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Corporate workplaces often have sessions of after hours ‘male bonding,’ the ones where women are rarely ‘allowed.’ Another glass ceiling for us to break?
Hurriedly masking her fatigue of having looked after a crying baby all night Neha Shashank*, 34, opened her laptop to show her boss project ideas she had developed. That’s when the CEO of the start-up she worked with, promptly told her, “Oh! Don’t bother. We’ve finalised the plans yesterday.”
Puzzled and confused, she wondered if she was hit with a bout of selected amnesia, she asked, “But when?”
“Yesterday over drinks with Nikhil,” the CEO said without batting an eyelid while waving her away.
Over the phone, she poured out her woes to me about yet another glass ceiling that Indian working women have to confront. That of the exclusively male parties that women do not have access to.
It is a strange catch-22 situation. On the one hand, major decisions about business, projects, networking and even promotions happen over late night drinks and socialising. Women, especially those from small towns or middle-class families are never invited to which hugely limits their chances of professional advancement.
At the same time, if the woman does go to these parties, and attempts to build a network, she is quickly labelled a harlot or even slut shamed. It is one of those corridors of soft power that is cordoned off by the boundaries of gender and class to marginal groups.
As I hung up, the social scientist in me counted the nodes of intersectional categories that overlapped and enmeshed each other in Neha’s case (and likewise in the professional lives of millions of Indian women) Meanwhile, the friend in me felt helpless as the canvass of discrimination against working women is often painted with invisible ink. Nor is it easy to render it visible, neither do we have laws or rules to curb it. One can only experience its jolts.
The exclusively male zones of the late night bars, dinner parties and bromances over Chiraz become a Platform 9¾ for men to take the Hogwarts Express to professional heights. Meanwhile women, like mere muggles have to pretend to be oblivious to the back channels of professional networking and deal-making.
It is these male exclusive platforms of privilege, the boys clubs of patriarchy that play a pertinent role in precluding women from positions of power. And it is a universe whose ontology is determined by the extents of the male comfort zone. One which prohibits or strictly controls the entry of women into it. If at all women are given access to it, it is under the guardianship or tutelage of wise men who always know better.
Let’s call this universe by the title of Malescape or a male landscape. Of course, the Malescape also regulates the entry of lower class and lower caste men. However, entry is granted if they prove they match up to the ‘macho’ parameters.
Personally, I was confronted with the malescape for the first time in my life when I entered college in South India. Here, I was introduced to the world of student politics for the first time. I was warmly welcomed into the party and soon became a hit as I was one of the few girls who took an active interest in party-based politics in the college.
While the dearth of girls in leadership positions perturbed me, I also had the privilege of being the only ‘girl among the guys.’
The situation was pathetic despite the college having a demographic of 70 percent girls vs 30 percent boys. And the party presidential candidate was clueless when I referred to him as ‘chairperson’ rather than chairman. He quickly ‘corrected’ me that he was running for the post of chairman and not vice-chairperson. This leads us to our second conundrum.
The vice-chairman/person (whatever!) post was always reserved for girls with a patronising nod to women’s representation in college union councils. Here the assumption was that the chairperson would always be a man.
I wonder, to this day, whether a boy would be allotted the vice chairperson post if the chairperson happens to be a girl. This is a practice which I have seen repeated even as I entered the adult world of corporate life and later that of academics.
Back to our topic of malescapes, in college, I would go for meetings where there would be heated debates on college-centred issues. They also included matters such as choice of candidates and strategies to win the college elections.
The meetings would be dispersed mostly without any resolution and the matter would be kept pending to be discussed in the next meeting. But come the next meeting, I would discover with chagrin that most decisions were already taken and issues resolved.
Here was my first encounter with the malescape. That of the men’s hostel where decisions were taken across mess counters, dining tables and hostel rooms over cigarettes or cups of tea without including any of us girls.
Did it not prescribe to the principles of democracy, yes it did! Most of the boys were there and who cares about the two or three girls who happened to come to the meetings! They were anyway only meant to be poster girls for the sake of representation!
I will not blame all men for excluding women from major decision-taking processes. It is patriarchy which births male exclusive places and binds blinders on people making invisible women’s choices and muffling their voices. Most of the men who I discussed the issue with, though much later in life agreed that this was indeed an exclusionary practice. However, they were unaware of while they were practising it. A few men and women used the excuse of ‘convenience’ rather than of conscious gender discrimination for the same.
