Battle on or bail out?

WOMEN@WORK

Battle on or bail out?

Ask Human Resource executives of any major company for statistics on the number of women on their rolls, and you will get a healthy percentage. But ask them how many women are in top positions and the figure will become minuscule. Where did the women go? The glass ceiling was denounced by most women professionals interviewed by this writer, with a firm, ‘No, not in today’s world’. This is not about women juggling careers and homes; it is about women in the workplace. It is about sexist jokes, innuendos and insubordination that ‘women on top’ may have to face.

Or do they? As a male IT professional working in an MNC said (on condition of anonymity), most large companies have a ethics course, wherein employees are tutored about correct behaviour, which means no jokes about gender, race or sex.

“The thing is when a woman gets to a managerial position, then she is in the spotlight. If she’s tough and asserts herself, she is sure to be labelled by her male colleagues and subordinates. However, the same attitude in a male boss is tolerated with good-natured grumbling,” he says.

Janna Jones (29) used to love her job in the information technology industry when she was working in Washington DC, as a computer analyst. Her company worked on mostly large government contracts. 

“The firm was diverse, there was lots of mentoring, I never felt any discrimination, I felt very supported, especially as a young woman,” says Jones, who specialised in data mining. She used sophisticated software and wrote computer programs to search for patterns of fraud and abuse for government agencies, including the IRS and Medicare.
“I really thought this was going to be a career for me, because things were so positive,” she adds.

But a move to a company in the Midwest changed that. According to Jones, even if a woman was a team leader on a project, when the time came to meet with a client, she would be relegated to a secretarial role. “I could be giving a presentation and if people had questions they would look to the men in the room and never ask it directly of me,” she says.

When she asked her boss how to deal with this sexism, she was advised to, “play up” her femininity. “Make sure the men feel like they are smarter than you, then they will feel comfortable,” recalls Jones.

Initially, Jones thought that the negative attitude she was encountering here was a location thing. “I don’t know if it was the company or the geography, but I could hear and feel the hostility,” she recalls. However, she now knows her experience is not just related to location. “I have girlfriends in DC, all over who have endured similar things.”

Closer home, in the cockpit, still a bastion of men, the scenario is looking up for women pilots. Capt Indira V (name changed on request), a pilot with a reputed Indian carrier, speaks of a refreshing change in the work culture.

“When I joined the airline 10 years ago, the first woman pilot had already resigned after completing her tenure, so it was very clear that the work culture had no gender discrimination. Women (pilots) are cleared for all destinations and are treated equally. Some women have been offered the role of trainers as well, which I see as a definite career progression,” says Indira.

The travails of late hours and frequent travel are not much of an issue. For, the choice is exercised by the woman. “When you take up a job, it has to work for you. If the travel or the late hours bothers you, then don’t take up a job that makes such demands on you,” says Uma Shankar, Senior Vice President in a leading IT company.

According to her, women in senior positions take a longer time to get their bearings when they come into a company laterally. “When men come into a company laterally, they network faster using after-work jaunts. Women find it harder to find their buddy network,” says Uma. The backslapping bonhomie is still easier in a different work culture like it was for Uma when she worked in a bank in New York than it was when she joined an IT company in Gurgaon.

“In Delhi, driving back home late in the night is plain dangerous. Also, friendly banter can be misconstrued in the existing social milieu,” she says. “As a manager, I have been told by my team members who have left the company for better opportunities that they could always count on my empathy. I guess, women have a higher EQ (emotional quotient) and can handle conflict well.”

While Uma says it was her conscious decision to have one child, she’s been supportive of her team members — male or female — facing domestic crisis and has offered them the opportunity of working from home if the situation so demanded. “I don’t care where your work is getting done, I care that deadlines are met,” she says.

Indira believes that in a managerial role, women are constantly called upon to walk the fine line. “If a male (flight) captain questions the flying officer, then it is taken in the right spirit. But when a female captain does the same, especially with her male peers, the situation does become tricky. There are undercurrents, which one learns to negotiate.”
Women are always under pressure to excel both at work and on the home front. If both husband and wife are working, then it’s often the woman who makes the effort to plan her schedule around her family or at times change career tracks when her husband relocates to another city. Nine times out of ten, women are blindsided by the demands of motherhood, career and home. And that’s why they dropout from the workforce, often when they reach a crucial stage in their career.

“I took a year’s sabbatical when my child was born. It was my choice. I know there are women who take just three months off when they have a baby. A supportive network is paramount for a working mother, especially when the husband is also in a high-flying career,” says Uma.

 “An intelligent woman is watched very warily,” says Mita Jain, who opted out of the corporate rat race to oversee her own start-up firm. Of course, the fact that her daughter’s board exams were looming large played an instrumental role in influencing her decision. “Women wear many hats, which is fine, but everything takes up time — the kids take up time, work takes up time — time has already been compressed as far as it will go and suddenly we are tired. That is when I asked myself, is it worth it?” says Mita.

With inputs from WFS

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