Which moron decided that a pregnant working woman cannot rise to heights at work? It is time this discrimination at work stopped.
Here is the second winner of our July 2016 Muse of the Month contest, Vanaja Shankar.
The cue was: “Dreams have a strange beauty, no matter how terrible.” – ― Samhita Arni, The Missing Queen
Divya shot up the hill taking long strides. She enjoyed the run, her athletic body tingling with the exercise. She jumped from a rock to a higher rock and landed perfectly like a gymnast. She looked around in wonder at the beautiful picture painted by nature. The sky in various hues of blue, purple and orange; the clouds playing hide and seek with the sun; the trees, shrubs and plants in the valley sporting a fresh green look washed by the rains. She looked down to see her deputy Anjali scrambling up, puffing and panting while their colleague Arvind ambled along taking photographs.
Divya extended her hand to Anjali.
“Just jump Anjali. Come on.”
Anjali took a hesitant step forward.
“Ammaaaa” She screamed as she missed and fell.
Divya found herself plunging down towards the valley.
She felt dizzy as she saw the rocks and trees below. She had a vague sense of Arvind just watching them fall.
She could see the lake at a distance, a few people by the lake side looking up, pointing fingers. Her body was stiff, her hands clenched in fear.
She felt rain drops on her face refreshing her.
She took a deep breath and spread her hands. The next moment she was flying.
She flew at a slow pace, balancing her light body with her hands. She sighted Anjali to her right going down fast.
Could she save her? She had to.
Divya took a deep breath, maneuvered with her outstretched hands and flew towards her friend. She scooped Anjali up with her right hand, her left hand held up for balance.
She was filled with exhilaration as she soared in the sky.
Divya woke up with a start. She sat on her bed, her eyes still closed, the dream vivid in her memory. She had a feeling that she had consciously intervened to convert the fall into a flight.
The aroma of coffee wafted from the kitchen. Her mom was up. Divya looked out of her bedroom window and watched the rain pouring, making an incessant pitter-patter on the sloping window sill. The leaves of coconut trees danced in the rain. The grass in the garden was green and fresh – the same well washed look! “What a strange dream”, Divya wondered as she got ready for office.
Divya was the branch head of a Bank. She was a confident young woman of 29, fiercely independent, passionate about her work. This year was her best, she had taken her branch to the top position in the region, setting a scorching pace for other branches.
She was in an upbeat mood at office. The dream replayed in her mind. She wondered why Arvind seemed so distant in her dream.
Arvind was her sales manager, a smart guy who could charm any customer into giving business.
Arvind had charmed his way into Divya’s heart as well. At present they were good friends. She knew in her heart that it was much more. She smiled at the thought of their first meeting.
Divya was checking the branch reports at 8.30 in the morning. She liked to spend the first half hour calmly, planning for the day. The branch started at nine.
A curly haired young man walked into her cabin with an impish smile on his face.
“Wow, I am so honoured to work for such a beautiful lady.”
Divya looked up flabbergasted. She was serious about her job leading a team of twenty bankers. No one had spoken to her lightly like this.
“I am Arvind. I am joining here today as the sales manager.” He sat down across the table.
“I am happy to be here.” He smiled. The cute dimple on his face was hard to miss, his enthusiasm contagious.
Divya smiled. “Welcome. Tell me a little more about yourself Arvind, your interests, strengths…”
“I call myself an artist.”
“Oh wow. Do you paint? Or music?”
“Oh no. I appreciate and practice the fine art of sleeping.”
Divya laughed out aloud. It felt so good to laugh. And that is how she grew to like Arvind. He made her laugh, relax and see things in a lighter perspective. She was very good at planning; he was good at execution. He drove business growth in the branch, pursued a wish list of customers with passion, took her along to clinch tough deals.
She looked up on hearing footsteps.
Anjali walked in to her cabin looking flustered. Anjali was her deputy in charge of operations. Efficient. Reliable. Her back bone.
“Divya, I…” she was breathless. Her face was red.
“Please sit down Anjali. Would you like some water? Or tea?”
“Thanks.” Anjali drank the water.
“Divya, I am pregnant. Just got the confirmation last evening. Two months.”
“Congratulations” Divya held Anjali’s hands warmly.
The quiet moment was disturbed by a loud exclamation.
“Wow! This calls for a special treat!” Arvind had entered the cabin.
Anjali looked embarrassed.
Divya was surprised. “Why was Arvind so happy?”
He was not very close to Anjali. They often had arguments about documentation for opening accounts. Anjali insisted on strict compliance while Arvind wanted waiver or bending of rules for special customers. Sometimes she wondered whether Arvind did it on purpose to irritate Anjali.
Her mind was going back to the dream again, Arvind’s reaction to their fall. She was jolted out of her thoughts by a ping on her mobile. There was a performance review meeting at regional office the next day.
Divya prepared her presentation and invited the two to discuss and debate.
