how to conduct myself in every situation. Wearing a dress might be inappropriate if I had the job of a firefighter or rock-climber. But it is perfectly suitable to an afternoon spent sitting in a classroom/boardroom environment. It might make me stand out but that’s my call and the consequences are mine to bear.

Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soh...

Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soho area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Incidentally, I am also tickled by the notion that restaurants and pubs feel they can impose dress codes on their patrons. I found a pub last year which turned away men in shorts or open sandals. I did not think they were being progressive, especially since when I inquired if women were allowed, the bouncer gave me a broad grin, his eyes darting lasciviously to my legs and said,

“No ma’am. Women can dress in what they like.”

As far as such a place is concerned, if they are willing to turn away paying customers for the privilege of dictating what they wear, that’s their business. They won’t have any of mine.

I don’t see how it is progressive to extend these shackles (and make no mistake, that’s what they are) to men as well. Dress restrictions on adults are demeaning, in an equal-opportunity way and that does not make them okay. Tell me what you think in the comments.

Update: Buzzfeed carried this article titled ‘7 Insanely Rigid Dress Codes for Women‘ that essentially addresses the same thing.

Careerwoman or Wife: Why should a woman have to choose?

Two things happened last night. The Best Friend and I talked. And in bed with a bad headcold, I reached for one of my comfort reads – Henry Denker’s Kate Kincaid. I’ve had this book for over a decade now and I enjoy it when I pick it up again, every few years.

The story of a headstrong nurse standing up for her beliefs and learning a new way to be strong never fails to entertain. But with this time’s reading, it raised a few other thoughts too. This story is as much a blow for feminism as it is about the nursing profession claiming back its dignity.

<spoiler alert>

Kate Kincaid is 27, pretty and in a meaningful relationship with Howard Brewster, an upcoming lawyer. She is also a good nurse, driven by the desire to heal and ambitious to succeed. Her most fundamental conflict is being both these things.

The story begans with Kate butting heads with a doctor, who on previous occasion has propositioned her and then treated her with hostility after she turns him down. The book never makes a mention of it but this is a clear case of sexual harassment. And anyone who wants to point out that the story is set in 1985, I want to say that things aren’t any different in 2012. No, not even in that there are ways for a woman to complain, because realistically there aren’t. In the story (as would be the case even today) Kate is penalized for daring to raise a finger against her offending colleague. True, the case on hand is a professional matter but the verdict as well as everyone’s assumption has to do with, “Why does this pretty girl have to open her mouth and create problems for herself?” Tell me that’s not sexist.

Later in the story, Kate’s struggles with chauvinism continue with her being forced to choose between her career and relationship. Just before she leaves to take up a course offered by a remote, mountain hospital, a well-meaning friend tells her that she can’t expect her fiance to give up his career and follow her. This, in a story which is largely about the said fiance wanting her to give up a fulfilling and successful career to follow him around.

I’m afraid the times have not changed in the least. Very, very realistically, how many men do you know who have changed their careers or put their dreams even on hold (if not permanantly) for the sake of their women? I don’t know a single one. How many women do you know who’ve done the same? My answer is, almost every single married woman I know.

Many, many years ago, I was in a relationship with a boy (that’s what he was) from Delhi. I told him I never wanted to live there, that what I wanted was all here in Mumbai. He frowned and said, “Well someone is going to have to make a sacrifice.”, his expression making it very clear that he was not going to be that someone.

A few years later, I met a guy from Chennai on a set-up (yes, I’ve been there too). In all the hours that we talked, his only question to me was,

“How do you feel about relocating?”

Another potentially fulfiling relationship ended because the guy was offered a prestigious assignment in Hong Kong and at that point, I wanted to stay in India.

And finally, last year I considered going back to work. But I made the decision not to, for a number of reasons. One of them (admittedly only one reason but a big one nevertheless) was that I was planning to get married and my then-fiance was still exploring his professional options. I figured it would be easier for us if at least one of us was flexible on location. Writing was fulfiling but it didn’t earn much; at least it was something I could do anywhere. When things turned ugly a few months ago, I think one of the cruelest, lowest blows that he delivered was a taunt that I was wishy-washy about my career. This is the man that I put my career on hold for over a year, for – I regret doing that especially when I always knew that he’d never do anything for that sort for me.

Pre-emptively, let me add something. One of the most common retorts I receive when I raise this issue is that there are lots of women around who’ve managed to balance career and home. But the fact is, not really. I know some of those women, closely. I know the sheer heart-wrenching agony they go through each time they have to leave home for a meeting and their little one begs them not to. I also understand the pain they feel in having to give up something in their career because it would mean they can be better wives & mothers. Nobody acknowledges these very real daily battles they fight with themselves, least of all the men for whom they do this all.

