Category Archives: Women @ Work
Being a woman. Being a professional. It’s a new balance.
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.
*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.
- 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.
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.
*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.”
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.
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.