Nahi. Kyun nahi lagta sahi? (Why ‘no’ doesn’t feel right)

In the last year, we’ve seen so much of retaliation the world over around sexual harassment at the workplace and elsewhere too. Here in India, we’ve also been very socially vocal about the #MeToo campaign and taken up the “No Means No” movement that Brazilians have during their world-renowned carnival. While resonance with the issue has clearly left its mark on society, what’s intrigued me most is the ‘why’ in this whole equation. Why is such a simple statement/command misunderstood the world over and why is it so difficult to understand and more importantly believe that no truly means no?

I’ve found the Ariel advertisement in their campaign ‘Share the load’ to be quite apt here – it so clearly emphasizes the genesis of this problem. Society has in fact instituted this mind-set within the female community before we’ve even reached an age where we can differentiate between genders. Not to sound too clichéd, but we’re honed into believing that pink is for girls and blue is for boys from the time we were born. More so is the way most children are conditioned from an early age, where males are given more prominence over females even at home. We have brought up our girls to occupy lesser space than themselves and our boys to be bigger than they actually are! In fact, most wives are tentative about calling their own husbands by name, referring to them as ‘Tinku Ki Papa’ (Tinku’s dad) for instance, given that he is supposedly the protector and the revered figure at home. So much so that even if the so called protector turns attacker, women are conditioned to stay silent!

When Radio City’s very own RJ Ginnie came across a contest winner who wanted to use the prize money to buy her son a bike and the team went over to award her the prize, they were shocked at her state. She was really emotional, and they were very angry at the state they found her in, with bruises on her face. At the onset, she was not only reluctant to divulge who was behind the assault, but in denial about it. Once they were able to coax her to reveal what had happened, she said that it was her boss who was responsible and slapped and hit her any time she bungled up. What was most concerning though, is that she believed that it was okay for him to act this way, as she always saw women as second-class citizens and thought it acceptable for men to have their way, and treat them as they please. This mind-set we’d say, could be due to her background as she did not belong to a very educated family. But is it really?

Equally to blame is the way the start of a romantic relationship is portrayed in 90% of Bollywood films. The boy pursues; the girl is coy and reluctant; the boy becomes more aggressive and the girl shyly gives in! Is she willing and diffident or is she genuinely disinterested? The difference is unclear. No wonder NO is often perceived as MAYBE!

On a relevant note, Corporate India has been taking strides to correct the mind-set within its realm, brought about by the Companies Act 2012 which mandated a rather thorough Vigil mechanism – processes and policies and more importantly training thrown in. I believe the training of what is acceptable and what is not, is one of the most important parts of the POSH, since change needs to resonate much deeper in our conscience to effect behaviour positively irrespective of where we are.

We need to instil in the community a higher sense of discernment, which emphasizes gender equality; not only in words, but most importantly through action. Let us not continue to let our girl children be nurtured to believe that they are secondary in any way that it inevitably destroys their self-esteem. From an early age, women should see and feel that their opinions, thoughts and views are at par with men; so, they believe they are equal. And when we say NO to ANYTHING – we should know that it’s alright and so should the men!

“And Greet with Joy the Dawn of a Golden Age”

Age is but a number, so say the wise. And in this swashbuckling era of Botox and Photo-shopping where medical science is labouring hard to ensure that 50 is the new 30 and 70 is but another name for 50, and however knobbly knee-ed you may be, wearing a mini skirt is completely acceptable, the frillier the better; none of us have any doubt that the wise are -err, sagaciously justified in saying so!

But as you rather coyly step from one decade into another dear ladies, daintily airbrushing your years away, let me bolster your sagging (ahem) spirits by reassuring you that every new decade brings with it some unexpectedly delightful benefits that no one ever told you about. So what is in store for you dear sisters as you reach the mid-century mark?

1. You finally and totally, stop caring a damn! Your best friend points out that you have added yet another tire around the mid-riff, the sleazy neighbour continues to talk to your décolleté rather than to you, the husband is astounded that the fridge is not stocked with his favourite beer, despite the fact that you have been travelling on work the entire week; any of these things would have had you tearing your hair out or over compensating defensively in your 30s-40s avatar. But in your 50s you just couldn’t be bothered! And here’s how my middle finger looks dear neighbour! Rhett Butler would be proud of you!

2. You learn to fight for the remote! Finally! I will watch GOT and NOT the 100th version of a cricket league! I will not eat what you decide to order. I will keep the curtains drawn and the AC at sub-polar temperatures should I want to. And no, I will certainly not get up and start organizing lunch, the second I have sat down to read the papers just because you are hungry! Aah, the freedom that comes with saying NO!

