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The Tricky Issue Of Gender At Work

Posted: January 31, 2012

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Is gender equality a reality in Indian offices or can one percieve subtle differences? Should gender influence how we interact at the workplace?

By Chitra Iyer

The question is not so much as ‘should it’ because any rational mind will tell you that undoubtedly it should not. However, the truth is that at the workplace, as indeed in any other place or situation where men and women interact, gender often provides a subliminal framework for interaction. While gender-dynamics are a given across the world and the boundaries of ‘normal’ vary across societies; as a practicing woman professional in India I have found gender to be a more dominant influencer here than in other cultures.

Irrespective of what is legally and morally acceptable in the modern Indian corporate workplace today, how we actually behave is another story altogether – one that starts when we are very young and impressionable. How many of you find the below situations familiar?

How much is too much?

For example, we should ideally feel totally comfortable hanging out after work socializing and getting a drink with our team, back-slapping the men and cracking jokes as we would with friends. Unfortunately, the reality is that for an Indian woman – especially mid-career – drinking, smoking and staying out late is still described with various euphemisms: from the downright archaic ‘fast’ (fair game to hit on her, she is asking for it) to ‘empowered’ (does that mean women who don’t drink or smoke are not empowered?), ‘liberated’ (is that all it takes? Why didn’t someone tell me before!) etc. Plus, there is always the aspect of heading home to take care of dinner and the kids, being alienated from the team for not ‘joining in the fun’ etc. So you have to find a balance – be a part of it, but not too much!

Consider other situations; how much ‘sharing’ of personal information is appropriate? Should one show interest if a male colleague begins to share too many details of his marital problems with you? Should you be sympathetic, listen and provide suggestions on how to handle the wife (because you are woman), or should you back-off because you just don’t want to know too much? As a woman, too much sensitivity is bad; you are a softie. But stay aloof, and you are a cold-bitch. So you show interest, but not too much.

How much ‘glamour’ is OK? You know for a fact Renu down the hall just got promoted and it’s not because she looks like a model – she is actually extremely competent. Unfortunately, that’s not what you hear in the halls. It’s always jokes about her high heels or pencil skirts and how her boss must have a hard time resisting her demands. And even as you silently seethe within, you don’t want to pull up your male colleagues – because the last time you did that, you were called a feminist. Vanity is bad. Be feminine, but not too much.

…as woman professionals we are constantly looking over our shoulders and watching ourselves for any behaviour that may be interpreted as either too feminist or too feminine!

How much aggression is ok in meetings? Risk being run-over by your louder colleagues or being branded loud yourself? Fact is women need to be that much more visible and engaged to achieve the same level of acknowledgment that men feel normally entitled to. It’s a vicious cycle – to be noticed you have to deliberately make yourself more visible; and then you are labeled as visible because you are louder/ more aggressive (and not because you had a valid point). So speak your mind, but not too much or too often!

The fact is, as woman professionals we are constantly looking over our shoulders and watching ourselves for any behaviour that may be interpreted as either too feminist or too feminine!

A few questions to think about

Does the onus of doing away with gender-biased office dynamics fall only on us women? Does doing away with these differences or influences mean we need to act more like men or less like women? Do we expect men to act more like women? Obviously no extreme measures will help, as any human interaction (irrespective of sex) is fraught with grey areas and uncertainties. In fact, stereotyping by itself is not uncommon and may be too hard a target to erase – it’s only when the stereotyping makes judgments on one’s performance that one could step in and clear the air.

The irony is that female managers and senior women leaders have a great opportunity in today’s world to ‘normalize’ workplace interactions between the sexes. As Craig Storti says in his book Speaking of India, “The typical Indian subversion to hierarchy could mean that the manager-subordinate dynamic will overshadow the gender dynamic.”  Unfortunately, my experience has been that as women rise on the ladder, it seems as if they almost forget the gender aspect of workplace dynamics and do not leverage the opportunity their hierarchical position offers. As they become more ‘accepted’ into the big boys club at the top, you hear them say, ‘I never had any difficulty as a woman in the workplace; I never felt any biases; I never had to act differently around my male colleagues; all my male colleagues treated me exactly equal and normal’. As a woman professional struggling to not appear ‘too feminist or too feminine’, you can only shake your head in despair, but you also understand where it’s coming from.

…female managers and senior women leaders have a great opportunity in today’s world to ‘normalize’ workplace interactions between the sexes.

The trick is to strike a balance between being a woman and a professional without sounding feminist, de-feminizing’ oneself in order to ‘fit –in’ or oversimplifying the Indian reality.. In other words, the challenge is to be ourselves! And that brings us back to the million-dollar question – what is the right balance? Here, experience is the best way to learn and share – so if something has worked for you at your workplace, we would love to hear it!

*Photo credit: Martin

About The Author: Chitra Iyer is a former marketing executive, now independent business strategy consultant and executive coach, with a focus on women professionals and social entrepreneurs. She is passionate about books, travelling, and nature; and invests her time in soul-enriching activities like hanging out with girlfriends, eating great food and writing short stories.

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