Thanks To My Mentor, I Stopped Being A Doormat Pushed Around By Men In The Team!

When the meeting concluded and we got up to leave, Arpit whispered, “of course, a lady boss would give the prime job to another woman!”

2021

“Are you OK? Do you need help?”

I looked up, startled. The voice belonged to a middle-aged woman in a business suit. She stared at me, concerned. I shook my head, while furiously blinking my tears away. She didn’t seem convinced but had the courtesy to respect my privacy and leave me alone.

Just a while ago, I had come out of an appraisal meeting with my boss, Ravi. Despite putting my heart and soul into the job, he gave me a performance rating of three on five. A three implied that I was average, only delivering what was expected, not over and above.

Was I indeed only average?

“Shahana, you have no visibility. Try to take initiative to be ‘heard’ more,” Ravi had suggested.

What did he mean? Did he miss the part where I was sidelined by a testosterone-loaded team?

I was the sole woman working with five men in a financial projects role. Despite slogging late hours and completing whatever was thrown my way, I was never assigned a project challenging enough to catapult me to stardom. The good stuff was allocated to the other team members because numbers were still considered a boy’s game. The routine and repetitive reports were reserved for me.

Sometimes they treated me like I didn’t exist.

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Once, I mustered the courage to question Ravi. Why couldn’t I lead a project for a change?

“It involves long hours. You will have trouble staying back.”

A simple dismissal. In it, a hidden accusation. 

I usually didn’t join in the monthly networking events that involved partying after work-hours, my key concern being the long commute home afterward. For the odd team building I attended, the men competed to entertain me with cringeworthy misogynistic jokes. I’d put on a weak smile for their benefit, while my soul squirmed silently.

There should be a special place in hell for those who create such memes in the first place. 

To add to my woes, Ravi had recently informed us that he was moving out of the team soon. He wasn’t a good boss, but in corporate, a known enemy is better than an unknown friend. 

I wiped my tears of disappointment and scurried towards my desk; a mountain-load of work awaited me. My colleagues were discussing their ratings. Mohan, whose expertise involved recycling ideas and passing them off as his own, had secured a four on five. So had Arpit, who took it upon himself to explain things, even when I didn’t ask him to.

Shahana, let me explain how this works…”

Accounting. Taking printouts. Operating the coffee machine. Explanations I didn’t need.

Was condescending his middle name?

“Let’s go to the conference room. Team meeting!”

Ravi was there in the room already, oblivious to the turmoil he had subjected me to, an hour ago.

“Shahana, please jot down the minutes of the meeting.”

I switched on my laptop and started typing. I was the designated minute-taker for every meeting in the past two years.

A job that was of no value-add but was delegated to me anyways.

“Team! I want to use this opportunity to introduce my successor,” Ravi announced, as a lady walked in.

I stared at the new arrival in shock. It was the woman who had seen me cry!

“Hi, Team! I’m Sarita!” she exclaimed cheerfully.

This day just kept getting worse.

Sarita introduced herself. She was from an academic background, recently shifting to the industry side for a short stint to diversify her experience.

With her addition, the female representation in our team had increased by one hundred percent.

***

In the first few weeks itself, I realized that Sarita was different from a lot of managers I knew. However, I kept my hopes low.

What impact could one woman have? She wasn’t going to be around long enough to change things.

Today, we were in yet another meeting, and I took out my laptop to take notes.

“Shahana, didn’t you take minutes the last time? Mohan, this time can you do it?” Sarita asked pleasantly.

“But Sarita, Shahana always takes notes!” Mohan protested.

“All the more reason for someone else to take it up, don’t you think?”

Wow! Was it that easy?

“Team, I want ideas for a new cost model for our client.”

Arpit proposed a model and walked up to the whiteboard to explain it.

“Sarita, I found an industry white paper written by the eminent Dr. S. Sharma on the internet.” 

He took us through the model, liberally adding in many fancy technical words which I doubted were correct. Sarita looked amused.

“I don’t think this model will work in this situation!” she said.

“But Dr. S. Sharma says otherwise! I’ll explain it to you again, in case I wasn’t clear the first time,” Arpit persisted.

“Let me save us both the time. The ‘Dr. S. Sharma’ you are quoting is Dr. Sarita Sharma. Me. I wrote this paper that you just took us through. And no, for this particular case, it won’t work. Check the table of exceptions in annexure 2b.”

Arpit’s face turned red. He hadn’t seen that punch coming, not by a mile.

I tried to stifle my laughter. If I was ever going to be a leader one day, I wanted to be like Sarita.

Calm. Assertive. Effective.

After the meeting, I ran up to her.

“Sarita, will you mentor me?”

“I’d love to!”

***

We caught up over lunch the next day, which was usually a lonely affair because I brought my box from home, while the others headed out.

“What are your expectations from mentoring?” Sarita inquired.

“I’ve been told that I am not proactive enough. I want to know how to do better.”

“Have you ever been mentored before?”

“Yes. I’d pencil in a slot in my mentor’s calendars, and they would cancel at the last minute. Even if they did spare the time, they resorted to imparting only generic advice.”

“Shahana you are a good worker. When I give you a task, you complete it to perfection. But you never speak up. Why?”

“I believe my work should speak for itself.”

“Work doesn’t have a voice. You do. And many a time, a woman’s voice is drowned in the din.”