I am given to understand that there is a perfectly scientific explanation for this added aggression which is something to do with testosterone levels moving up and \ oestrogen levels moving down, which is BTW what kept us in a cow- like state pre the 50s and in contrast made our dear men so manly and assertive! So the next time you say NIET, its good old science at work, so don’t worry you have an alibi!

3. Every Day is Carpe Diem! For some reason reaching the 50s makes us all suddenly aware of our own mortality. The prospect of a meeting with our Maker looming over the horizon drives us in either of two directions. Some of us embrace spirituality and nobility with a bit of vengeance, hoping to erase our past sins with exponential amounts of good works and noble thoughts (my mother-in -law is SUCH a nice lady!) or we choose to go in the direction of squeezing in everything we ever wanted to do but didn’t, in this decade. “Good lord! My daughter in law is going to end up wearing all my jewellery and my precious Banarasis which I have been accumulating instead of me!” are some thoughts that start invidiously creeping in. Which is the reason you see all that OTT bling happening to all the aunts at the wedding!

So as you crest the semi-centennial decade on the tumbling waves of your life dear girls, embrace it with joy and hope and vim and vigor, for this is the decade meant for you to truly come into your own! And a hip hip hurrah to all of you!

Hope and Grace!

As we move into the New Year with its inevitably uplifting message of optimism, how should we use this memo to heal the feeling of despair that has been pervading us as we hear about yet another tragedy or a sickening display of hatred and racism or deal with the complete loss of faith in yet another leader or institution? Is just the turning of a clock’s dial from ‘17 to ‘18 enough to help us combat the sense of despondency created by prosaic occurrences like the rejection of an idea, an unachieved target or a turned down sales deal?

The amazing thing about human beings is that we are hard wired to hope. We get up every morning with the expectation of having a better day than the previous, we have children hoping that they will have a better life than we did, we go and meet clients for the 11th time yet again, thinking that now at last he will buy what I have to offer. The pretty girl smiling at us in the bus immediately unfurls an expectation of a romance, the next lottery ticket is most certainly going to change our fortunes forever and the start-up idea we have, will revolutionize the world and make us billionaires before our 29th birthday.

And maybe that is how it has to be. For what else can we do to contest the cacophony of doom and gloom around us? The more we get interconnected and plugged into the entire world, the more we bear witness to the atrocities happening in each corner of it. Staying in bed with blankets tucked firmly over our head, all senses closed to whatever is happening is certainly one option. The other then is to fan the flicker of optimism and allow it to burn brightly every day, jump out and embrace the world with hope in our heart and a song on our lips “Today will be better …”

And if sometimes the light feels as if it is dimming and nothing can help it shine brighter maybe it is worthwhile stepping outside of ourselves and looking at our planet in the same manner the Voyager did in 1990, and showed to all of us what it actually looks like? the “pale blue dot” hanging with such fragility in the Milky Way; like a tear drop, almost as if a flicker will wipe it away; and marvel at the miracle that has kept it there, so delicately poised so that billions of us can live, breathe, love and hate, fight and make up on that little pin point?

Is it an accident of fate, a physical juxta positional occurrence or an act of amazing grace by some higher being that has kept it stationed there against all odds and probabilities?

And maybe then we can use this moment to thank whichever gods that may be, for their grace and rekindle hope in all our hearts for mankind and for each one of us.

So as we begin 2018 all I wish for you is a heart full of hope and the grace of the universe. Let’s settle for that to start with!

Happy New Year!

What’s that?

I am surrounded by some fabulous men at home and at work. Intelligent, kind, charming and some of them quite funny too! But the only male I can have a conversation with, amongst all of them is my son. Because he is the only one who actually listens to me when I speak.

A large cohort of these dear fellows is tottering towards the mid-century mark (in age, not in number of runs scored or daily beer intake) and probably that’s the reason that whatever other virtues they may have, listening is clearly not their strength.

To certify the veracity of my charge, I urge you to be present as a fly on the wall when I am having a conversation with any one of them at any moment of your choice.

One of my male colleagues, waits for me to take a breath during a chat and before I can exhale, he has pounced in with his point of view or with a completely random comment or with an objection to something I have not said. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is he who is speaking. The other gentleman is more circumspect and responds with a sonorous grunt to whatever I say. Since he is a nice guy, I end up giving him allowance assuming he has indubitably heard whatever I have said, although his eyes glazing over after the fifth word I utter, seem to belie that fact.

A family lunch with the in-laws where there is a preponderance of strong male types goes something like this;

“So Apu tell us should we have the destination wedding in Jaipur or Goa?” asks my fabulously cool BIL.

Feeling very flattered that my opinion is being sought, which in itself is quite a rarity, I quickly assemble my thoughts at lightning speed and am ready with a SWOT analysis of both the destinations.

