Gender stereotypes… nothing’s changed!

Disclaimer 1: Feminism sits uncomfortably with me.
Disclaimer 2: May offend/upset some colleagues.

At a recent event organised by one of my magazines, I sat down with 16 women from different countries and of varying ages.

One of them, from down under, seemed to be taken aback that we were talking about ‘feminism’ issues in this day and age.

But why? Even in the most developed of nations (barring the Scandinavian countries?), women are still fighting stereotypes. There is still a struggle between staying at home, going to work, being independent, being the perfect wife… So why was she surprised that a bunch of mainly Caucasian women, living/working in Qatar, were discussing women’s issues?

I am going to discuss two separate things here.

One is the never-ending, ever-annoying debate on working mum vs stay-at-home-mums.

For me it’s a matter of choice (when it’s not need-based). I’ve seen really indifferent SAHM and fantastic hands-on working mothers (and the opposite, too).

And when I looked around, and consciously compare myself to some SAHM mums, I feel even better about the choice I’ve made.

The pressure on women to be the perfect mother, wife and whatever else is just too overwhelming. There is nothing wrong with being mediocre every now and then.

Also check out this interesting post, and the comments.

Here is the second, where I have more to say.

The role of women in workplaces. It’s so fraught with confusion, insecurity and judgement.

I am 36. I started working fulltime when I was 21. My first boss was a woman. I was the only other female in the department of 13. I was given hell by my boss. I had people tell me that it was because she was a woman. I disagree — her being a woman did not colour her attitude, it only coloured the perceptions of those judging her.

She did what a boss was supposed to do with an intern – extract as much work out the person as possible, put them through the ringer, rip their work apart, make them redo their work a dozen times over… if either she or I had been a man, it would have only been considered good training.

Now, 15 years down the line, I am the ‘b-lady’, and not much has changed in terms of perceptions. I will come back to that shortly.

At this coffee morning event, one of the ladies stated she didn’t believe in equality, that men and women were different, and had to be treated as such. She said it was unfair to women to be treated as equals, because the roles they juggled were so different and that has to be taken into consideration.

I couldn’t agree more with her. But what I didn’t agree with is what she said next.

Women need to bond more and compete less with each other.

Why? Why are these two mutually exclusive? Why can’t we bond AND be competitive? Why can’t we draw those lines between the personal and professional?

I studied in an all-girls school and all-girls college. I have three sisters and no brothers. My closest friends are mostly women. I can be the poster-girl for female-bonding.

However, at the workplace, it can’t be about bonding alone.

Barring the first 2 years of my working life, and another 2 here in Doha, there have always been a good number of women where I work.

I do bond with women at work (it comes naturally, so it doesn’t affect my work), but that’s not my primary goal and it shouldn’t be.

As I mentioned earlier, I am the ‘b-lady’ now. My boss is male, most of my colleagues are male, but my immediate team is mainly female. It was not planned, it’s just the way recruitments worked out.

Each of these women try doubly hard to prove a point. And they multi-task with such ease, that at times their effort goes unrecognised. Most of them have bonded with each other, as well. They are there for the PMS-attacks, troublesome teen kid issues, pregnancies, and some just good old gupshuping.

BUT… and this is a HUGE BUT… I do think women find it more difficult to draw the line between the professional and the personal. I find them being more sexist than the guys.

Such an irony – it’s with my women colleagues (yep, I know some of you are reading this – sorry gals! There is more below…) that my gender begins to gnaw at me, and them.

I wouldn’t receive the reactions I do, if I had been male.

I’ve noticed through the last 15 years, despite working in a sector that is considered liberated, gender issues haven’t gone away.

Even if we don’t fall in one of these extremes — disregarding or dissociating oneself from their gender and quick-to-take-offence feminists – we seldom forget our gender.

Like I was told that I treated some members of my teams like daughters-in-law! How sexist is that!

If I had been male, I would have merely been described as partial – my gender would not have played a role in my meanness.

Or a comment sometime ago that one of the female colleagues was more driven because she was single, and would have nothing else to do or think about when she leaves office.

These are the kind of damaging remarks that enforce stereotypes.

We have to plan our day, live our life, in a way that best suits our needs, our environment. We can’t download a template for working mums, or working women.

I don’t switch off from my work the minute I step out of the office. Just as I don’t forget my home when I enter the office.

I do call home ever-so-often, I check my personal mails at office, but I also take official calls at home, and catch up on work after the kids have gone to sleep. That’s the balance that suits me best, makes my life more seamless, and I don’t have to think too hard about balance. I do what I want to, and what’s important, when required. Sometimes, one or the other does get adversely affected — hey, but that’s life!

I understand that this won’t work for some others. I am fine with that. At the end of the day, work entrusted to a person – be it male or female – should be achieved with best results, in whatever method or fashion that suits the individual.

The problem is when every professional/official dealing gets an X or Y chromosome tag.

Many women say that they are not ambitious and career-focussed, because they want to give priority to their family. Which is FINE! But keep in mind, not all men are ambitious and career-minded either — but their sex is not thrown in their face because of that, so don’t use your gender-defined roles as an excuse for not being ambitious.

I do believe that the most damaging comments about working women is made by other women – working or otherwise. Because it comes from the sisterhood, unfair criticisms receive undue validation.

What do you think?

Grateful

It is time for another GRATEFUL post.

I don’t know why I don’t do this more often. It puts everything into perspective, and keeps my Drama Queen moments in check.

All that I’ve been grateful for, and listed earlier, are still around… I am really thankful for the wonderful people and experiences that make my life what it is.

Here is what I truly, truly, truly am grateful for.

