Navigating the Great Indian Workplace as a Woman

Gender

Navigating the Great Indian Workplace as a Woman

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

From ‘Don’t meet that official unless you are in a group’ to ‘Oh, won’t he love to meet you alone,’ I have heard it all. If a call went on for a bit longer, I was supposedly on a ‘first-name basis’ with the person. If someone laughed at my stupid harmless joke, he evidently had a crush on me. As a woman working in the Great Indian Workplace, such instances of intrusive commentary are usual. Despite the hard work I had put in to be ‘me’, somehow, I am repeatedly reduced to being nothing more than a ‘she’. I’ve gotten used to it now but given time and regularity these ideas, I’ve realised, shape the way I dream, aspire and function in my career. In fact, it could literally define what I become as opposed to what I could have been.

Getting your first job as a young woman is a one-way ticket into the whisper network. Some you must avoid at all counts, some in specific circumstances. These are essential and much-needed introductions to the workplace. Women immediately get told, stay away from him, or he’s this or that. I wonder if men have to worry about such psychological restrictions in their own journeys. Though the sources of this information are usually women who have seen worse, I have had men throw cautious words my way as well – call it their instincts. So, yes these men exist too but it doesn’t make things simpler. Not by a longshot, they don’t.

The well-wishers, to their credit, don’t intend malice but they have subsequently pushed me back into the shell that I had worked hard to break out of. The fights I have had to prove I could travel alone to places, commute far and stay out late. A lot of the struggle was about overcoming gender norms only to realise there was a whole new set to navigate. Now it’s about taking a step back each time I have to make a career choice. My parameters are different – safety, gender ratio, inclusivity. At times I’ve picked up work because the environment felt safe in comparison one that paid better. These imaginary barriers haven’t just limited my ability to grow and grasp things outside my comfort zone, they have made me undervalue my own worth. Half of the time I’m forced to think if someone is genuinely kind or appreciative of me or if he is doing it because, as advertised, ‘I’m a woman’.

The well-wishers, to their credit, don’t intend malice but they have subsequently pushed me back into the shell that I had worked hard to break out of.

I have been on the verge of passing similar lessons on before I found the sense to stop myself. I had spotted a male colleague and a female intern smoking together outside the office. It was a harmless moment, and I trusted the man enough to know he wasn’t a threat to her. Yet, my first instinct was to ask her to avoid doing so. It wasn’t about asking him to keep his distance from interns even though I had a comfortable relationship with him. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but I sat with the thought for weeks. Was this simply a defence mechanism or some form of latent anxiety that no woman can ever live without?

It makes me wonder how we look at men-women relationships, especially when there is a power imbalance. And there is, inadvertently, always a power imbalance. My work has taken me into spaces where I am the only woman in the room, where feminism is considered a bad word. I have had men answer my queries without acknowledging my presence. They would look at anything and everyone but me.  The unfortunate part is that I do understand that it isn’t coming from a place of malice at all. It would have been much easier to process if it were. It’s all just years of conditioning that has left people, irrespective of their gender, inept to communicate well with ‘the other’.

My work has taken me into spaces where I am the only woman in the room, where feminism is considered a bad word.

You are usually left with two choices to make. Either fight back, hard or blend into the socio-political canvas in front you. Most of us choose the latter because we have at least our own mouths to feed. That said, it doesn’t disappear, this filter that makes everything coloured in gender even if it isn’t. From relationships to career moves, everything becomes a function of the role we have been relegated to play.

I have had to build boundaries so tall that they suffocated me more than keeping the potential risks at bay. It made it difficult for me not just to find mentors but also peers. Some of the toughest spaces to navigate are those where you are working with people who have genuinely good intentions. It sounds odd yes, but it is tough to find a balance with them as there is always that lingering voice in your head, telling you to be cautious.

Some of the toughest spaces to navigate are those where you are working with people who have genuinely good intentions.

There have been and always will be people who import discomfort in your work life. It’s almost impossible to remove gender from the conversation. But for a woman like me, as I grow, it has become increasingly hard to hold onto the ambition without paying a cost for it in gender. I don’t know if there is a solution here, but it is at least a battle us women have to fight without asking for it.

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