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#InTheirWords: Moving from a male-majority to a female-run office changed me from worker to leader

“You bounce too much.”

That was my first job performance review. All of 20, working an entry-level job in a film production house, I had three bosses — all men.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that feedback on my buoyancy qualified as workplace harassment. There weren’t too many companies doing the type of work I valued, so I stuck around for another 17 years.

Two decades later, my career progressed. I rose from intern to ‘Head of Content & Creative Development.’ My work was appreciated. I got due credit for every deadline I meet and every product I turned in. I was given a chair at meetings, where as the sole woman in the company I am often referred to as ‘Madam’.

 

 

These meetings that usually began with stories about my boss’s life. Along with the rest of the not-bosses, I laughed to show solidarity or gasped to indicate wonderment.

At some point, my boss would swivelled his chair towards me and says, “Toh Madam, kya karein iska?”

I then jumped in with the enthusiasm of someone snorting whatever goes up Sheryl Sandberg’s nose. I presented ideas on how to build and solidify teams, how to make operations more efficient, how to resolve the financial holes we seem to find ourselves in regularly. My boss’s eyes glazed over.

He was far away now, and my voice was white noise.

The higher my designation in this organisation rose, the methods by which men whom I work with tuned me out became more creative. Typically, there was no real outcome to the endless meetings, leaving me to wonder ‘why aren’t these men in a hurry to go home? Why do they search for excuses to hang around in office? Are they avoiding domestic duties? Do they equate being in the office with being useful?’

Within weeks, we’d hit another crisis. I get called by my boss, “Madam, we should have listened to you. Let’s have another meeting to discuss.”

Validation for my work came as regularly spaced pats on the head, and good-work-gold-stars meant to keep me satiated even as the company summarily dismissed my other contributions.

Often, like many working women, I concluded that my ideas are bad. ‘You’re an efficient workhorse, but you just don’t have the chops to lead,’ I think. My experience is mine, but I’m not alone. According to an IndiaSpends article, increasingly, educated women are leaving workplaces due to this sort of everyday sexism so prevalent in our offices.

“Validation for my work came as regularly spaced pats on the head, and good-work-gold-stars meant to keep me satiated even as the company summarily dismissed my other contributions.”

Then I walked through another door. This time as a volunteer at a community project. A woman runs it, supported by a council, predominantly, of women.

I began haltingly, often filled with terror and flooded with a sense of inadequacy. When I was given a seat at the table within one short year, I assumed it was because I showed up and did what was asked of me.

It never occurred to me that the project head thought I could, well, contribute. But she did and still does. She demands my ideas, expects leadership and extends support.

 

The women with whom I work are busy people. They juggle home life, children, day jobs, passions and this volunteer work. They are often tired of other parts of their lives in ways that I’ve not seen men experience. Time, therefore, is a precious commodity not be wasted, not even on self-doubt. Ideas get converted into reality with great efficiency.
Are these starkly different professional experiences are a function of gender alone?
Leadership styles differ, and it may simply be that to me one individual was more impactful than the other. Stories from other women with similar experiences, however, reflect the same shift in work dynamics. Male-majority workgroups mute women’s voices, even while consuming their labour. From my friends to women with whom I’ve worked, I’ve observed the marginalisation of women who go beyond their job descriptions.
Here we are, women, ‘leaning in’ to the point of falling on our faces and there’s barely a ripple in the fabric of the dude-workspace.
I used to alternate between despair and a shrill cry. I used to want to show up the man. Not anymore. I took my creative energy to new partners. We shake hands on the promise that our talents won’t be wasted. We widen our circle of influence and build new things.
When the time comes to review my performance, I know I will hold up well. I may even get extra points for bouncing.
Also Read: I Was Sexually Harassed by My Boss
CREDITS: LEAD ILLUSTRATION: SRISHTI JAIN,
PHOTOS: PEXELS

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