The big blind spot of the professional world
Gather round, children. Today I will tell you the origin story of this newsletter.
The idea for Womaning in India – along with that brilliant title, if I may say so myself – walked into my head about three years ago as a book idea. As our planet covered three full revolutions around the Sun, this idea simply sat in my head – all dressed up with nowhere to go. And that is where, sadly, most good ideas die – in our heads, where they are born. Most of us do nothing with our ideas, and I was no different.
Until one conversation changed everything. Amit Varma hosts The Seen and The Unseen – quite possibly the best podcast in the country right now – and also teaches a writing class, which I attended and highly recommend (because it is called the Art of Clear Writing and God knows we as a country need to write clearer).
But it was a short conversation I had with him after the course was over that changed my life. I told him the “good idea” which was rotting away in my head. He loved the idea and immediately said, “Why a book? Why don’t you start writing this as a newsletter so you at least start writing?”
And so it began. I dilly-dallied on launching the newsletter for about two months. And then, on my birthday last year, I pushed myself into the deep end. Ready or not, sink or swim, I just jumped. And what do you know – I am still swimming, and not half-badly at that (apologies for the adverb, Amit).
That is the power of mentorship.
A good mentor can take you out of a funk. A good mentor can give you the nudge you need to get going. A good mentor can help you think bigger than you ever dared to, and inspire you to open doors you would never have imagined knocking on. In a competitive work environment, a mentor can be a source of invaluable advice and networking.
Especially in the case of women, a good mentor can help us get out of our own way with our imposter syndromes.
But do women have as much access to mentors as our male colleagues?
LinkedIn recently did a study and found this:
“We found two different surveys that confirmed that, in fact, men are more likely to get workplace guidance than women. They’re more likely to have a mentor. They’re more likely to be asked to be a mentor. They’re more likely to have asked someone to be a mentor.”
– Nicole Williams, LinkedIn, during an NPR News interview
To find out why this could be, I spoke with some women about the kind of mentors they have had (or not had) in their careers so far.
First, there are the obvious creeps.
When Poorva was an engineering student, there was a Professor in her college who used to keep an eye out for female students. Since there were so few of them, he would memorize their roll numbers. Viva tests were taken in teams of two lab partners. Typically, a viva test would take no more than 5mins per team. However, Poorva recalls, that the Prof would single out her team and make them sit with him for 30-45mins each time.
“My lab partner used to curse his luck that his roll number was next to mine. It was clear that the Professor spent an inordinate time testing female students, asking us questions that were often not even remotely related to the subject we were being tested on. He used to clearly enjoy our discomfort and use the time to stare at us. Even in the most conservative clothing, he could make you feel exposed.”
Male students in Poorva’s batch enjoyed guidance and mentorship from this Professor. Meanwhile, female students were more focused on minimizing time spent in his vicinity.
Then, there are the creeps who hide it better.
Recently, Ankita, an entrepreneur, started following a ‘thought leader’ from her sector on Twitter. He is a very well-recognized influencer in the Indian industry, and she was surprised to find a DM from him one day.
“He had sent me some messages that seemed to be for someone else. I told him that he had probably sent them to me by mistake. He said ‘ok’ and later asked me to tell him more about my company.”
Ankita’s work had made her realize the value of good mentorship, good advice, good networks and she had seen, first hand, the kind of transformative impact it had had on the careers of some of her male counterparts.
“One of the things I have always missed is having a mentor in my area of work. I find that men find it a lot easier to find mentors. Women miss out on the faster learning curve and access to better opportunities that mentorship gives you.”
Ankita described her work to this influencer and he said he wanted to hear more. She was eager to learn from him and felt encouraged by his interest in her work.
“Our interactions were purely professional up to this point. He offered to meet up and help me with my startup. We agreed to catch up the next time he happened to be in my city.”
Ankita’s sixth sense first started prickling when he began complimenting her personality with no context whatsoever. At first, she brushed it aside as random words of encouragement.