I have barely begun my response “In my opinion …” and my sentence gets cut midway with “I think it should be Goa” stated emphatically or “Hang on just a sec, let me call the waiter to replenish my drink” or “And by the way do you know what I told my CFO the other day?” the last one from the dulcet voice of husband dearest who insists on having multiple conversations all at the same time, some of which are happening entirely in his mind.

I think the reasons my son listens to me are as follows 1) he is 24 2) he has been brought up very well 3) he is currently in the initial stages of his romance when as we all know the propensity to listen to women is at its zenith, post which it irrevocably declines. He promises me it won’t change and I am relying on reason 2, to help him keep his commitment.

In the mean time I have figured out the best way to satisfactorily communicate with all the 50 plus year old males in my life. A blended variation of Twitter and Whatsapp seems to be doing the trick currently. So a conversation containing 180 characters (no more, no less) and sent by Whatsapp is the mantra to be adopted. “What time are you coming home for dinner?” or “What is today’s sales figure?” or even “I think we should cover editorial processes in today’s review” invariably gets me a reasonably exact response.

Since social media is just being discovered by this generation I am not too hopeful of how long this will last and expect that sooner rather than later, I will start getting videos of cute kittens playing with a ball of wool, the latest TedEx motivational talk, or the best 100 runs scored by Sachin as relevant responses irrespective of the question I have asked.

But till then my sisters, Whatsapp in twitter language is your best bet should you be wanting to have normal conversations with the gents! Go for it!

Thhoda dhania dena Bhaiyya!

We, the 60s born are what I call the cusp generation, although unkinder people may end up calling us confused and a bit lost.

Born of hardworking, thrifty parents with limited means, we grew up in an environment of wearing hand me down clothes, safety pin augmented sandals, borrowed books and second class train rides to Naani’s home for summer vacations. In almost unseemly contrast we have spawned a generation of self-assured kids expecting and getting immediate gratification for whatever they want, three luxury cars at their disposal and unlimited access to the latest gizmo, to entertainment, and to the rest of the world through mandatory holidays in exotic foreign locales.

We appreciate and practice the values that our parents taught us (after all education and perseverance did get us where we have reached) and equally empathize with the sense of entitlement our children have, since not only does it make them super confident and assertive but it is also out of dint of the effort and caution that we put in, in the years when we were starting our careers and marriages. We deserve it we feel, and by proxy they deserve the indulgences too.

However, being objective and appreciating equally the virtues of both the worlds we straddle, also is fraught with its own set of dangers.

We invariably and frequently fall prey to moral dilemmas and angst ridden conflicts especially in consumption led decisions, the outward manifestation is arguments with our parents (why don’t you call for a taxi instead of getting onto a bus at your age ????) and children (do you really need a branded belt?), while in essence it is a conflict within ourselves. One side of which whispers prudence is a virtue, and the other which screams Carpe Diem, especially when entering that snazzy new mall or the Michelin starred restaurant!

Every day we struggle to make sense of all this and fumble our way through various shades of grey choices we have to make which no text book has ever prepared us for. All the stories and case studies were black and white examples of right or wrong and of obvious choices to be made between good and bad. No one really taught us to make the Scylla and Charybdis type of choices between two equally promising actions or two equally bad ones!

The manifestation of this mental muddle ends up in us being gloriously penny wise and pound foolish! So we don’t think twice about buying that expensive watch which could keep a small family in comfort for six months but we definitely will ensure that we bargain with the fruit seller, get the two rupee change back from the auto rickshaw driver and give only bed sheets to be ironed to the Dhobi! And woe betide the vegetable vendor if he doesn’t give us free dhania! Heavens will fall and the earth will quake!

As the world worries about rising inequality and non-inclusive growth levels where the rich are getting richer and the poorer progressively more so, can we at least do our tiny wee bit by ensuring we increase the dhobi’s income by giving him more clothes to iron and the driver by paying him overtime and for god’s sake let’s start paying for the ‘dhania’?

Reservations? Or not?

One question I keep getting asked more often than not is whether I am in favour of reservations for women on boards? It is a difficult question to respond to, because if I answer in the affirmative it seems as if I am pushing the feminist agenda at the cost of meritocracy, and if the answer is a no, then I am obviously ignoring the harsh reality of the invisibility cloak that lies over so many women who get passed over in favour of their male colleagues insofar as such club-like cliques are concerned!

So I end up giving a very wishy-washy answer accompanied by my patented ‘caught in the headlights’ Bambi look which while being cute certainly does not behove my image as an iron lady!

Perforce I have decided to take the bull by the horns and say unequivocally that till we correct the balance of power and till there are enough women in and outside boards, I am completely, utterly and totally in favour of reservations.