Once I graduated and took up a job in a corporate company, I encountered multiple malescapes. These ranged from male washrooms to smoking halls to late night board meetings which women were ‘exempted’ from attending. The women were told it was for their convenience since reaching home early was a priority and made them seem highly considerate of women’s safety.
However, no such concern about women’s safety or women’s issues were addressed during the allocation of sites for promotional campaigns. Several female colleagues and workers were assigned less safe cities or remote areas inaccessible by public transport. Neither nursing mothers nor women with toddlers were spared and much to my surprise, none dared to complain.
Almost everyone was scared of losing their jobs or being sidelined for promotions. A female colleague even confided to me that she does not want to be thought of as being an inferior employee. She didn’t want tho be thought as the woman who refuses to go to a remote area for concerns of safety. My colleague feared that opportunities in future would not be given to her citing the same reason.
Perplexed as I was, I am equally confused about the decisions made in male exclusive spaces. After a board meetings, when the boss and his ‘guys’ go out for a drink or dinner, invitations are never offered to women.
If by accident or as a joke, an offer is made, the woman being sanskari as she is, is supposed to decline it. This is to be done for the fear of being ostracized by fellow female and male colleagues. And gender works in mysterious ways.
There were men who told me that they would not have an issue with inviting female colleagues to pubs or dinners. However, have not done so owing to the fear of being misunderstood by them. I also have had colleagues who would only socialise with men and occasionally only with married women. This was done ‘to avoid any chances of being prey to office rumours or a future sexual harassment case.’
A patriarchal twist to the #MeToo movement has been the widening of the malescape. More and more recruiters and companies are refusing to hire women to avoid sexual harassment suits. And this also extends to the choice of research assistants and consultants in the academia to avoid the close proximity of women and men.
It is as if the authorities have zero faith in men to keep themselves out of trouble! The breaking of centuries of silence on workplace harassment has been slyly dealt with a warning with the threat of non-hiring of vocal women and all women in general.
Similarly, the malescape of the office carpools was yet another wonder to me. I was used to school vans, college buses and cab-sharing with male friends throughout school and college life. Senior colleagues would categorically avoid offering lifts or sharing cars with female colleagues or subordinates and those my age would find excuses to do so.
With the availability of online taxis, the problem has been mitigated to a certain extent. As I sought out more accounts, stories kept tumbling in revealing the pervasiveness of the issue.
One of the most telling was a case by a senior female politician. She lamented her inability to reach the upper echelons of her organisation as often meetings were held in guest houses and hotels. If she visited them, she would lose her ‘good modest woman’ image which would spell the end of her political career. Her husband being stationed overseas and not involved in politics further added to the truncation of her dreams.
So, what is a malescape? It is any space where male exclusivity is maintained as the default setting. And the entry of women is either looked upon with amusement or scorn depending on the circumstance. These are also places where only male bonding of a non-homosexual kind are celebrated and reinforced. And this is where ‘real men’ discuss politics and play.
Till 1980s and for most of the 90s, pubs, and bars served as malescapes where all discussions were initiated, supported and challenged by men. There were always exceptions, women who were wives, girlfriends or lovers of the men involved could sometimes be present. However, I am not sure if daughters or sisters were ever present.
Of course, in many of these places women figured in the conversations as objects of desire or as the enigma which could not be solved. Today, even with an unprecedented number of women entering the workforce across the globe, the situation has not registered much of a change.
Another dimension to the malescape is that it breeds a culture where leisure becomes another avenue for work. Dinning and socialising is imbued with agenda from work. The warmth of human interactions substituted with a cocktail of fake laughs, ego boosts and unabashed flattery.
It is of course unpaid labour which directly generates extra-monetary rewards through which financial gains may flow in the course of time. It is one which safeguards and maintains privilege as a male preserve.
To cleave out a path for women into the male spaces and thus neutralise the exclusivity of the discriminatory zone is a difficult but necessary task. A task that can only be accomplished if office slut shaming comes to an end. This will happen with companies and organisations actively discouraging work being discussed in non- official settings.
Of course, this is a big ask and a distant dream at present. So the least that we can do is to acknowledge the barriers the vertical and horizontal barriers that women have to overcome to reach the top.
Picture credits: Still from Amazon Prime’s Four More Shots, Please
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Teacher and Traveller. History Enthusiast and in love with the diversity of culture. I teach
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