At this juncture, I wonder why I should even consider making the slightest compromise in my career, for a man. After all, my career has always been rewarding. I’ve had my achievements and I only forsee more. The returns have been great too – much confidence, accolades and money. On the other hand, all that has happened only tells me that a man will expect me to give it all up without question, as it were his birthright and not a very big gift from me. At the same time, he’d never consider doing the same for me. And given the track record, he’ll feel no qualms in ending it all, regardless of my sacrifices. Who loses?

The Best Friend said this yesterday which made me proud but also a little sad. She said,

“You are an achiever. It’s very clear that you’re doing well. Most men can’t handle that.”

My identity comes from my sense of achievement, my sometimes uncompromising attitudes and the acknowledgements I receive for work well done. But it does make me sad that I can either have this or a relationship. The general attitudes of even well-meaning people suggests that I should be too strong to let that matter. But it does. The ex distanced himself from any situation of having to stand up for me by telling me that I was a strong woman and should not need this.

Really? If strength means you don’t need compassion and understanding, why do even the most well-accomplished people have friends? If achievement automatically precludes you from human warmth & consideration, why do successful men get married, and to women who support them well? And why should I expect any less simply because I’m a woman?

I get retorts to this all the time, but let me tell you, no real answers. Not one.

————————————————————————————————–

Here’s my review of the book:

Kate Kincaid by Henry Denker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a story of an ambitious nurse who resents the social hierarchy imposed on her profession. After a falling out with her hospital, which is both personal & professional, she decides to attend an offbeat but worthy education program offered by a remote mountain hospital. The book tells of her experiences in that year and the rustic people she meets and how they shape her.

True to Denker’s style, the story moves quickly and doesn’t make your attention snag on the somewhat mediocre writing. What really interested me what that this story is as much about a strong woman’s fight for her own identity as it about a nurse standing up for her profession. Kate Kincaid is ambitious, even cold sometimes, condescending, judgemental and egoistic. But her fight is also about these traits being punished on account of her gender, instead of lauded as professional achievements, as they would be in a man.

While the word is never used, this is a feminist of the 80s. Her story is one that many of us can relate to, even today. The choice between the ‘easy’ life of being Mrs.Somebody and taking a risk of creating an identity for oneself – that hasn’t gotten easier even 15 years later.

View all my reviews

The Economics Of Modern Relationships

There’s a wealth of information available on how to engineer a romance. There’s more than enough paraphernalia on spicing up, sorting out, energizing, smoothing, creating and sustaining sex lives. But how about that one major thing that apparently a lot of couples struggle over? Money, money, money is the big elephant in every relationship room.

We know human behavior and societal attitudes take time to change. As it were, we’re caught in that transitory place, between ‘woman’s-place-in-kitchen’ structures and equal opportunity thinking. The impact of this on us as individuals, as familial units and as couples, is for another debate. But money is here and now. The strain of unresolved issues, of conflicting value systems and of confused roles is being borne by us every minute.

Let’s start with the most obvious. In a modern-day, equally independent dating scenario, who should pay? There seems to be an awkward, uneasy impasse with some women offering to share, unsure of whether this will be interpreted as ungraciousness or its opposite. Even men who’re otherwise liberal-minded stop at saying they like it when a woman offers but eventually they feel they need to pay. It is expected. And no minus points when the woman doesn’t even offer.

Zoom out a bit to look at the other logistics of a date. At the end of the date, the return journey home prioritizes the woman. Sure, the streets are slightly safer for a man going about alone than a woman. But how about the start, that usually happens earlier in the evening or day? How many dates see a woman picking a man up from his place or a select destination? Isn’t it almost always the man coming to pick her up? If you think that’s got nothing to do with money, consider the fact that the man may be traveling right across the city (and twice, counting the return). That’s his money and time (which equates to money, right?)

Gift-giving, that’s another thing. I love giving gifts to people I like. Not birthday gifts or wedding anniversary ones but the I-thought-of-you-when-I-saw-this variety. Most men I’ve given gifts to, have received them with pleasure. But this is often followed by an uneasy, feet-shuffling sense that they need to reciprocate. This in itself, is the nature of gift giving between human beings. But in a man-woman situation, it seems like the man feels compelled to reciprocate with gifts of at least equal value, if not more. When money comes into the picture is when the spirit of gifting goes well and truly out of the window.

