As a vice-president advising one of India's best-known companies, I was once asked to leave the room so a very senior member could crack an inappropriate joke. I was the only woman in the room, needless to say.
Let's face it, corporate India isn't used to seeing women in positions of power. There are exceptions, banking for instance, but these are few and far between. We have women secretaries, and we are doing just fine on the diversity agenda, thank you.
I've learnt to expect some curiosity, some inelegance and many awkward moments. Here's my list of workplace woes that illustrate how corporate India has a lot of growing up to do.
Oops! Lady alert!
It's most obvious at some of these A-team-type work parties. You are expected to socialize, (actually the word they use is "network"), but these are such testosterone-filled affairs that a woman walking in, more often than not, makes everyone feel awkward. Expect some folks to avoid eye contact, to look away, to busy themselves in checking their phones.
One HR head admitted to encouraging women in her team to start smoking since that was the quickest way to bond with the guys.
Then there are the cliques -- the stiff body language that shuts you out, or the tight little circle that gets formed (good luck elbowing your way in, if like me, you're of small build). Corporate types, and not just men, will gravitate towards power. They want to be seen with people of a higher pay grade than theirs. So, if you're one of those who are on a marginally lower rung at a party, sip that wine and settle in for a boring evening.
You'd better pile on those years
When I was a young analyst in the US, I was advised to wear pearls so I would look older than my years. As we rise in the ranks, we actually try and dress for power -- to appear more mature and project authority. In India, saris are guaranteed to bestow gravitas. My mother, a banker, wore beautiful silk or starched cotton sarees to work every single day. If you are in a serious profession, dressing for power might not be a bad idea (the pearls were a great touch, in case you were wondering).
What gets my goat though, is stupid advice on "fitting in". One HR head admitted to encouraging women in her team to start smoking since that was the quickest way to bond with the guys.
It's game over if you 'opt lower'
If you accept a role that is in anyway less glamorous -- in title, money, work content -- you'll be branded as having "opted lower". Doesn't matter what you like doing, or that your definition of success is more multi-dimensional than just the next promotion. Once you, as a high-potential woman, take a less demanding job, people will mentally write you off, as if it's game over.
[Y]ou'll forever be the outsider because you can't afford the macho-giri of late nights.
Where do babies come from?
Your colleagues and clients will often react with incredulity if you happen to get pregnant while in a top job. As if it's the most unnatural thing in the world. In my case, the reactions ranged from pretending ignorance to "your stomach entered the room before you did" to point blank asking if they could have my job once I was "gone" -- the reactions (again, from men AND women) were both annoying and amusing. Of course, the scenario in India is not quite as grim as, say, in South Korea, but there is definitely room for improvement.
The early bird doesn't get the worm
A friend's boss glows with pride when he gets into work with only a couple of hours of sleep. If you're in the services or ITeS sectors, you're very familiar with this -- working late is a badge of honour. People (again, not just men) feel very proud of not having a life outside of work. Now, that's all fine if you don't have to take care of kids, homework, a household or a hobby. But for many women, this is a real deal-breaker, you'll forever be the outsider because you can't afford the macho-giri of late nights.
I have no 3-point agenda, no broad outline for change, no magic formula. I'm not asking for a utopian work place setting either. But I'd love to see more old fashioned good manners -- less biases, more understanding, less judging more listening, less machismo more respect.
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