And then, late one night, she got this message from him: “Ankita, how long are your hair?”
“It completely freaked me out. Why would he send me such a message? On the scale of creepy messages men send women, it probably wasn’t much but it showed his intent to take this in another direction. Just because I had exchanged a few messages with him, he felt it was okay to take liberties? How dare he! I stopped responding and unfollowed him immediately.”
Even though she unfollowed him, Ankita would still see other people tagging him in tweets, retweeting his tweets, praising his work, and showering acclaim on him.
“I saw him getting all the legitimacy and respect that a credible person should get. It gave me a taste of how the victims of sexual harrassment must feel when they see the perpetrators getting respect and validation from society. Women’s experiences clearly don’t count for much.”
The whole experience has taught Ankita a bitter lesson.
“I cannot get over the fact that this is why men get access to the best of mentoring in the industry, while women are left struggling on the sidelines. As long as male mentors cannot stop looking at female mentees with a sexual lens, women will continue to have to work ten times as hard for the same accomplishments as their male counterparts.”
And then, there are the ‘father’ figures.
Swapna runs her own consulting firm. She has had a peculiar experience every time her firm takes on a new client led by a man.
“Men I meet professionally seem very eager to put me in a relationship box. Older men will tell me I am ‘like their daughter’, while younger men want to call me ‘their sister’. I usually grin and bear it, but it is difficult to have a professional relationship that way.”
Some men will take this imagined relationship too seriously.
“They start acting as if it is their job to take care of me or protect me. They also start sharing personal stories, family information, etc. because now that they have bracketed me into a personal relationship, they feel it is acceptable to do this. It is very difficult to do business like this. At the same time, I can’t risk losing business by telling them to draw a professional line.”
Before starting her own business, Swapna worked under a boss who used to call her ‘his daughter’ and it became a kind of anti-mentorship.
“He protected me excessively. He would not throw me into professionally challenging situations. When I joined work post-maternity, he started giving me very little work because he decided without consulting me that that was what I needed. I had to really keep asking for more challenging work. After a point, it felt like growing under the shade of a banyan tree. Even when I wanted to move on to start up my own business, he took it to heart, as if I was breaking a personal relationship.”
“I don’t see this happening to any men in my field of work. Even when they are a son’s age, or a brother’s age, their relationships are kept professional. I don’t understand why men feel the need to define a professional relationship with a woman as a personal one. Even when the label you put on us is that of a sister or a daughter, it shows that you don’t know how to deal with a woman professionally without the cover of that personal label.
And that is deeply troubling.”
Father figures also come with serious ‘Sanskaari Bharatiya Naari’ expectations of women
Latika was among the rare women fortunate enough to have found a mentor early in her career. He was a very senior, very competent professional, and she was known as his blue-eyed girl in the organization.
“He taught me a lot. How to plan things, how to deliver, how to improve my knowledge, how to deal with people. He was open to my ideas. He let me take risks and do really creative work that helped both me and the team grow.”
The only catch was that he had very specific ideas of what an ‘Indian woman’ should be and act like. Which, as most actual Indian women know, is inevitably too high a standard for anyone to meet. Latika was no exception.
“I was having some family trouble at that time. My husband and I were considering moving out of his parents’ house. Since my boss had built our equation as close confidantes, I told him about this. He said he did not approve of me moving out of my in-laws’ home.”
Eventually, things came to a head, and Latika and her husband made a choice to go ahead and move out.
“When I came back after the move, his entire attitude towards me changed. He wasn’t as accessible anymore.”
Meanwhile, Latika was having more problems on the personal front. She found out that she was being stalked. She was having sleepless nights over it and mentioned this to her boss as well.
“He thought that the stalking was a result of my life choices – because of not living like a good Indian woman. Next thing I know, he changed my reporting to one of his juniors. He even went to the extent of putting me in a Performance Improvement Plan, saying my performance was not up to the mark. And that was the end of my mentorship with him.”
