In search for the Goldilocks working woman
Once upon a time, I got selected for the Civil Services. My first day on the job involved reporting for duty. Which was a fancy term for a bit of paperwork and a lot of hanging around in the hallowed paan-stained corridors of the Government of India, waiting for various people to finish their various lunches.
The first embodiment of the Government of India I came across was a Section Officer to whom I had to submit documents that established my identity, credentials, and overall worth as a human being. You might expect that clearing the Civil Services Examination could be considered proof of all of the above, but what is the fun in that?
The gentleman in question pored over my documents with the keen squint of a man who took his job very seriously (after he was done with his lunch breaks, snack breaks, chai-sutta breaks, and personal calls from the office landline). He looked from me to the documents, back at me again, belched, back at the documents, farted, and finally said, “Madam, you have done MBA and all. What are you doing here in the Government?”
Having already cleared the UPSC personal interview, I was not expecting document submission to include a viva voce round as well. So I took a second to figure out how best to respond. I need not have bothered. Before I could say anything, he answered his own question, “Oho, ladies ke liye achchhi naukri hai ye.” (Oh yes, this is a good job for the womenfolk.)
Having thus satisfied his own curiosity, he went back to his paperwork and his bodily functions. Leaving me with a fitting commencement to life in public service.
This is a familiar thing – this assumption that a job must be easy or comfortable or menial for a woman to do it. Or that a woman is only suited for a job that allows her to be lazy or incompetent or her over-emotional womanly self.
So today, in true new-calendar-year style, we shall undertake a performance assessment of all these ‘ladies log’ and whether they are doing ‘jobs that are good for them’.
Basically, we will attempt to answer the implicit question that Section Officer Uncle was neither the first nor the last man to ask: Can women even do jobs?
Do women happen to know anything about their jobs?
Ankita is a government servant. Due to the transferable nature of her job, she lives away from her husband, raising their 18-month-old son as practically a single mother. Her life is full of responsibilities and competing demands on her time and attention. But she consciously does not let this affect her work. She is honest, competent and knowledgable about her field of work. But somehow, she still finds herself in a fix at staff meetings that feature a certain colleague.
“There is a man in my office who often likes to control the agenda of staff meetings. He assigns the order in which the various team leaders will report with updates on their track of work. Whenever it is my turn, he looks at me and says, ‘Madam aapko iske baare mein kuch pata hoga kya?’ ” (Madam, would you happen to know anything about this?)
“It is very disrespectful because I have never given anyone at work any reason to doubt my ability to do my job. And I often call him out, saying, ‘Of course I know about this. It is my job to know about this.’ And then I proceed to give a full and detailed debrief of my team’s work. But no matter how well I do my job, it does not seem to matter to people like him. They will always assume that for a working mother, a job is a side-hobby that she sometimes indulges in.”
Is it too much to expect women to be not too soft, not too hard, just Goldilocks people?
Seema is a petite woman with a soft voice. This might be why she was always told, in every performance review at every job, that she needed to be more assertive at work.
When she reported back at work after the birth of her first child, Seema decided to use the opportunity to redefine herself professionally and work on the feedback her boss had been giving her.
“Take more challenging stances”, he had told her during her last review.
Since she was supposed to join a new team after her maternity leave, she started contacting all the Team Leads working under her boss in all earnest spirit of taking challenging stances, as advised.
“I would proactively discuss with them my aspirations, expectations, and try to understand what each role entailed. I wanted to find the best possible fit for myself and the role I would be most effective in. I was always told I needed to find my voice, so I started consciously using my voice.”
She was feeling good doing it too. For the first time in her career, Seema felt like she was taking charge of her own professional trajectory – being an active driver of her career instead of quietly adjusting in the passenger seat.
“At the next performance review, I was told that there was a perception developing in the organization that I am not a team player. Apparently, I needed to temper my communication.”
“Men negotiate their roles all the time. Such men are called ‘driven’ and ‘focused’ and ‘go-getters’. But I personally experienced what happens when a woman tries the same. You are always either too meek or too aggressive. I don’t know any woman who has managed to hit that mythical sweet spot between the two.”
After her second baby, Seema consciously decided to stop pursuing anything at work. She came back from leave and just sat where she was told, and did what she was told. She has not received any negative feedback on it so far, but is waiting to be reminded that she has gone soft again.
Why can’t women take a compliment?
Usha graduated from a premier business school. In her first year itself, she was elected as a member of the prestigious Placement Committee. In fact, she was the first woman in 10-12 years to be elected for the role. It was a grueling job – one that demanded long hours, sleepless nights, and a lot of hard work, on top of the already heavily-loaded B-school curriculum. But, Usha says, she was proud to do it for her alma mater, and the role earned her a lot of respect from fellow students and faculty members alike.