I can’t remember an instance in the last 15-18 years, where I’ve said “why couldn’t that be me?”

(even when I see really skinny folks gorging on potato wafers and brownies. promise.)

…and maybe just twice in recent memory have I asked, ‘why me?’ and even then only for a fleeting moment.

But ever so frequently, I tell myself: “I am glad and thankful and grateful that it isn’t me or mine,” and even more often I go: “Yeah! How good is my life?”

Knock on wood.

Mental maths

I never thought much of it till I came to Doha, and I definitely didn’t realise what an amazing ability it is till recently.

The first time it hit me was when I went to an expat-group bazaar, where folks were selling trinkets and snacks from their home countries. Even for the simplest addition and subtraction either the calculator was whipped out, or fingers were pressed into service. 

These were well-educated, well-placed men and women from around the world.

However, those from India and the Far East were doing complicated calculations mentally.

Shall we attribute it to our education system? Or is it **jingoism alert** the brilliance of the race?

How can we explain the ability of otherwise illiterate or semi-literate folks to do complicated mental calculations?

The kaikari-karan (vegetable vendor) on the streets of Madras, the milk lady, the domestic help, the puncture shop assistant, the waiters at the roadside dabbas…

Baalama is about 70 years old now. I’ve known her all my life, and her daughter, Anjalai, is the one who cared for me as a child, and subsequently my kids, and even now is the main support for my ageing parents.

They cannot even sign their names.

Baalama is the milk lady for the colony. She has about 20-30 clients. Milk accounts go into decimals, eg Rs 482.45.

At the beginning of the month she would calculate how much money each household owed her. If on certain days neighbours traded milk bottles (before the day of private milk producers, a common practice. When one household had guests they would borrow milk from another that had excess), she had to deduct and add accordingly. She did it all, to the last decimal point, without ever using pen and paper.

The same with Anjalai. She would go to the market and deal with the vendors who either like her never attended school or had the most basic education. But all her calculations, sometimes toting up purchases over a week, were done mentally.

I can give endless examples…

When I was living amongst these mathematically inclined brains, I hardly ever noticed how fantastic this was. Now I do.

One explanation could be skill driven by need. Because they cannot use pen and paper, do not have access to calculators, they are forced to use what they have?

What do women generally talk about?

This is a tag from here:

The women I’ve spoken to over the last 2 days (these are the ones I usually talk to):

Sister 3 (age 42): About the kids, my eldest sister’s health, about my career plans and whether I am moving forward with that.

Colleague 1 (age 39): About her kid’s birthday party. About story ideas, the person she interviewed, the women I met on an assignment, on the content for the next issue, some office gossip.

Colleague 2 (age 40+): Amitav Ghosh, Orhan Pamuk, the state of banks, corruption, the arrest of a bank ceo, kids, people we meet on work, office gossip.

Friend 1, V (age 36): On our work, jobs, being bored, the upcoming PTA, on our last drinking binge, shopping for her office party, planning a mid-week lunch (which she is buying for me), meditation.

Friend 2, C (age 35): Son’s health, her boss, my boss, her team, my team :), our jobs, her training programme, the weekend bar hopping.

Sister 2 (age 45): My kids — every little detail on what they are doing, parents health (she is in the same city as them, so she is the primary caretaker, crap-taker), my weight — she obesses about my lack of fitness, my eldest sister’s health, holiday plans.

Sister 1 (age 48): My kids, her daughter, her health (which she brushes off, worrying us even more), her latest handwork (crochet, embroidery, knitting), my holiday plans, the latest celebrities I’ve me on work.

With K, babysitter-cum-lifeline (age late 40s): What to cook, N’s latest pranks, on how I should de-clutter.

My mum (age 70): Her knee, her social life — with her brothers, sister, nephews, nieces — she is a party animal, my kids, my eldest sister, the books that were delivered following my online order.

One of my closest friend, S (age 35): Her mum (she just lost her dad), her job, our girl-only road trip plan for August.

Another very close friend, S (age 35): Her new business venture, my work, the kids, our wild fantasies 🙂

My friend K (age 40+): Wishing her luck for a girls-only trip to Maldives, and on when I should plan mine.

A freelancer and friend (age 33, I think): Cute guys on telly, our families, Scrabble, the story she is supposed to submit.

 

A freelancer: Zen Buddhism, meditation, story ideas.

 

My friend, A (40+): Her appraisal, new contract, writing workshop, weekend plans.

And I pass on the tag to whoever wants to do it… go on knock yourself out.

IF

I tag myself from here.

If I were a month, I’d be January (new beginnings and good weather).

If I were a day of the week, I’d be the 8th day 🙂

If I were a time of day, I’d be midnight.

If I were a season, I’d be summer.

If I were a planet, I’d be Pluto, the underdog.

If I were a sea animal, I’d be a dolphin.

If I were a direction, I’d be East.

If I were a piece of furniture, I’d be a bookshelf.

If I were a liquid, I’d be filter coffee.

If I were a tree, I’d be a coconut palm.

If I were a tool, I’d be a screwdriver.

If I were an element (of what?), I’d be oxygen.

If I were a gemstone, I’d be emerald.

If I were a musical instrument, I’d be a flute.

If I were a color, I’d be reddish orange.

If I were an emotion, I’d be empathy.

If I were a fruit, I’d be a mango.

If I were a sound, I’d be the sound of loud, uninhibited laughter.

If I were a car, I’d be a hybrid.

If I were food, I’d be idli and coconut chutney.

If I were a taste, I’d be tangy.

If I were a scent, I’d be vettiver.

If I were a pair of shoes, I’d be boots.

And if I were a bird, I’d be sparrow.