And finally, once you’re in a relationship, what then? There are now two wallets at the table but it is almost always the man who signs the credit card slip. That is an odd sort of hat-tip to an archaic notion of the man always paying. I think I’m more acutely aware of this because of how I grew up. My mother balances the books and manages the family accounts. Thus, on outings, almost always, she’s the one who hands out the payment. She’s also the one who lists out the table order. In all these years though, I’ve never once seen hand the bill to anybody by my father. This same system follows me uncannily when I go out with the boy. Despite the fact that I’m the only audible voice at the table, perusing the menu, advising on dishes and placing the order, the bill is never given to me!

There seem to be an alarming number of what I call Farcical Modern Couples. I know of one where the wife is older and runs an unconventional but successful business. Her husband has a regular, if not nondescript job with a multinational company. Post marriage, the business continues to run with one difference. She works hard at it, he runs the accounts with a tight fist. She needs his permission to buy even the smallest trinket for herself. They live in one of the poshest parts of the city and speak the ‘cool’ lingo. It just gets disturbing to see that the branded purse that the lady carries, is monitored by her husband.

Then there was another couple on a cross-Europe tour that included an 8-hour flight layover. One of the foreign banks offered the services of a luxury lobby for their customers. Despite this couple being in possession of an account, they sat it out in the main waiting room. All because the name on the credit card was the wife’s and not the husband’s. In many respects, they are a high-flying couple that has an expansive enough lifestyle to warrant preferred bank relationships, international flights and luxury lobbies. But in thought (only glimpsed in this action), they’re no different from their counterparts of about a 100 years ago.

These misnomers aside, most modern couples must figure out some system of expense division. One couple I know, splits all their outgoing down in half and pays back dues at the end of the month. Another couple has allocated different expenses to each person and pays them off accordingly. Nobody actually talks about these things. I have a feeling that even couples who practice some sort of fair-expense-division, feel like they’re imposing an artificial, over-logical construct on something that should be above such petty matters. Personally, I don’t understand the embarrassment over talking money in a relationship. Isn’t it a universal truth that you can’t live on love & thin air alone? How about we contemporize that to ‘You can’t live on romcom dates & self-help conversations alone.’ If you’re sharing a meal, you gotta split the bill too.

The Princess/ Professional Dichotomy

*Image via MicrosoftOffice

The woman who can’t decide if she wants to be the Nice Girl or the Business Skirt

There is a certain kind of woman that I’ve been becoming more and more conscious of, in the past decade. I found her right after I started working. This woman may hold down any job, from adwoman to pilot to salesgirl to journalist. She’s got the degrees, the skill set and even the resume. She’s confident, can speak the right jargon (in business situations) and lingo (in social situations). She may also have the other requisite paraphernalia for being a Superwoman, such as a cool hobby, an offbeat alternate career, a with-it social circle, a quirky love life and the mandatory ‘progressive’ outlook on gender equality.

On my first job, my company hired a bunch of people for a short-term assignment after an interview process. During the actual project, the woman in charge of managing a front desk was found combing her hair (at that very desk). When questioned about the whereabouts of certain materials that she was responsible for, she looked bewildered and said, “I don’t know”. My cutting (and in retrospect, harsh) reply was, “You have two hands, two legs & a head. Hopefully you have a brain too. You were hired to use all of them.”

Sexual equality symbol

Image via Wikipedia

There is the weaseling out of uncomfortable situations such as being pulled up for bad (or incomplete) work, by crying. You would think it’s easy to tell what kind of woman would break down if you pointed out a mistake on her report. But this is not the pretty, dainty princess sort. This is the toughie, ‘I can hold my own’ sort who ambushes you with an emotional response. It’s all the more difficult to handle such a situation because you never saw it coming. We deal with people along the equations that are set in place based on power dynamics & social roles. This particular situation means the woman abruptly changes all those, leaving you weaker to respond.

And finally there’s the kicker of turning to male support. Personally, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about having to ask a guy for help. I admit this may be an ego issue, since I’ve had to take offense so often against sexist remarks. But there’s nothing permissible about a professional who needs ‘rescuing’ on account of her gender.

Recently, I went on a short trip out of the city. The tour was organized by a young lady, who seemed full of bright ideas and budding talent. She’s a musician, who quit a corporate job to start a travel tours company with some friends. She was confident, articulate and enthusiastic. She was also charming, at ease with new people and seemed like she’d be able balance all the varying demands of these jobs well. The trip went completely off because of mismanagement of time and as it turned out, people. Each episode was dismissed with a smiling nonchalance. When things came to a head, she shrugged and said, “What can I do now? Just chill out yaar.” Shortly after, one of the male guests turned up to speak on her behalf. Thereafter, it was up to him to sort out the various glitches that had occurred because she had not done her job properly. Even if he did not have any problem with having to do this, he could not be held accountable for any issues that came up from the mismanagement or the superficial solutions that were offered. The lady in question quite literally shrugged it all off, putting it down to other people being difficult.