That night she googled ‘dreams’ and found interesting insights.
“Lucid dreaming is when you are conscious at some level and intervene to change the course of events. Dreams may also prepare you for solving a real problem.”
“Dreams have a strange beauty no matter how terrible” she mused.
Next day, Divya walked into the conference room, attired in smart navy blue trousers, off white shirt and stylishly cut navy blue suit. She was the first to enter at 9 a.m. She sat quietly, flipping through business magazines stacked on the side desk. The Regional Head walked in and had a few words of praise for her contribution to the region. She felt elated.
At 9.45 am, the branch managers started arriving one by one. There was lot of noise, chatting, slapping each other on the back, shaking hands and a polite greeting for Divya, the only woman in the room. Divya had been promoted as branch head only that year and this was her first meeting. Two young managers from the HR team sat just opposite to her. Divya wondered if they were straight from college – must be their first meeting too. Divya smiled at them.
Their eyes lit up as they smiled broadly at her.
Divya was the first to present her branch performance. Her voice was clear and confident. Her slides were rich in visuals, data and stories. She could feel the envy of her colleagues as the Regional Head appreciated every slide, and clapped at the end. They joined in the clapping reluctantly, their body stiff, their eyes looking away.
Divya relaxed a little as other branch heads started presenting. The Regional Head’s secretary came in at regular intervals to arrange for supply of refreshments – tea, biscuits, snacks and lunch.
She whispered to Divya during lunch. “Feel so proud of you.”
After lunch they started discussing the performance rating for individual employees. It was a marathon meeting that went on till 8 pm in the night. The effect of the air conditioner was nullified by the heated arguments of fifteen branch managers in the room.
Divya was able to argue for good ratings for her team members based on her branch performance. She was confident when the name of Anjali came up for rating and promotion. There was no other manager half as good.
It was then they got together to strike a blow against her.
“Anjali may be good but she would be going on maternity leave soon. She can’t take up higher responsibilities. So it is a waste to give her promotion.”
“She would take six months to come back.”
“I have an officer in my branch who came back last month from maternity leave. Every other day she wants to go home early as her child is sick.”
Divya was wild with fury. “How disgusting, demeaning these people could get?”
Her body was shaking as she replied, “It is unfair to deny Anjali her rating and promotion when she has done so well and contributed to branch performance.”
A nasal voice interrupted “But it is of no use to her. She needs rest. We can probably give her a promotion when she comes back next year.”
Divya bristled. “Next year! You would be saying she was on leave for four months. She would have to compete with her juniors. She will lose interest in her job and quit. This year she has given her best performance. She deserves the promotion. She will anyway be working for another seven months”
Another warrior butted in. “You want promotion for your team member. Why not put up the name of Arvind? He is also a good performer.”
There were murmurs of assent.
Divya held up her hand. “This is about Anjali.”
A sly remark cut through “anyway you should be more interested in his promotion.”
Some of them laughed.
Divya closed her eyes. Her dream replayed in her mind. This was it. She and Anjali falling down. Arvind looking on. People from the lake side looking on. She breathed deeply. Anger will not help.
She will rise up with balance, manoeuvre, confidence.
She ignored their taunts and turned to the HR Managers. “I did not expect such senior managers to express “sexist remarks” about a colleague. Don’t you have a policy against gender bias and discrimination?”
One of the HR Managers jumped to her rescue. “You are right. We cannot deny performance rating and promotion to a woman on the reasons of her getting married or going for maternity leave.”
Divya smiled and turned to the group, “What do you all recommend? That women employees interested in a career should not get married? Should not give birth to children? Or women should not come to work at all?”
The other HR manager spoke up “We need women employees at every level in the organisation. Women bring in a different perspective, a balance in the decision making process. That is why SEBI insists on every listed company having a woman in the board of directors.”
There was a feeble reply from a warrior, not ready to give up. “We are talking in the interests of the organisation about getting maximum productivity from employees.”
Divya smiled. She pulled out a business magazine that she had read in the morning and held it up high for everyone to see the cover.
“The MD and CEO of this organisation is among the top 50 powerful women in the world. “
She flipped the pages to get to the detailed story.
“Here is the timeline of her career progression. The year that she got married, she has got promoted. She has given birth to two children in the next four years. She has got a promotion every two years without missing a turn; taking the organisation to great heights with her exemplary vision and leadership skills. Who says a woman cannot be productive because she is married or has got children?”
She threw the magazine on the table and sat down.
What could they say?
The Regional Head spoke. “Well-said Divya. Friends, we will keep gender bias out of our performance appraisal. However, we have to continue to be sensitive to the needs of our employees and support them. Shall we break for dinner and come back to complete the process?”
“You were so confident.” A branch manager shook her hand.
“I rehearse in my dreams.” She smiled.
Vanaja Shankar wins a Rs 250 Flipkart voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the 10 top winners at the end of 2016. Congratulations!
Image source: Shutterstock.