Once, at an event in a North Indian town, the little gathering that stayed on after, began to sing. It so happened that a dozen women were all singing in tune, while two young men who insisted on joining in, had no sense of melody whatsoever. They sang loudly, shouting out the lyrics flashing on their mobile screens, effectively ruining song after song. Despite looking at them in alarm, the boys continued, undeterred. Finally, a lady, unable to bear their tuneless cacophony any longer, requested them to keep quiet for one song or two.

The boys were totally perplexed. One of them glared at her. The other hit a sulk. “We know the lyrics,” he protested indignantly, threatening to ignore her request. It struck me that the boys were unaccustomed to being told to back off or, as in this case, to shut up. Evidently, to be inhibited, in any way, is not usually part of the male narrative!

This narrative, not uncommon across large swathes of the land, sets the stage for mediocrity. The message a boy child gets from family and social structure, early on, is that being male is special, and therefore, enough. Whatever he may do, is good and largely acceptable.

Such subtext often robs the child of the opportunity of working in ways to discover his potential, or to better himself. Apart from not honing his ability, he doesn’t feel the need to work on his presentation or his civility – how he may hold himself in the company of others. He is frequently disdainful of his female siblings and school/work colleagues. Any reason or advice offered by the women is easily dismissed. Criticism by a woman, naturally leaves him indignant and inflamed.

Cocooned within the comfort of mediocrity, this approach spills outwards, to set a low work ethic. Since anything goes, there’s little point in applying himself to a job well done. No point in sweating the small stuff or fussing over finishes and details, or better systems that ensure a higher standard. The lowest common denominator comes into play as the set measure. Mediocrity becomes a cycle.

He does recognise though, the importance of getting the job done, whatever it is, since he is the provider for the family. That role comes as part of the plot. He needs to earn money and put food on the table, pay the bills, and earn for the ever increasing (brand) demands of his family. The pressure is tremendous. Here’s where the men bond, deeply and instinctively.

Every man recognises the importance and imperative of taking the work ahead. He naturally extends support to other men in his ambit to do the same. He understands the unspoken weight they bear as breadwinners. He is quick to consciously form networks that help his work. “Men will meet casually, over a coffee or sport and do business,” says Vineeta Bali, former CEO of Britannia. “Women don’t do that.”

Women don’t do so, for various reasons, often cultural. When a man pursues a contact for his work, he’s understood as proactive, dynamic and efficient. When a woman prods someone for leads to her work, she is “pushy”, “aggressive” and “a pain.” Our response to her prodding is whimsical and we, both men and women, think we are doing her a favour by pitching in to take her work ahead.

It’s the same with money. When a man talks money, it is the most natural thing for him to do. When a woman entrepreneur or professional speaks money in any context, we think her to be too “money minded”, which traditionally isn’t what ‘good, nice’ women do. This leads to work being under-valued, often by women themselves. The impediments to recognising a woman for her worth, are several.

The United Nations states, in the context of women, that at the current rate, it will take “300 years to end child marriage, 286 years to close gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, 47 years to achieve equal representation in national parliaments and 140 years for women to be represented equally in positions of power and leadership in the workplace.”

One hundred and forty years. Despite widespread opportunities and enrolment in education. Despite the fact that girls outnumber boys in merit positions in schools, colleges and competitive examinations, year after year. Despite the fact that families with means are spending more and more in time and resource for their daughters to gain the requisite or more qualifications to become highly paid professionals.

Is there a hidden obstacle? Are women scoring a self-goal?

Probably. This one for sure.

When a young, educated woman, especially from a family of means, enters a professional space, she often thinks she’s doing this to uncover her potential, to contribute to the economy, to express herself, to fill her time (up until life may take another turn), to prove how smart she is, or how good her work is. All of the above, leaves her thinking that her work is a choice that she has made to undertake. That she can, at any point in time, choose to walk away. She doesn’t really ‘have to work’.

This “choice” is a double-edged sword. While it may be a source of comfort in lifting the pressure off her, it also holds her back from committing to stick it out. It affects her approach at the workplace. Every day may throw up a challenge that may test her patience, her sense of propriety, her limits. Every day may tear into her illusion of what work ‘should be’. Every day, she may consider quitting, since she has underwritten, for herself, the option to do so.

Time and again, I have come across bright young women, who have chosen to quit great opportunities within the corporate, legal and other sectors, three to five years into work. The reason? We didn’t like the work culture / I thought I’d take a break / this isn’t for me. Instead, they have joined an organisation in the social sector, either working pro-bono or with little pay. That’s commendable, on the one hand, and a big blow, on the other, to overcoming the challenges that keep women behind, 140 years in current estimates, from being in positions of influence at work and otherwise.

These are often highly qualified women, who however, have not been prepped for what it takes to stick it out, and why it is important to do so.

Not often are they told that money is not a bad word. That earning it, is difficult but imperative. When there is money or financial worth backing a woman’s work, she has a voice to affect change – in policies, in work environments, in standards, in her immediate team. She harbours the ability to contribute to social causes, substantially, if she so wishes.

The woman who persists at work, despite inherent imbalances and biases, by and by, grows her portfolio. Each passing year, broadly within a line of work, her effort begins to add up. She learns to work with how things really are, rather than lamenting on how they ought to be. With experience, her work seems easier – she develops a work ethic, a routine and discipline for herself and is increasingly able to remain unfazed in the face of challenges, (which do not ever really stop arising, both at work and at home). She simply handles things better. With a decade of two in the profession, her name gets mentioned along with male colleagues; her views gain relevance.

She may disagree, but doesn’t disrespect the compulsions of her (mostly male) colleagues. She understands that taking the work ahead is as important, if not more, than stalling to constantly get it right. Getting it right is a bonus, and one can constantly strive for it, but time is of the essence in the completion of a task, and she is but one spoke that turns the wheel.

“This is what we may learn from men” says Ms Bali, in context to the above, “which men do so effectively.” And what may the men learn from the women? That, for another time.

In the meanwhile, it helps to remind oneself, that even as the world may recognise brilliance, and patronise talent, the order of work, however mediocre and skewed, still respects consistency and commitment. In men, and grudgingly, in women.

This article is authored by Vandana Kohli, author, filmmaker and entrepreneur, New Delhi.

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2024-04-04T08:06:36Z dg43tfdfdgfd