A number of situations like this have me saying, “I would never hire her!” which comes across as harsh & judgemental. But I am a certain kind of professional, the kind that thinks commitment to work & earning respect are gender-irrespective. If I demand equality in recruitment processes & in salaries, I don’t feel like I can ask for gender concessions while working. Besides being unfair, how can I expect any sort of respect if I do that?

Women like this weaken my stand, both within the professional setup (if they work with me) and for my gender. It’s hard enough to assess whether a woman is going to turn out this way. What’s even harder is the assumption that because I’m a woman, I should condone anything from another woman. There are the allegations of my sex being the proverbial crabs in a pot, not wanting other women to shine. Then there are accusations of being a bitch, as a boss or as a customer. And finally, there’s the assumption that I don’t truly believe in women’s liberation since supposedly, I don’t ‘support’ women in the workplace.

What I’m wondering is, when did equality end at rights and stop being about responsibility as well? I’m asking does the requirement of professionalism not apply to women, just because they’re women? And why at all should I have any respect for these women who’re just using feminism as a convenient excuse to write off sloppiness, laziness, irresponsibility and bad attitudes?

On the other side, I also have to admit that most women struggle with early-imposed notions of being ‘Nice’. At the most basic level, I think it’s important for every woman who goes out to work, to question what being a professional really means. I want to believe that it has nothing to do with popularity stakes and everything to do with getting the job done right.

Everyone Wants To Get Into My Wallet

Late one night, as I was driving down the city, I looked up at a huge billboard advertising a jewelery brand and featuring an aspirational-lifestyle model/actress.

I exclaimed, “I really love that advertisement!”

My friend smiled and said, “You would. It celebrates you, after all.”

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

My first luxury retail experience was an emotional one, one of self-awareness. I wear my diamonds with pride, a pride that comes not exactly from their aesthetic value but from the knowledge that I earned the power to buy them for myself.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

A few years ago, I discovered something I think of as the Superwoman complex. I don’t know whether to be happy or not that it’s turning out to be prophetic. Take a minute to think about my words..

I am the center of a marketing model titled ‘High income single decision maker’
I am the brief given to fashion houses when they design the new Prada suit
I am described as ‘Joan of Arc meets Helen of Troy’

We are indeed, the hot new consumer demographic. Urban women, financially self-sufficient with all the trappings of our successful professional status – the need for new status symbols combined with the ability to pay for them.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

Our parents’ generation saw the upsurge of women at work and all the initial beginnings like the glass ceiling, women bosses et al. Our generation is the one that gets to enjoy it (and be taken advantage of). We’re prominent for our purchasing power and marketers have been quick to pick up on the need for our own set of status symbols and paraphernalia. I speak as the target group of a woman who earns and has the independence to spend. I also speak as a marketing professional, seeing the other side of it, so to speak.

Successful men with high incomes, have been well tapped-into as a market and are induced to spend on everything from their own selves (personal gadgets, cars), social settings (restaurants, pubs, sports activities) and dating-related paraphernalia (presents for women, tokens of what makes them an ‘ideal partner’). What do their opposite numbers in our sex have?

We have shoes, clothes, bags, accessories, jewelery, make-up and personal grooming services. If the men-targeted products homed in on the traditional masculine need to be macho and an alpha male, we are being targeted for our vanity and need to be ‘the babe’.

The more expensive products are obviously affordable only to a certain type of woman – she has a career, she’s ambitious and wants to be respected for her intelligence, she doesn’t want to stand in anyone’s shadow, she has a personality of her own. And hence diamonds, super-expensive shoes and clothes come with the messages that they respect your individuality, celebrate your independence and will take Visa as well as American Express.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

I was invited to the premier showing of the big Hollywood release of ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’. I saw the movie with a group of girlfriends and all of us identified with the heroine. We would, she’s based on us after all. While the movie is meant to be a really light-hearted comedy, it points to something deeper.

I got to wondering about the phenomenon of shopaholism. Is it a reality that we’re likely to be facing very soon? All manner of excess is driven towards filling a need that hasn’t been satisfied earlier. So women who binge are thought to be unconsciously compensating for a lack of affection in their lives. What unmet need are we trying to plug with this excessive buying?

Becky Bloomwood in the movie nails it on the head when she explains her addiction,

“Because when I shop, it feels so pretty, so nice, so good! And then it doesn’t so I have to shop even more!”

