More Than Just a Glass Ceiling - March 8, 2010


Most of the Indian women we know, even in GenNext, have grown up with subliminal messages about being a “good girl”, i.e. of behaving in a manner that conforms to society’s stereotypes and prescriptions of what success for a girl looks like. A venerable aunt used to hold up as an example worth emulating a girl who had a PhD in nuclear physics and an amazing job, but “when she walked in to the room you would never know that-she was so simple and ordinary in everything she did and said”. It took many years before we picked up the courage to ask, “But if she was so wonderful, what was the matter with her that she made no waves?”

If you are from a middle class family in Tamil Nadu, as one of us is, you have probably been raised with a variety of wheedling voices asking you to behave in a particular manner and be a chamatta ponnu (The English translation of this, loosely, is “good girl”, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the tough code of conduct and gender conformity that these two Tamil words demand and command) The same expression, when used for a boy, usually takes on the approving tone of “smart boy”, with no hidden messages and coded expectations.

If you are from Andhra Pradesh, as one of us is, you will be familiar with the equivalent Telugu phrase, bangaaru thalli (loosely translated, it means golden girl, but has the same iron-fist-in-velvet-glove social conformity connotation to it). We thought it was a south Indian thing, until a Maharashtrian doctor with a string of impressive degrees explained to us that there is a Maharashtrian equivalent too-shahani mulgi (smart girl). We now have it on good authority from a successful Bengali young lady that the Bengali exhortation to be a good girl who does not rock the boat and always listens, is to be a lokkhi meye.

We wonder if these phrases, and all the loaded cultural conditioning embedded in them, have been so programmed into our brains that even in the workplace, women strive to do their best, not upset the status quo and be chamatta ponnus’/ shahani mulgis’/bangaaru thallis’ equivalents. We fear, based on several anecdotal data points, that even when women get to heights after arduous ladder climbing on our own steam, they don’t feel as entitled as they ought to feel, in order to be able to unabashedly wield the power they have, to change things that no one else wants to change.

Worse still, we wonder if there is a new stereotype of the successful working woman that many of us strive to live up to? This new stereotype is the office version of the super home-maker-one who is brainy and well qualified, and who does a spectacular job, but within the boundaries of a pre-existing sandbox; who understands the limits of vive la difference when it comes to perspectives and views related to a range of fundamental issues. In short, one who does not question the fundamentals, and takes care to not rock the boat of man-made rules of how things ought to be done in the workplace.

This would indeed be a pyrrhic victory for the cause of women, because the whole point of having women in the workplace is so that they can bring in new perspectives and leadership styles, and drive definitive and positive change on the way “we usually do things around here”. The discussion on gender in the workplace, for women who are already in the mainstream, no matter at what level, is not about how many of us shatter the glass ceiling-it is about what we do during our journey there and beyond, and whether we bring different paradigms to the world of work and different agendas too. After all, we do represent another world, and another kind of mind-wiring and power-wielding.

This issue becomes clearer when we look at it in another context-why is women’s reservation in legislatures such a big deal for women? Not because men have “at last” agreed to share power or because, now, some more women will storm the bastion. But because we hope that the lens through which government views society and its needs of growth and development, justice and fair play, will become more wide-angled and bring (the other?)50% of the population into sharp focus too.

Rama Bijapurkar is a market strategy consultant and Chandra Iyengar is a senior bureaucrat in Maharashtra.