Sometime recent, Pre-covid times.
It’ is 6.15 pm, Friday, and Vidya is just finishing off her day at work. Her colleagues were toying with a catch up after work at a pub near the office. It was quite a while since she had hung ‘around with the boys. Already she had 2-3 messages in her WhatsApp, asking if she would join.
She had mixed feelings: she wanted to go and catch up on the grapevine, and to connect and build relationships. She had experienced some level of backstabbing and sabotage of her work and she was keen to use this opportunity to improve her membership in the team. There was one unpleasant colleague that she was keen to iron out differences and improve cordial relationships. It was quite likely, this ‘adda’ (hangout session) would become a whining and moaning session, but so what, thought Vidya, it was good occasionally to gossip, and let off steam.
She knew that eventually the conversation would direct itself to Sitaram their common boss. Maybe she would learn a ‘few tricks’ on how best to manage him. Her relationship with him was formal, and he was very conscious when dealing with her. She just could not put her finger, on the issue. In any case, she needed to talk to her boss. She had two team members reporting to her, one permanent and another on contract staffing, and she was keen to get better resources to meet the demands of her work. She also wanted to sound him off to give her an alternative role: she felt she was stagnating and not learning as much as she should. No wonder the engagement scores in the company are so low, she thought, the job I am doing is just not challenging enough.
She was conscious that she would be the only woman at the ‘adda’ if she went, the other women had already declined. She felt uncomfortable being the only woman – she was wary of all the gossipers and troublemakers. One had to be home early and cited personal reasons. The second had an early flight the next day and said she would pass. Vidya always had a difficulty with participating. Her family assumed she would be home to have dinner with them, and her mother in law was disapproving. She recognised that despite having a career, she was a mother first a spouse next, a daughter in law. Everything else came after that. Her husband was returning from a trip and she would be expected to be home when he arrived. Narayan, her husband was understanding and often overprotective, which she liked and disliked simultaneously. He was also quite traditional in many ways, and she on her part, went along with traditional rituals and practices, even though her heart was not in it. Should I or should I not go, she had wondered casually through the day, but she chose not to decide, till the last minute. She knew she had to respond to the WhatsApp message. Wonder what excuse I should give, she thought.
It is so much easier for the men, she thought. They arrange these ‘get-together’ quite often. They seemed to spend so much time together, including in the ‘smoke breaks’ and seemed to have a strong male bond amongst themselves. They were things that came up, which had context in those situations, and Vidya would feel excluded, not fully understanding the context.
Vidya was a professional, and quite successful. She was from a tier 2 town and had arrived in the city to pursue her graduation and post-graduation. She had married a businessman. Initially, she had quite a challenge fitting in. They were too few women in the organisation, and most of them in clerical or secretarial roles. They were just a handful in ‘supervisory/leadership’ roles.
She found herself often being unheard or taken lightly. Interestingly there were times when she had said something in a meeting which was listened to, and not commented on, but a few minutes later, when a male voice echoed a similar thought, it seemed to get acknowledged by all around. Also, often a male voice had to step in to paraphrase what she had just said, and she found this process quite interesting. Did it need a male voice to validate what she had to say, to get accepted, she wondered? Vidya found herself at times, tending to align to a male authority figure and because that’s where she believed the authority is centred, and this itself often rebounded on her as it was viewed with suspicion.
She had been promoted twice in the last six years. She however felt disgruntled that her compensation was clearly below those of men who occupied similar roles. Once she had passed up a promotion, which she did not even consider, as it involved re-location to another city. The costs and re-adjustment to family would have made this unimaginable to even deliberate. She had taken an entire year off when Karan was born three years ago, and she felt that she had lost out on parity when she returned to work.
The company had exceptionally good employee policies which included working from home, flexible working hours, but she was careful about using these facilities although she so much wanted to optimize her usage. She was concerned about the perceptions if she used all of this, so did so sparingly and that too with reservations. Already there was much talk ‘behind her back’ that she was a clock watcher and would leave office on time each day. Painful as it was, she had to on many occasions shared with her colleagues that she was needed at home and could not stay back to finish the meeting. Meetings that included her were now scheduled in the afternoons, and it seemed like a favour to accommodate her.
The workload was quite overwhelming. It was difficult to manage time, what with so much of emails (she reckoned 20% of it was just not related with her work) meetings, discussions with co-workers, review with her boss. She just felt each day was like a ‘full on’ assault. They were always the pressure of meeting deadlines, and she felt that there was low tolerance for mistakes. So, she was often quite tentative, and had to keep confirming if what she was doing was correct. The past few years, with increased technology and software, everything was ‘self-help’ and she missed the human interactions of the past. The demand for service orientation was an all-time high. She had seen a few jobs lost as quite a bit of clerical roles were recently eliminated. However, she knew that the company was finding it difficult to fill in some vacancies of a few specialist roles. Some good talent was leaving too. She heard them share that working here was ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
Vidya wished there were more women in the organisation. She seemed to be standing out ‘being seen as having different needs’. Once she had sought mentorship from a senior woman leader. The meeting went well, but at one point, the mentor leant forward and said to her, ‘Vidya, as one woman to another……’ what followed was a story that ran as follows: I have busted my xxxx to get here, made sacrifices, worked just as hard, perhaps twice as hard, asked for no concessions, if that’s what you want, You will need to pay a price. Vidya was not sure if she wanted to pay the price. It seemed an over investment to work, rather than a balanced life. Women who have risen to the top, do not make good role models, Vidya thought to herself. They almost seem to be conveying, ‘if I could make these sacrifices, so should you, if that is what it takes’. So ironically, those that best could understand her, and her vulnerabilities are actually lesser inclined to support. I hope other women will find me more empathetic once I become more senior. She also wondered, if there was something in the way she interacted with her mother and father, and brothers was affecting how she saw other women and men at the workplace. She instinctively recognised that the issues she observed were not just her own personal struggles, but were of many other women as well on account of social codings, some even biological imperatives.
As she got into the lift, Vidya texted back on WhatsApp, offered an excuse for not showing up. By the time the lift door opened on the ground floor her mind was already preoccupied with a few things she had to take care at home. The week had been exhausting and she was so much looking forward to the weekend.
Do join in with your reflections on Challenges women face at the workplace.