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Single women at work: a challenge in male-driven offices

In Lady, You're the Boss, Apurva Purohit tells us with anecdotes and examples about the peculiar barbs single women face at work.

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Patriarchy has long been the popular villain for gender inequality at the workplace and elsewhere. Men have been in hierarchical positions of power from the beginning of existence. Thus ingrained in them and in the systems around them is a view that women are inferior, less capable and in constant need of protection and support. In its most benign state, this inculcates a systemic response geared towards making women weaker than they are, than they need to be or deserve to be.

Anand’s bias, despite his pro-women stance, was not hypocritical. He had been indoctrinated with a stereotype that was not true about the women in his team and he didn’t even realise that this bias existed in his mind. He was certainly well-intentioned when he worried that he would put extraordinary pressure on his women managers by promoting them, but he also was being unfair to his women managers by being paternalistic. I assess Anand’s bias not from a moral high ground, but with the inside knowledge only the guilty can possess. I once hired a CEO, Hitesh, for one of the companies I manage after doing due diligence on his background. He had the right credentials and his references were stellar. Added to that he gave all of us a feeling of great comfort and confidence with his deep gruff voice, measured tone and solid demeanour (he was well over six feet tall and built like a barrel). All of us felt assured that he could navigate the company through any storm. He spent two years at the organisation and then one day quit abruptly, citing unexplained personal reasons.

His sudden departure got me, the HR team and the people who worked directly with him searching within ourselves for the reasons for his move. After a lengthy analysis we realised that he had been unable to handle the pressure of the three months prior to his resignation. The organisation had been facing headwinds and revenue pressures at that time. I was puzzled that he threw in the towel when the going got tough because innate strength was a quality I’d always associated with him. Only once I started connecting the dots and reviewing his performance, not only in our company but also in previous organisations, did the mystery begin to resolve itself. Closer inspection revealed that whenever a significant crisis had arisen in the organisations under his charge, he had not been the one to resolve it.

He had preferred to ignore the problem rather than taking charge and facing it head-on. Hitesh’s physical attributes matched accurately the stereotype of the strong and silent alpha male who comes striding out of the sunset to solve the community’s woes with the music score of a spaghetti western movie playing in the background. His statuesque demeanour and deep bass voice communicated leonine strength and dependability to me, while inside he was just a little mouse! I grudgingly admitted to myself that I, like Anand, had acted on bias rather than on empirical evidence.

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At any given time, the human brain is bombarded with eleven million pieces of information. We can only handle forty. To navigate the world without being inundated and overwhelmed, the brain creates patterns that help sort this information. Forming stereotypes is one such pattern. And by assuming that people behave according to a certain stereotype, we begin acting out of bias. We are also genetically coded to be positively biased towards people similar to us. Once we take into consideration that the majority of managers and recruiters are men, the absence of women in the upper echelons of corporate India begins to make a lot of sense. People will naturally choose candidates they identify with the most. Even the most well-meaning of us, both men and women, are biased. Instead of railing against a genetic trait that skews the scales against women, let’s ask what we can do to help people around us (including ourselves) step out of the narrow corridors of perception bias.

The incentive to dismantle subconscious bias lies not just in diverse gender-equal hiring. When leaders take the time to assess their preconceived notions, they enhance their level of objective comprehension and critical reasoning skills. In short, they become better at their jobs. As far as gender bias goes, there is unfortunately no quick fix for reaching into the subterranean regions of male minds and shaking out the cobwebs. The only way to deal with these perceptions is to co-opt more and more men into the diversity conversation. Every time I speak on this issue at any organisation, I ask that men also be part of the proceedings.

There are several initiatives across the globe where men are increasingly being encouraged to be part of this process of recognising and thus changing subconscious behaviours and mindsets, and we must all actively support such initiatives. Equally we need to be patient not in accepting but in explaining to men what we believe qualifies as biases. The famous ‘silent treatment’ women adopt to manage conflict will not work here! It is imperative to call out the big as well as the small biases we see playing out around us every day.

Don’t call me ‘sweetheart’, don’t assume it’s the male at the table who will pay the bill, don’t automatically decide that my drink will be a mocktail and look shocked when I ask for a strong shot, and yes HD cooks and I don’t! The more time women spend discussing with men what they want, what they value and what they don’t, the more we will be able to remove the misconceptions in their minds. Equally we will understand their point of view. Which is yet another reason we need more women at the workplace, in the boardrooms and at the negotiating tables.

This excerpt from Apurva Purohit’s ‘Lady, You’re the Boss: The Adventures of a Woman at Work – Part 2’, has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.


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