Years later, Latika confronted him about how he had jeopardized her career because of his personal biases.
“He accepted that it was unfair of him to let his judgment of my personal life affect my professional life adversely. He tried to make amends professionally, but it was too late for our mentor-mentee relationship by then. I have since worked with some great women bosses, and a very chilled out male boss who was a European.
But I don’t think I will ever trust an Indian man as a mentor again.”
When women have the audacity to mentor men
Rituja is an engineer who was once on-track to become a subject matter expert (SME) in her field. Her company had a Mentorship Program as well. But the mentor she was assigned underestimated her capabilities from the get-go.
“It was clear that he had come in with a lot of bias long before he even met me. At first, he tried to babysit me with rudimentary tasks. When I protested, he suddenly raised the bar to NASA-level tasks that no one in the organization could do – just to prove to me that I deserved the babysitting. Men who had mentored under him were all praise, but I my self-confidence was so badly shattered that I gave up on becoming an SME altogether. I went into People Management instead and, thankfully, I like the field and am doing well in it.”
“But now that I am quite senior in the firm, I realise that we have absolutely no women in the SME group. This is even scarier, because it shows that this experience was not unique to me.”
This spells disaster for all women engineers in the company.
“Women who are not good in people management will eventually drop out altogether. There is simply no path left for them on the technical side beyond a certain point due to these barriers.”
Rituja has, in fact, faced bias not just as a mentee but even as a mentor.
“I was once asked to mentor a junior male engineer working in my field. During my first meeting with him, he asked me a lot of probing questions about my past work. At first, I thought he was simply interested in the work. But pretty soon, his questions started taking and interrogative tone, as if he was expecting me to prove to him that I was worthy of being his mentor.”
“At one point, I stepped back and asked him, ‘Are you interviewing me right now?’ He said ‘I am still trying to figure out what value you can add to me.’ In my 15 years of experience, I have never heard of a male mentor being spoken to like this by a prospective mentee.”
It did not get better.
“With time, he continued to be insubordinate. When he failed to complete tasks assigned to him by me twice in a row, I told him ‘What do you think your performance review would look like if you displayed this behaviour in your regular work?’ He went to HR and told them to change his mentor.”
There are many more reasons for the near-absolute absence of mentors for women in addition to the ones illustrated by these stories.
For one, women themselves are afraid of asking for mentors – especially male mentors – because of the perceptions associated. We all know how a woman who has a close working relationship with a senior male is seen. When she is promoted, it is called “sleeping her way to the top”. Heck, many women who don’t have such a relationship are still spoken about this way when they succeed at work.
This discourages both – women mentees and their prospective male mentors.
And then there is the unseen side of the workplace – the home. Men have more time to engage as mentors and mentees in addition to work because they have a woman taking care of their home for them. Women, who enjoy no such luxury, have to choose between having a coffee after work with a mentor and making it home in time to cook dinner and put the kids to bed. Not much of a choice there.
Here are my two cents on what can help. A whole bunch of people need to do their part here.
- Companies need to focus on mentorship programs for women that really work for women employees, and not just tick a diversity box for HR.
- Mentors need to make a special effort to find willing and worthy female mentees. (Not being a creep, or a dad they don’t need, or a biased confidence-killer goes without saying, I hope.)
- Husbands need to encourage and support wives in finding a mentor to help them truly realize their potential at work.
And lastly, my fellow women professionals – as hard as we try to convince ourselves that having a mentor is just icing on the cake of our hard work, this ‘icing’ is often the difference between those who make it and those who don’t when it comes to professional success.
Let us remember to ask to be mentored at work. Worst case, it will make some creepy people uncomfortable.
And that is a perk of its own.
Time for a housekeeping announcement: Womaning in India now has some new homes on social media. Big thanks to my wonderful friend, Malavika Datar, for putting in some serious pro-bono woman-hours!
Subscribe here to get future editions of the newsletter directly to your inbox every week: https://womaning.substack.com/