True to all successful marketing strategies, this one also gives us a taste of what we like and then leaves us begging for more. Shinier hair! Higher heels! Bigger (and smaller) bags! Cooler sunglasses! Brighter make-up! Lotions, creams, gels, powders, liquid liners, sticks, brushes, concealers, colorants, rinses, crayons, cakes, gloss, sequins, beads, rhinestones, denim, silk, linen, velvet….the list never ends.

So for all our gloss and gorgeousness, we are nothing more than the product of a very successful marketing program designed to relieve us our newly-minted paychecks. ‘Fabulous’ is the bait they use to lure us in and the looming bill at the end of the month is the hook.

It used to be about too many people wanting to get into my pants. Now everyone wants to get into my wallet!!

*An earlier version is here.

Caution: Women At Work

women at work

I created the image above. Doesn’t it look sketchy? And odd…since such signs are usually black-on-yellow and not green-and-black-on-blue? Moreover, the lady is wearing spiky heels and wielding a shovel. Oh well, that’s why I’m saying….Caution ahead, Women at work! I’m going to be a hypocrite and talk about women at work all the while playing a detached genderless entity. I try to be objective. I do try.

When I first heard the murmurs about women, I hmph-ed and clubbed it in the same genre as the nasty barbs about women drivers, wives and mothers-in-law. I decided and pronounced that men just couldn’t handle the fact that women were showing their equality and even superiority in the working world.

I think differently now. I’ve had male bosses as well as female bosses, colleagues, peers and clients of either sex. In some ways women are good to work with. I find they are a lot more focussed and driven than men….comparatively speaking. There is that ‘let’s cut the crap and get down to the brass tacks’ attitude which is what had me partnering women all through college on our projects.We did very well on all those projects as opposed to the ‘pretty good’ and ‘somewhat less that fantastic’ stuff that I suspect fell in those categories primarily due to the fooling around, chit-chat and unncessariy niceties that men brought into the equation. On the other hand, I’ve seen some pretty violent…how shall we put it….clashes?….over work with women. Power struggles were what they were and they remained unresolved since we were all evenly balanced.

I know I have been mighty intolerable to work with. Who’s got the time for niceties…I have a job to do here…has been my attitude for a good while now. I’m learning. A lot of us are. Sweet words and a nice smile can get work done so much faster.

Now cut to the real world where I have to work with a lot of men and a lot of women. It is a fact, I hate it…but it is a fact that women use their ‘wiles’ to have their way. There is nothing more nauseating than a bimbo fluttering their eyelashes at your boyfriend…..unless it is a female worker who smiles at you brightly and then cuts you to shreds in a meeting. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can tear my soul apart.

It is sarcasm, saccarine-flavoured arsenic at its best. I was once recruited by a sweet looking pretty lady who assured me that the work would be great and suggested that we treat each other as ‘friends’. Yeah right…..I’m still walking around with the arrows sticking out of my back. The lady had incredibly good aim.

Which brings me to something a male friend observed recently. He said that most people were ruthless and vile when they were beginning their careers and working their way up. Men however, tended to lose that as they progressed and reached a certain stage in their own minds. Women on the other hand, tended to hold on to grudges as well as swell in arrogance as they began to shine.

Is that true? Yes, I think it is. I see it in myself. In the short few years that I’ve been working, I know I treat some people differently. I know I have stored away little memories of people who did not treat me the way I wanted to be treated and have been meticulously ticking them off my list of ‘paybacks’. I haven’t played dirty politics…..yet. My method is to do better…that’s reward enough. But my friend’s comments made me think….am I persevering because I want to do well, because I like what I do, because it makes me feel good? Or am I doing it to get back at other people, to show someone up, to feel good by making them feel bad. That’s sick.

I have to rationalize my behaviour and that of my gender. Even today, a women is required to try harder, be better and bear a lot more than a man in order to succed. This includes opposition from the family, harassment by male colleagues, gender biases at work (yes, they do exist), social pressures and all kinds of other things. Somewhere we become hardened. Yes, it does take sheer grit to ignore the sniggering, sleazy whispers as well as that nagging nuisance called PMS all while trying to write a report in peace. Yes, well…are we entitled to some sympathy?

All I can think is that we’ve had such things as recognition, fame and success for such a very short while, we behave like the nouveau riche…flaunting it, throwing it into other people’s faces, using it to run over others. Bad bad bad still….damn, we need to grow up.

Incidently I took another look at the picture above and it occurs to me that its me in that pic…digging my own grave with this post. Eee….time to pull out the claws again…I retract from my objective identity and back to being a woman. You have been warned.

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