What My Women Colleagues Have Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And A Safe Space

Why representation at work places matter.
Holding hands.
Holding hands.

There's an old saying in Bengali, which translated, means 'women are the worst enemies of other women', and growing up I've used it casually to carp about minor injustices without analysing its damaging implication, whenever I've found myself up against my gender in conflicts involving life, love and relationships. Today I use the lessons learnt over the years to be an ally, instead of an antagonist.

When I started my career in the early 2000s, it was unheard of women reporters to take a day, or even half a day off, because of menstrual cramps. In Calcutta, you could still smoke inside some newsrooms and as you navigated your way across towering stacks of old newspapers, a bespectacled editor would emerge out of the haze of smoke and before you could come up with a credible alternate illness to not have to use the word 'period', he'd send you, the youngest and most dispensable cog in the internship food chain, off to chase wild goose. Debilitating cramps be damned.

Today, as the young women of my team unhesitatingly ask to work from home when they suffer from period cramps, I am reminded of some of my women colleagues in Press Trust of India who would guard the door to an ante-room that had a sofa so I would be able to lie down for a while when overcome with cramps. They would coolly spare me the pain of trying to explain to an awkward male boss why I need some time off work, because periods were something no "self respecting" woman would discuss in public at that time. This is as much a tip of the hat to those outspoken women protecting a much younger colleague, as it is to the scores of anonymous ones who quietly shaped me as a journalist and as a person.

If you are reading this, and you know who you are, thank you for teaching me that there's no need to be apologetic for offering an opinion during a team meeting, even if you are ridiculed for it, and for standing up to sexism even when none of your other women colleagues are ("they will, when they see you do it"). Thank you for teaching me to defend other women's right to be heard, the true meaning of empathy, to raise my voice even for those women whose voices are raised against mine and most importantly, that we do not have to trample on other women to get ahead. That leaning in is actually beneficial for a large group of women.

This is a note to the colleague who offered to watch my kid for me because I needed a break from motherhood duties, on the verge of a breakdown. It's a love letter, if you will, to my women colleagues who do not ever let me take them for granted.

I have been most lucky. I've worked with some extraordinary women — copy editors who could cut through misogynistic bullshit in mostly-men newsrooms and send cocky young reporters packing with their self-assured attempts at flirting with women on the desk to get their stories edited earlier than others. I've worked with senior correspondents who stood up for rights of younger women colleagues, and a legendary woman boss who once told her male colleagues never to address her as "madam" because "I don't run a brothel here and have a name. Use it."

It's the most wonderful thing, working with women. Older women who always have a perspective born out of lived experiences. Younger women who remind you of your responsibility as a feminist, peers who help you remain comfortable in your skin. Often we, who are reaping the harvest of the works of countless women who led the march through dangerous terrains, forget what privilege is.

"We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, women who had to fight for the rights that we now take for granted," writes Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

We have a feminist work space here at Huffington Post India. I'll tell you what that means to me as a working mother, a woman in a position to influence at least some, and a human being. Women sense distress in one another, because much of what we go through daily is a collective experience at work and outside. I was going through a personal crisis in 2016 and even though I did not discuss it in great detail with my colleagues, I was dreading to face them when my birthday came around. I had to put on a smile, wear nice clothes and go to work, when all I wanted to do was call in sick. I dreaded to think what I'd do if had they forgotten it was my birthday - that would really be the pit of an already hellish day.

I was weeping like a child as they brought in the cake and gifts. Lingering hugs were countered with terrible jibes at each other, the most goofish selfies were clicked and deleted under threats of social media boycotting and I was in a radically different mood from the one I came to work in.

My women colleagues are a daily reminder why you need to fill your workplace with women. They are remarkable women who fight daily battles to make other women's lives better.

Whenever I have felt self doubt, these women have extended a hand and pulled me up. They've made conversations about sex, body positivity, violence, sexism, work, ethics, leadership and relationships easier. If you are hiring, here's a word of advice from someone who has benefited from working with women all her life. Women bring an innate empathy to the workplace and are generally more sensitive to injustices than men will ever be, through their lifelong experiences of exclusion. To women who struggle to get along with women colleagues — it will help to remember that they are battling the same demons at home and at work. Give them a chance.