I open the Sunday Times to devour its contents hungrily. One of the perks of a weekend is being able to read the newspaper leisurely. During the weekdays, I am in a mad frenzy – with the toddler tugging my dress and me trying to scan the front page, the business section and the global one in a speed-reading session with one eye on the clock ticking by.
On a Sunday in September though, I was disappointed when I read about the shocking and appalling percentage of employed women in India (27%), compared to China (64%) and the US (56%). We are marginally ahead of Pakistan and the Arab countries, but that’s nothing to cheer about given the pathetic state of women in these countries. It left me with a morbid feeling. I wasn’t really expecting the stats to be so bad given the host of measures multinational corporations (MNCs) are taking to promote gender diversity.
I do not want to get into the whys of this. I would rather look at this meagre 27% (of which I am a part) and ask – do we have it easy? Right from fighting misogynistic people around and being mansplained to shouting our voice hoarse to make a point and being accused of being too emotional – it’s akin to walking on a tightrope.
Thinking of the past 10 years I have spent in the corporate world, I sometimes feel that we are partly responsible for it. By succumbing to whatever is meted out to us and not being vocal, we are only encouraging the culture to remain as it is. That’s when I made a conscious decision that I would do my bit to change the workplace culture. Not by shouting my voice hoarse, but by saying ‘no’ and challenging the stereotypes in my own way without throwing a fit, bit by bit, day by day, from one woman to more – I firmly believe things will change this way.
Here’s how I do it:
1. I am not the official cake-cutting person at birthdays/farewells. Doesn’t it irk you that whenever there is a social gathering and after the person (in whose honour it is being held) has cut the cake and the song has been sung, someone will randomly call a woman employee to cut pieces of the cake for everyone?
I never liked doing that job even when I was young, for fear of messing up the cake. I really suck at such things. I would just duck behind someone or pretend to be busy on my phone. Later, I started finding it odd that why women were only asked to do this job.
Lately, I have started suggesting people to let each one cut out a piece for themselves and have it. I was glad to see that people were fine with the idea. So women – unless you really revel in cutting slices of cake for others, its time you just spoke up!
2. There was a time when I was intimidated with a huge crowd in a meeting room – and it had nothing to do with the gender of the people. The moment I had to speak, I had sweaty palms, my stomach churned, and I had this fear that I would fart out loud. I hastily spoke what I had to and prayed that there would be no questions.
As my career progressed, the boardroom had fewer women and more men. Now, I am in a situation where even though we are just two women, we talk, ask questions, challenge others and can be heard as loud as the men.
Women are often sidelined in meetings. Sheryl Sandberg had once said that women fear to take the head-seat at the table. That fear needs to go. I have even gone to the extent of holding my hand up against a guy who was interrupting me and said very clearly and calmly, “Let me finish.” Trust me, once we learn to speak for ourselves and stop being intimidated, a major battle is won!
3. A person meets a working mom. The questions asked in all probability would be “How are your kids?” and “How’s their school going?” Why not ask her – “Hows the project you are working on, going? Do you need help?”
How often is a dad asked, “How are your kids? How was their exam?” I am not entirely discarding the possibility of a dad being asked these questions – but it’s equally true that in many cases, they would often be asked about their work.
Is it something to do with the way we are wired? We look at a working mom first as a mother, and then as a working professional. Personally speaking, I make sure that I ask the same set of questions to working parents, irrespective of their gender.
4. I remember being in an appraisal discussion a few years back. One of the corniest things that had been listed out was how well I had been managing the cab bookings for events, taking visitors out, etc.
To be honest, this was a job thrust upon me. Being a non-party person, I never had an inkling about the pub which served the best handcrafted beer and similar information – so I was spared making the booking decisions. But there were also a host of other things (like arranging cabs, making sure that people board them in time, coordinating, etc.) from which I wasn’t spared. While men did these too, most often, it was the women who had to perform these duties. Some men even had the audacity to joke about it, saying that this was what women are good at – not ‘technical’ but ‘secretarial’ jobs.
So when I joined a new place, I was quite clear about being completely clueless about picking a place. Luckily, I found people to be more accommodating here, which worked well for me. I have also resolved that if such a situation arises in future I shall be open about my preferences and shall not shy away from saying a ‘no’.
5. We own our career. It’s not built overnight, and it requires years of perseverance, dedication, a good network and being damn good at your job (this goes without saying). As a woman, especially as we move up the promotion ladder, I find that we are often unsure about ourselves.
There is no such perfect checklist – but given a high level-list of 10 points, a woman who can give herself an eight will probably hesitate to go and talk to her boss about her promotion. She would rather wait till she can give herself a 10, and then decide to talk. That could mean a year lost – while her subordinate or junior picks up that promotion.
This is also a reason why many women lag, when it comes to promotions. Even when it comes to new jobs, many women are less confident of selling themselves for a role which is different from what they have been doing.
I was one among them. Not anymore. This does not mean I have become overconfident, or being a blogger and having a flair for writing , I will just use it to sell myself at my workplace. I make sure that I do the best job – and make doubly sure that the people, who need to know about it, are aware. I set tangible objectives, have discussions with my manager, ask open-ended and specific questions, seek feedback and don’t shy from talking about my next level.
Being a woman (a minority) at the workplace is not easy by any means, especially as you move higher up the ladder. However, I firmly believe that the way people treat you depends to a large extent on how you treat yourself. So, instead of complaining in the washroom the next time, make sure you speak up in the boardroom – loud and clear!
Featured image used for representative purposes only.