“It’s frustrating when other team members explain my work back to me.”

“It’s called Mansplaining. A word coined by writer Rebecca Solnit when a man tried to explain a book to her. The irony? The book was written by her.”

That sounded familiar.

“How do you deal with it?”

“Every time anyone tries to be patronizing, turn them down with authority. If you have worked on something you are proud of, you should own it. Academia isn’t very different either. But I was lucky to have some strong women guide me. If you ever feel you aren’t being treated fairly, you need to speak up.”

“I’m never assigned the big projects in the team. I do have the expertise though.”

“Have you spoken to HR about it?’

“What good would that do? Things could get ugly, and I would be labelled a spoilsport.”

“You remind me of my younger self at the start of my career. The bias in this team seems to have affected your confidence. Let me help you regain it.”

I looked at her curiously.

“Looks like it’s time to shake things up.”

A Month Later

“The new Galway project is huge in terms of revenue,” Sarita announced.

Arpit raised his hand. “I can work on it.”

“Arpit, I’m assigning this to Shahana. She has the relevant experience in this area.”

“Does she have the bandwidth to work on it?” he asked with fake sympathy.

“I do! I’d love to take this up!” I asserted.

If Sarita had taught me anything, it was to speak up, and speak up like I owned it.

“Shahana, I’m not sure if you understand the kind of commitment needed,” Mohan began.

“I do, and that’s why I am confident of delivering. I appreciate your concern and will reach out to you if I need help.”

My team stared at me, astonished, with an obvious question written on their faces.

Where was the old-Shahana and what had I done with her?

When the meeting concluded and we got up to leave, Arpit whispered, “of course, a lady boss would give the prime job to another woman!”

Unfortunately for him, he was a tad too loud. Sarita heard him.

“Arpit, can you stay back? I understand you have concerns. Let’s discuss in private,” she said in a no-nonsense tone. 

We weren’t privy to their discussion, but when Arpit emerged from the room minutes later, he looked shamefaced and wouldn’t meet my eye. 

He wasn’t going to be passing snide remarks, anytime soon.

Today was a new beginning. Thanks to my mentor’s words of encouragement, I was growing as a person, and emerging out of the shell of self-doubt that had encompassed me.

10 months later, Project Galway

Sarita, Mohan, and I were visiting the client’s office, to present the final proposal, the one I had slogged for months on. It hadn’t been easy, but my mentor refused to give up on me, and I pulled through.

I was amazed at how far I had come.

My hard work had led me to this day. My make-or-break moment. To say I was nervous, was an understatement.

Sarita exchanged pleasantries with the client-side manager, while Mohan and I set up. I took out my pen-drive that stored my hundred-slide PowerPoint deck and loaded it. Clearing my throat, I began.

“Err. There is nothing on the screen,” Mohan pointed out.

I panicked and clicked random keys.

Nada. Zilch.

Despite many frantic interventions, it was clear that my slides could not be retrieved. Technology had failed me.

This had never happened before. Why now?

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mohan smirking as if my failure delighted him.

“Should we reschedule for another day? It may impact timelines, though,” the client said.

“I don’t need the slides. I can use the whiteboard instead,” I announced.

After all, I knew the content like the back of my hand.

I looked at Sarita, and she smiled reassuringly. The client looked unsure but allowed me to proceed.

At first, I fumbled, but slowly words formed coherent sentences, and sentences formed a structured flow. Our client kept asking questions which I answered with ease, and Sarita chipped in when required. The smirk seemed to have vanished from Mohan’s face.

Perhaps, I was doing OK. Maybe better than OK? Yes, I was doing good.

The client informed us he was impressed with my subject matter knowledge and was happy to go ahead with our proposal.

Words I’d replay in my head forever.

Leaving Sarita to finalize the contract, I stepped out of the room proudly.

I had closed this deal. Perhaps, I wasn’t ‘just average’, after all. 

The butterfly had finally emerged from its chrysalis. And this, I owed to my mentor.

2022, Appraisal Discussion

“Congratulations! Your tremendous work on the Galway Project has ensured that you are a five-rater this year!” Sarita exclaimed.

Five. Stupendously good.

“You helped me!” I gushed.

“No. It’s all you, Shahana! You stepped up, and how.”

“Next year, I hope to be even better!”

“Shahana, my stint ends this year. Then, back to academia.”

“Sarita, how will I manage without you?”

“You are a different person now. You’ll thrive!”

True. I was no longer a doormat. Nowadays, I was ‘heard’.

“I can still mentor you over Zoom.”

I nodded, gratefully. I’d miss Sarita for sure.

I left the meeting with a heavy heart. Walking down the corridor, I noticed a girl cowering in the corner. It was déjà vu; I was reminded of myself from a year ago.

Another lost soul in need of mentoring. Only this time, I had something to offer.

I walked up to her, and asked,

“Are you OK? Do you need help?”

Editor’s Note: For IWD 2023, we’re publishing #MentoringStories in both fiction and non-fiction, for the IWD2023 theme #EmbraceEquity. This fiction piece is one of the winners. See all mentoring stories here.

Image source: shutterstock

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About the Author

Lalitha Ramanathan

Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is her way to unwind! Her little one is the center of her Universe. read more...

54 Posts | 74,507 Views

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