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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.
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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.

The Princess and The Pleb

Childhood and adolescence are full of such strongly defined, set-in-cement stereotypes. Every child starts with a vision of perfection, fed liberally by a diet of fairytales. We’ve all read about her. We’ve seen her, spoken to her, dreamt of being her, of being with her. Who is she? All stand…the Princess enters…

Much younger, the Princess is the girl you want to kill because she gets away with everything and has everything so easy. At birthday parties, everyone coos over what a pretty child she is while your family tries to cover up the mud splotches on your party dress with the napkin. Princess would never dirty her dress…even her white shoes are spotless (while your own colourful sneakers have managed to accumulate light coloured dirt that will show on black…you filthy little dirt-magnet!!). Princess also has make-up and nice sparkly jewellery which you aren’t allowed to touch. Brief flashback to the time you stole mum’s lipstick and ended up looking like Dracula after a feast. Yearrgh. That’s the first time it hits you.

Princesses exist in real life, outside fairy-tales too.

Then you discover that Princess isn’t a very nice girl after all. The minute the adults are looking the other way she grabs your toy. Only when you’re aiming a punch at her nose, she turns on the baby-blues (or browns if you’re Indian) and there you are in the middle of a lecture …again. (Why can’t you be like her..she’s such a good girl!) Princess has a smug expression which might have reminded you of that alley cat you once fed, except that at least the cat had been starved and she rubbed her tail against your leg before she scooted. Princess is…when you are old enough to know the word….a nasty little bitch. What’s worse, after the brouhaha has all died down, she takes one disgusted look at the muddy fingerprints on your beloved toy and shucks it away.

Lesson no.2: Princess will want not just the best of everything but everyone else’s everything too. Don’t get in her way.

As the years pass both of you learn. Princess gives her tear-glands and her tummy muscles frequent workouts. They’re all in supple condition. Her hair is always in place, dressing immaculate, nails polished and make-up well done. You on the other hand, are struggling with running mascara after your recent boyfriend dumped you to run after…guess who? After much effort you hit the realisation:

Lesson 3: You will never be a princess!

You might mope in injured silence and then give in to be part of her retinue. Enter that much forgotten paragon of teenage girlhood – the best friend. This is a special best friend, possibly the truest kind of best friend there is. Nothing less than the best for Princess. She’ll be Princess’s bodyguard, secretary, PR agent, counselor, mother figure, nursemaid and woman Friday. She’s the Betty Cooper to every Veronica Lodge. She’s the one who’ll screen Princess’ suitors, ward off ardent admirers, lie to Princess’ parents about where she spent the night, behave ‘badly’ so it doesn’t reflect badly on Princess and take care to never out-shine Princess. Boys will make cruel jokes about her and sometimes other people will ask her why she puts up with it. Princess may never treat her well but the one time the best friend decides not to go back after a fight will be the first time Princess throws all style and image to the wind to grovel.

Lesson no.4: Princess is needy. Hungry, starving for attention and molly-coddling. She will always need you much more than you need her. Princess is vulnerable and your approval matters far more to her than the other glitzy crowd that clamours around her. And there is great power in knowing that, even if it is never shown.

If you have the gall right then, you may summon up enough anger to turn into another sort of royalty. Run with the wrong crowd, do the wrong things, swing all the way the wrong way till you’re as much a pro at it as Princess is at being nauseatingly good. You’ll get as much adulation as Princess and be her greatest competition. Of course, you are her exact and equal opposite.

Lesson no.5: You may never be a princess but you can always be the Black Queen. Princess will never vie with you and she’s the one person she’s scared of. Sharp, polished nails are no match for a razor sharp tongue.

And while you’re out there fighting your own battles, you’ll discover something the boys discovered about ten years before you…the thrill of the chase, the heady madness of the fight. You’ll learn to throw the punches and then to roll with them too.

The final lesson: There’s more to your life than being Princess or her antithesis.

