Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women's Day: a message for career women

To celebrate International Women's Day, this progblog is brought to you by Shailaja Chandra. 

As we celebrate International Women's Day, let us remember those who had a hand in making us the women we are today. It is time to give credit to one's parents, siblings, husbands, bosses and colleagues who made that possible.

Today I salute my parents for investing in me as a child. For spending money on sending me to wonderful boarding school Tara Hall in Simla. I thank them for having faith in me and investing in my education without considering the cost or the outcomes. It never struck them to think that they could be watering a neighbour's garden.

I thank my mother for pulling me off the stage as a budding actress in Miranda House and forcing me to confront the final examination or third division marks. I thank her for standing steadfast through my worst tantrums and sulks as I resented losing name and fame. How difficult it must have been for her as a single parent, recently widowed and having to cope with her own challenging job in a central Ministry. Her conviction and courage changed my life but little did I know it then.

I thank my brother for daring me to appear for the civil services without which I would have taken the soft line of earning good money for myself while not doing anything meaningful for society.

I thank at least 6 of the 16 bosses I have worked under - for having faith enough to give me difficult assignments in a man's world; for navigating me through difficult times- A Central minister who chose to do the ministry's most important work nearing midnight and another who sent me packing to "find a way". I remember a state chief minister who branded me as "that woman" for daring to stand in the way of approving illegalities.

Through all this I specially remember three unusual bosses in the ministries of defence, power and health. In the seventies and eighties, it was unusual to find male bosses with a liberal mind and progressive ideas. I did and I recognise now how special they were. Equally I remember three male politicians who made no distinction in their approach towards men and women officers, who appreciated candour during discussion and conviction on file.

It is impossible not to compare them to scores of other bosses and colleagues (mostly civil servants) who used every opportunity to pass hurtful remarks attributing success from perseverance to nothing but good articulation of English or worse, to pretty ensembles. I still recall a Cabinet secretary whom I met to apprise him of patent injustice only to be told, "All women are cuckoo." Or a Union secretary who said, "Ambitious women are the worst."

Three times in my career I became embroiled alternately with lawyers, activists, doctors, and even the state Lok Ayukta - all men. I had to fight those battles alone as no one was willing to listen. I hated myself because anger invariably brought tears to my eyes which were immediately seen as a sign of weakness. I hated all the pity coming from a host of onlookers who hardly cared but quite enjoyed the spectacle of an upright, outspoken officer getting buffeted by the system. Nothing came of all the ploys my detractors used to derail my career, but the experience left me devastated. Today I do not recall the pangs of what I had to go through as much as I recall the pain of being a woman.

How humiliated I felt when no one took me seriously. How every man I met wanted a good story but was not prepared to do anything about it - almost presuming that this was the outcome of some womanly overreach. How much I tried to convince my direct bosses - all male - to please examine the facts and intercede. I kicked myself then for being a woman. For being unable to find even one sympathetic ear because I had failed to network with the boys over golf and drinks. Every man I knew of who had faced similar situations had managed to extricate himself. Why did I have to wait for years for the Delhi High Court to find no truth in the allegations? Because as a woman I did not have the contacts and connections needed to pull me out?

The anguish of being pitied hurt the most. "Poor woman" was a comment I could not bear.
And through all this who stood by me the most? My husband. Never once did he chide me for returning late from office day after day. Whenever opportunities arose and there were several - he always encouraged me to travel. He told me never to worry about the children. We had brought them up to be independent and everything would be fine. When I was posted outside Delhi, he looked after three children, the youngest being just eight, without making it sound like a burden. I recall his wisdom and clarity of thinking whenever I was struck by doubts in the office or at home. Most of all he gave me the freedom to invest in my own career without promoting his. If every husband were to do that much for a career wife, every woman would gather the courage to stay on track without enduring pangs of guilt.

Last but not least, on International Women's Day I must remember all the women I have worked with. Women subordinates and office staff-for showing incredible patience, good humour and infinite trust in my ability. To my women friends, some of whom have stayed friends for over 40 years - for sharing the ups and downs, the turmoil of facing teenage rebellion, domestic upheavals, illnesses, death and more. All the things that needed empathy not sympathy, certainly not solutions. Just an intelligent mind and a patient ear. That is what my women friends did for me-something no one else- not even family could do so well.

I have mixed feelings about women bosses because I too have been one and I know what it is to wear the pants in a man's world. Undoubtedly women bosses are exacting and impatient. Often it is because instinctively their mind races forward anticipating hurdles long before they occur. But ironically this natural perspicacity far from being seen as a God given gift becomes a blight. Exasperation with incompetence results in sharp words but coming from a woman boss they are hard to swallow. That is why women chiefs seldom command admiration even if they command respect. And yet women bosses are much more capable of burning down hierarchical structures and showing genuine warmth and compassion - emotions most men are incapable of showing leave alone voicing.

If I had to give a message to women still striving to come up - particularly in the civil services but equally in any career, my advice would be: first, invest in stable domestic arrangements. Combative men are waiting for you to make excuses to leave early, take casual leave and decline coming to the office on weekends. Remember all important decisions are taken after 7 PM. If you aren't there, you aren't there.
Second, early in your career let your husband or partner know that putting your career before him or the family does not mean you love them less. Your success is what will make them proud of you. Your children will learn to respect their wives and daughters more. They will accept responsibility and learn to stand on their own if they see their mother enjoying her success.

Third, if a woman underperforms she is much more likely to fall off the ladder of success than a man. But that failure will not only make her a loser in her own eyes but in the eyes of the entire family too. It is better therefore to run the extra mile and be prepared for occasional huffs and jibes from colleagues. As the bottleneck narrows there are no friends- only rivals.

Parting words to husbands, in-laws and parents: help her to push her career because in the ultimate analysis her happiness will add to your happiness. A woman should be supported to pursue a well-planned career - not just a job that brings money. Encourage her to make difficult choices. Help her to excel in what she does. Excuses are what people expect. Steadfastness is what people do not expect. Give her the space and freedom to do things really well. Because that is what will make the difference between her aspirations and her achievements.

And celebrate International Women's Day!

Shailaja Chandra is a former civil servant in India; she was also a permanent Secretary in the Government of India and the first woman Chief Secretary of  Delhi.

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