Eight years after graduating, she came back to campus on behalf of her company to hire fresh talent. Walking out after her talk to the students, she ran into the Institute Director. He remembered her even after all these years, no doubt due to her work for the Placement Committee.
But when she greeted him, he responded, “Oh, you are back. As a showpiece, huh?”
“I could not sleep for a few nights after that. I always felt a strong sense of loyalty and pride for my institute and, even now, I was encouraging my firm to hire from my campus. But such a derogatory comment – from none other than the Director himself – hit me really hard. I had done nothing to deserve this objectification. Except being a woman.”
Why do women need raises when God has already gifted them sons?
Komal works in a global consulting firm. On resuming work after her maternity leave, she had worked extra hard to make sure she never gave anyone a chance to say that the added responsibility of a baby was hampering her performance in any way. She felt that she had had a good year by any measure.
However, when the annual performance review rolled around, she realized that the rating – and thereform salary hike – given to her was clearly not commensurate with her performance. Men who had performed far worse than her had got a higher rating and a bigger pay hike as a result.
Komal decided to take it up with her Manager. His response was, “You already got a beautiful gift this year – a son. Why do you need a raise too?”
“We think the world is changing”, she says, “But is it really?”
A woman as a boss? What sorcery is this?
Neeta is a Mechanical Engineer. Working in perhaps one of the most male-dominated professions, she has always found that she had to work extra hard to establish her legitimacy – not just to her bosses, but even to the people reporting to her.
“Men reporting to me would often flout direct instructions, ignore deadlines, refuse to do their work the way I told them to. It was even worse when I would visit the shop floor for inspections. Men would just stop working and openly stare at me from top to bottom. I was there to tell these people how to do their jobs – obviously, they did not like it that a woman was giving them orders.”
Eventually, she had to address the issue head-on. She told them, “The big bosses have chosen me for this role. So if you have a problem with my presence here, please take it up with them and get me removed. But until that happens, I am your boss and you will have to do as I say.”
Neeta is also the mother of two kids who are to be picked up from daycare everyday at 6pm sharp. She set clear boundaries for her team. No one was to call her after office hours unless there was an emergency. If they needed a meeting with her after 6pm, they would have to tell her two days in advance so she could work out an alternative arrangement to manage the kids.
“There is a culture in most organizations to reward sitting late at work, even when there is no reason to do it. Parkinson’s Law dictates that if you allow them the time, most people will drag out something they can finish by 6pm till 9pm. According to me, that is not hard work. It is simply being bad at your job. And I make sure my performance assessment of my team reflects my stance on working hours. This has actually made my team more efficient than other teams.”
Thanks to her undeniable competence and strong work ethic, the people working under her leadership developed high regard for her as a boss over time. To this day, she gets calls from some of them who have moved on to other roles, asking if there is any vacancy in her team which they could come back and fill. They say that after seeing how most other bosses operate, they have realized what a professional and efficient boss Neeta was and miss working for her.
“But it has taken me a number of unnecessary years of putting up with unprofessional behaviour to gain this legitimacy and credibility as a leader – something they would accord to a far less competent male boss without a second’s thought.”
“I remember, a few years after I became their Project Manager, someone from the shop floor jokingly told me, ‘Madam, everyone here is very scared of you.’ So if you don’t do a good job, they will say, ‘She is a woman, of course she is incapable of leading us.’ And if you do a good job, then you are ‘the scary madam’. There is just no winning if you are a woman.”
Recommendation of the Week
Ladies log, Sarah Cooper’s brilliant book ‘How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings’ will make you laugh-cry because everything in it is so hilariously and painfully true. Gents log, if you read this book… write to me and I will send you a medal.
Back to you, Section Officer uncle.
To answer your question – yes, women can do not just jobs that are “good for women” but pretty much every job there is. The only thing we cannot seem to crack is how to do them without being labeled too bossy, too meek, too feminine, too masculine, too loud, too soft, too opinionated, too voiceless, too arrogant, too shy, too outgoing, too homely, too much of a dictator, or too much of a doormat.
Let me know if you come up with any advice for us on your next chai-sutta break. We will be at our desks, doubling down to finish our work on time so we can pick up our kids from daycare afterward. Feel free to pointedly look at the clock as we pack our bags for the day.
And while you are working late into the night to finish the same amount of work that we completed hours ago, do not forget to shake your head sadly at how women are just not committed enough to their jobs.
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