That’s the day you crown yourself Queen. You’ll need nobody else to do it for you. And you’ll leave Princess far behind, waiting for her coronation ceremony with the parade.

The saga ends here with the pleb being a pleb no more. But what happens to the Princess?

Princess has lived in an fairytale palace that she has been able to control for a long, long time. Princess’s biggest weapons have been beauty and charm.

But even princesses grow old. No one dreams of a wrinkly, ageing princess. At 4 or 14 or 24, her behaviour is cute, attractive and vivacious. But after awhile, it’s called affected. The boys who’ve flocked around her all these years making life smooth and easy and sweet have changed too and none of them are interested in playing slave to Princess’ whims.

Poor Princess! She never learnt to walk on her own, metaphorically never had to lie on a bed she made. Princess, like every human being, had her share of disappointments, but sugar-coating and rebounds ensured that she never suffered through them. Right then however, her palace has crumbled and the posse handed in their papers.

Princess has a rough road ahead – one of learning adulthood at a time when everyone else has been practicing it for about a decade and a half at least. It stops being about flowers and gifts and romance. It starts to be about real caring, about loyalty, about respect and wisdom. I really pity the Princess right then. She never learnt to work for these things and now that she finally appreciates their true worth, she discovers how hard they are to earn.

When the age of princesshood is over, what happens to the Princess? Will she fall by the wayside and wither away into that sullen, depressed old woman on the ground floor? Or will she, stubborn in the thought that the glorious life she’s always lived will be hers again, keep her paints and frills about her becoming that once-beautiful somewhat pathetic echo of her original loveliness?

I can only speculate on what happens after happily ever after.

The Princess and The Pleb

Childhood and adolescence are full of such strongly defined, set-in-cement stereotypes. Every child starts with a vision of perfection, fed liberally by a diet of fairytales. We’ve all read about her. We’ve seen her, spoken to her, dreamt of being her, of being with her. Who is she? All stand…the Princess enters…

Much younger, the Princess is the girl you want to kill because she gets away with everything and has everything so easy. At birthday parties, everyone coos over what a pretty child she is while your family tries to cover up the mud splotches on your party dress with the napkin. Princess would never dirty her dress…even her white shoes are spotless (while your own colourful sneakers have managed to accumulate light coloured dirt that will show on black…you filthy little dirt-magnet!!). Princess also has make-up and nice sparkly jewellery which you aren’t allowed to touch. Brief flashback to the time you stole mum’s lipstick and ended up looking like Dracula after a feast. Yearrgh. That’s the first time it hits you.

Princesses exist in real life, outside fairy-tales too.

Then you discover that Princess isn’t a very nice girl after all. The minute the adults are looking the other way she grabs your toy. Only when you’re aiming a punch at her nose, she turns on the baby-blues (or browns if you’re Indian) and there you are in the middle of a lecture …again. (Why can’t you be like her..she’s such a good girl!) Princess has a smug expression which might have reminded you of that alley cat you once fed, except that at least the cat had been starved and she rubbed her tail against your leg before she scooted. Princess is…when you are old enough to know the word….a nasty little bitch. What’s worse, after the brouhaha has all died down, she takes one disgusted look at the muddy fingerprints on your beloved toy and shucks it away.

Lesson no.2: Princess will want not just the best of everything but everyone else’s everything too. Don’t get in her way.

As the years pass both of you learn. Princess gives her tear-glands and her tummy muscles frequent workouts. They’re all in supple condition. Her hair is always in place, dressing immaculate, nails polished and make-up well done. You on the other hand, are struggling with running mascara after your recent boyfriend dumped you to run after…guess who? After much effort you hit the realisation:

Lesson 3: You will never be a princess!

