Vive la Difference!

The Economic Times - 08 - March 2006

The two of us, writing this piece, are battle hardened though somewhat exhausted sufferers of a debilitating physical and mental condition. It is called "trying to be super woman-itis". Some symptoms of this are "muthering heights", and "we are just like men in the work place". But we are now going through treatment for all these, and what better timing than International Women's Day to tell it like it is and bring relief to millions of other sufferers like us, professional women who are also home makers and family nurturers, and for whom life is a giant balancing act.

We spent most of our working lives believing that we were doomed to disaster if we were to even admit to ourselves that there were special, gender specific issues that affected us working women cum home makers; and that even if we admitted it to ourselves, it was professional harakiri to acknowledge it in public - especially from podiums where gender issues were being discussed.

The appropriate thing to say was "it's just a question of understanding and managing your priorities", or "no, I cannot really say that I have dilemmas about what paths to choose or angst and confusion about how to behave, merely because I am a woman". And by playing along with this 'wisdom', I think we did a big disservice to future generations of women like us.

Come on, let's be honest. We all know that life isn't simple for the minority community anywhere, and in our work and social world, we are a gender minority. The default choice in the work place seems to be "become like the majority - or give up and be content to live on the fringes". The default option in the home world becomes "work twice as hard at your other roles so that you can prove that you are not a neglectful, selfish creature called the "working wife" or the "working mother". And the unspoken expectation is that we sing the paean of gratitude to the supportive spouse who "allows" us, or even "encourages us" to go forth and fulfil our intellectual potential. However, when we asked ourselves and some of the women we admired, how they worked their way through difficult questions, whether related to coping with personal angst, or how to react in business situations, there invariably was one answer: "by talking to other women who have experienced similar situations, are sympathetic, and have the same gender wiring as we do. If you don't have such a support group, you are dead".

One of us, recently in the US, ran into another sufferer of super woman-itis. And as notes were exchanged, and she learnt that European and Asian women had the same problems too, she delivered a big bear hug and said with relief 'you mean I'm not the only one who has all these issues? You mean I am normal"!

So henceforth, we will tell it like it is, come out of the closet so to speak, admit to gender issues and dilemmas and share solutions and emotions and best and worst practices. But don't men have issues too, so why are we making such a big deal of ours? Of course they do - but as Gloria Steinem said, we haven't heard too many men asking how to combine a career with marriage! Here's our request to all the women reading this today: Share the gender issues that you have or are battling, with other women. Replicate the age old custom of talking around the village well; it gives others not just comfort, but strength to know that others have the same problems too.

Share your cope strategies and your mistakes. It widens the pool of available solutions for people to use to craft their own cope strategy. Share all kinds of issues - there is no hierarchy here - we need holistic well being! So share existential angst, work issues, home management, maid and children problems. Do this with a wider range of women who are professionals in all kinds of fields - doctors, performing arts people, corporate chieftains, civil services folk, NGOs, etc.

The problem areas are the same, but the solution areas are diverse, and the learning is much greater. We hated having to go up and talk about "and this is how I did it", but as we benefited and heard other women tell us how they benefited from it, we feel it would be selfish not to share. Let each of us make time in our crazy stressed out schedules to coach, mentor and provide a sympathetic ear or a ruthless kick in the butt to one or two others at any point in time.

Let's speak up against gender injustice in our immediate work place and speak up for innovative ways by which the establishment can help women. One of the younger and very bright women we met, a budding leader in the human resources area said she didn't want, just yet, to start speaking on how organisations should fashion customised career paths for women, because "I don't want them to think I am a rabid trouble making feminist". A reasonable note of caution we agree; but dialogue and out of the box ideas does not have to be combative.

Let us take the lead for idea-rich, mature dialogue. We know of a situation where a very senior woman professional, with a stellar achievement record, decided to quit the company. Her bosses were quick to put out the party line to all who asked "she could not manage home and family pressure and the continuing demands of such a high powered job".

Nothing was further than the truth. She just felt blocked career wise, and decided to move for better options, on her own. In such situations, we feel it is necessary for women hearing this to speak up and set the record straight - again in the best practice of data correction rather than in the spirit of combat!

Vive la difference! Let's shed the Henry Higgins mindset of "why can't a woman be more like a man". What we need to do is to help each other explore and understand why and how our wiring is different, what our life goals, priorities and objectives are and how we can make our working lives consonant with this; and how we can go a step further and leverage this difference well, to be better contributors to the work place and more fulfilled people too.

Coming together to acknowledge, discuss, understand and find solutions to our gender-specific problems will not diminish us, make us the weaker sex. It will help us collectively and individually become stronger, and build a world where we can excel by being ourselves.

(Bijapurkar is an independent market strategy consultant. Iyengar is a senior IAS officer.)