When I wrote The Professional in 2007, in the chapter on what I called “New World Imperatives,” I talked about gender sensitivity. In it, I wrote about a particular incident involving Susmita and me. We were looking for a housing loan and had gone to a nationally known housing lender that offered an interest rate that was 0.5% better than its competitors. Susmita and I were asked to see the manager. As soon as we introduced ourselves, I told him that though I was going to be the borrower on record, it was my wife who would make all decisions and deal with the bank in all matters. In effect, I said, it was she who was going to be the customer, and that she had a whole set of questions and could the gentleman please answer them. After that Susmita asked him a whole bunch of questions and in response to each, the man looked at me and replied. It became quite awkward and even as I gestured repeatedly for him to direct the answers towards her, he did not catch the cue. As soon as we were done, we came out of the bank, clear that we would not do the deal with them. We settled for another bank that did not make the same mistake, even though the interest rate was a little higher. I narrate this instance to explain that increasingly, women are taking more purchase decisions in the world, and that it is important to break mental stereotypes as we are on our way to becoming a developed nation.
When The Professional was chosen for release in the US and elsewhere, I was unsure if the example would hold good. After all, in developed economies like the US, things were different. Or so I thought.
Last week, I read the latest issue of Fortune magazine, and in it, columnist Becky Quick had an interesting story to tell. She started her life waiting at tables in a restaurant. There, she made it a point to treat everyone seated at a table equally; her logic was simple: you do not know who is going to take the check, and her tip depending on that. However, recently – years after her waitressing days – she was shopping for a minivan, and guess what? While she made her rounds of dealerships, the salesmen inevitably asked her where her husband was even though it was she who was asking all the questions. And this is the US in 2012! In the same column, she narrates the story of Ann Mulcahy, former chairman and CEO of Xerox. When Mulcahy decided to buy a Porsche, after making her choice at a dealership and announcing to the salesman that she would buy the car, there was a pregnant pause, and then the man asked, “Don’t you have to talk to someone about that first?” She replied, “If you don’t start the paperwork in the next 10 seconds, I’ll drive 30 minutes to the next Porsche dealer and buy the car there”. The man got on the task immediately, but guess what? The finance officer followed up with the question: would she need someone else to co-sign the lease?
So, the two stories above do tell us that the male world is still not sensitized enough about the new reality. Becky Quick says that 44% of car buyers last year in the US were women and even when not the buyers, they influenced 80% of all car purchase decisions.
Leaving aside the above, what appalls me is the whole host of hard and soft discriminations we make everyday at the workplace. That includes the Information Technology industry where more than 30% of the entry level workforce consists of women. After joining, they invariably work for a couple of years and after that, there is the inevitable pressure to marry. Upon marriage, if the boy lives in another city, it is always the girl who must quit her job and relocate. It is quite commonplace for a project leader not to assign a critical component of the project work to a female colleague because she may not be able to “take the extra load” – that is to say, stay longer hours. When project teams go out for a client dinner or a get-together, it is invariably the men who create an invisible ring, and they are the ones cracking the jokes and having all the conversation among themselves, not realizing that the female colleague is left out. Today, even as the gender distribution is more than 30% at the entry level, at senior management level, that number falls below 5%.
One of the indices of a developed economy is that there is equality of women at the workplace – both in numbers and in the way they are treated at par. It is here that India has a long way to go. We have made great progress in inducting women in traditionally male environments, but we have to break stereotypes at multiple levels. We need to stop looking at women as appendages and as people for whom concessions must be made. If the overriding belief is that work is beyond a woman’s capability, it is not the woman who must change; rather, those beliefs must be challenged, and the organizational structure must be re-examined and redefined. Therein lays the path to progress.
Susmita and I have two daughters. When our second one was born, two of Susmita’s relations, both doctors, consoled her. They said she should try again for a son. My mother, not educated beyond her matriculate, came to see her and said in no uncertain terms that there was no difference between boys and girls, and just in case Susmita thought otherwise, two were enough and that we must not try for more children.
Remembering her, Susmita and I have always felt that a change in thinking is not a matter of education; what we need is a social reform at a much more fundamental level.
On that note, Happy Women’s Day to all my readers.