You might mope in injured silence and then give in to be part of her retinue. Enter that much forgotten paragon of teenage girlhood – the best friend. This is a special best friend, possibly the truest kind of best friend there is. Nothing less than the best for Princess. She’ll be Princess’s bodyguard, secretary, PR agent, counselor, mother figure, nursemaid and woman Friday. She’s the Betty Cooper to every Veronica Lodge. She’s the one who’ll screen Princess’ suitors, ward off ardent admirers, lie to Princess’ parents about where she spent the night, behave ‘badly’ so it doesn’t reflect badly on Princess and take care to never out-shine Princess. Boys will make cruel jokes about her and sometimes other people will ask her why she puts up with it. Princess may never treat her well but the one time the best friend decides not to go back after a fight will be the first time Princess throws all style and image to the wind to grovel.

Lesson no.4: Princess is needy. Hungry, starving for attention and molly-coddling. She will always need you much more than you need her. Princess is vulnerable and your approval matters far more to her than the other glitzy crowd that clamours around her. And there is great power in knowing that, even if it is never shown.

If you have the gall right then, you may summon up enough anger to turn into another sort of royalty. Run with the wrong crowd, do the wrong things, swing all the way the wrong way till you’re as much a pro at it as Princess is at being nauseatingly good. You’ll get as much adulation as Princess and be her greatest competition. Of course, you are her exact and equal opposite.

Lesson no.5: You may never be a princess but you can always be the Black Queen. Princess will never vie with you and she’s the one person she’s scared of. Sharp, polished nails are no match for a razor sharp tongue.

And while you’re out there fighting your own battles, you’ll discover something the boys discovered about ten years before you…the thrill of the chase, the heady madness of the fight. You’ll learn to throw the punches and then to roll with them too.

The final lesson: There’s more to your life than being Princess or her antithesis.

That’s the day you crown yourself Queen. You’ll need nobody else to do it for you. And you’ll leave Princess far behind, waiting for her coronation ceremony with the parade.

The saga ends here with the pleb being a pleb no more. But what happens to the Princess?

Princess has lived in an fairytale palace that she has been able to control for a long, long time. Princess’s biggest weapons have been beauty and charm.

But even princesses grow old. No one dreams of a wrinkly, ageing princess. At 4 or 14 or 24, her behaviour is cute, attractive and vivacious. But after awhile, it’s called affected. The boys who’ve flocked around her all these years making life smooth and easy and sweet have changed too and none of them are interested in playing slave to Princess’ whims.

Poor Princess! She never learnt to walk on her own, metaphorically never had to lie on a bed she made. Princess, like every human being, had her share of disappointments, but sugar-coating and rebounds ensured that she never suffered through them. Right then however, her palace has crumbled and the posse handed in their papers.

Princess has a rough road ahead – one of learning adulthood at a time when everyone else has been practicing it for about a decade and a half at least. It stops being about flowers and gifts and romance. It starts to be about real caring, about loyalty, about respect and wisdom. I really pity the Princess right then. She never learnt to work for these things and now that she finally appreciates their true worth, she discovers how hard they are to earn.

When the age of princesshood is over, what happens to the Princess? Will she fall by the wayside and wither away into that sullen, depressed old woman on the ground floor? Or will she, stubborn in the thought that the glorious life she’s always lived will be hers again, keep her paints and frills about her becoming that once-beautiful somewhat pathetic echo of her original loveliness?

I can only speculate on what happens after happily ever after.

Xena Was A Princess Too

Conversation with a colleague:

Him:

I think women (at work) come in two types. There are women like you – independent, strong-natured type…you know they aren’t going to burst into tears because you tell them you don’t like their work. Then there’s this other type you have to be careful around because you never know how they’ll react.

Just as an aside, I stayed in late at work last week and was travelling back after midnight when mum called to check where I was. The same person, with me, looked a trifle surprised and then remarked,

It’s just that, with girls like you, one gets the sense that you can take care of yourself and don’t need protection. Whereas with X, Y, Z…they’re like little kids, you know?

I suppose that in a world of princessess, some of us are Xena. But everybody has feelings and no one is completely invincible, you know?

Xena, holding her chakram

Xena, holding her chakram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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