The end justifies the means and when the end is clearly such a luminous one that all but the most dim-witted idiot can see it, I see no reason to prevaricate any longer.

When I used to play hockey for my college (some of you may remember that hockey has been our national sport and thus quite popular even in the pre Chak de era) several of us were participating in trials to get into the state hockey team at one stage. And while a friend of mine only tried for the centre forward position which being more glamorous had far more contenders, I chose to try for the goal keeper’s slot which had limited appeal amongst the players. The idea was to play for the state and whatever made that happen was perfectly acceptable to me, but this logic did not resonate with my friend.

I played for Tamil Nadu for two years and she didn’t.

The moment we ensure that there are women represented at the top, automatically conversations around diversity will increase in the very place where they are not happening today – the board room. One woman on the board can have a multiplier effect just by having a feminine point of view at that critical table. More importantly visible role models will emerge to inspire younger women, which is one of the crucial factors that encourages women to keep climbing the slippery slopes of the corporate ladder.

To achieve this objective, if reservations are required temporarily, so be it, I say. “Exitus acta probat” Most definitively!

And by the way it will also go a long way in helping all our dear male colleagues too. Research has it that men become politer, come better dressed, and improve in etiquette and manners when there are women on their boards!

It is not about the glass ceiling, it is about the leaky pipeline

It falls upon us, as women leaders to be an example for the younger women. It’s important that they connect with the life of who they look up-to and push themselves to achieve more. It’s important that they see us-the women leaders of today as an inspiration rather than an aspiration.

Are you a catch 28? Or a catch 30?

Not too long ago, a close friend’s daughter hit a dual milestone – a corner office in a high-brow consultancy, and the elusive 28th birthday.

I think you know where I’m going with this, but I’ll go there anyway. If you can, do bear with me.

So, this dear friend’s daughter (let’s call her B) happens to also be my godchild. And B is just the godchild I could’ve asked for – fierce, fiery, and full of life. Her mother is a doctor and a feminist. All resemblances are purely coincidental. I hosted a lavish dinner to celebrate B’s out-of-turn promotion; surrounded by sullen and highly pedigreed faces on the wrong side of 30. B happens to be the youngest person in her organization to have been given the distinguished title of Vice-President. Needless to say, many eyebrows were raised, many eyeballs rolled, and many jaws dropped. But B is B – too glam to give a damn. Most times, she’s a star and sometimes, she’s a superstar. So she did what she does best – gaily ignored the face contortions and gleamed with pride as she cosied into her new office.

So yes, dinner was had, toasts were raised, and we all left feeling pleasantly light in our heads and our hearts.

Three days hence, B had a meltdown. In hindsight, I guess I should’ve seen it coming.

B was in the ‘marriage market’ – and any single (or married) woman out there knows how brutal those can be. One after another eligible single man asked her different versions of the same questions; some brash, some carefully camouflaged, but all equally worrisome to her: “What time do you get back from work?”, “Would that change post marriage?”, “Would you still choose to work after having kids? And the innocuous sounding, but most dangerous of them all, “Are you an ambitious person?”

Never one to shy away from a tough question, this time B found herself in a precarious position. To marry, or not to marry? Corporate wife or homely mother? The underlined, tacit assumption was her eventual exit from the corporate ladder. B was stumped. And I? I was distressed. After all, B was not only my godchild, but also my protégé. While she had been encouraged throughout her life to assume that she could have it all, obviously the men around her had had a far more blinkered upbringing – that women could either be good wives or good colleagues but most certainly not both!

And heaven help the man who chose a working wife – He was doomed to a lifetime of cold sandwiches for dinner or a competitive , emasculating companion at home!

The sad truth is most men (yes even today) don’t want a wife, but a mother at home. Having been brought up in an environment where their mothers have stayed at home and taken care of every need of their “raja betas”, they obviously expect the same from their wives.

The tide will only turn when increasingly we see more and more sons of working mothers in the marriage market. Sons who have been brought up perforce to be independent and respectful of women’s equality! Yet another reason for all of us to continue working, don’t you think so ?

As for my B? She lifted her perfectly manicured middle finger to the bevy of eligible, regressive men, and shooed them away with her signature, easy charm. At work, she continues to kick their butts. But I know her, and I know it hasn’t been easy. My hope is, that someday, it will be.

Glass Ceiling – Broken or just Cracked?

Senator Clinton eloquently put it in her concession speech, “To all the little girls watching, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” But the fact still remains that she lost!

Increasingly other data points to this “one step forward two steps backward“ meandering march that the diversity agenda is charting everywhere!

1. In USA, according to a McKinsey report ‘Women at Workplace’, for every 100 women promoted past entry level positions, 130 men are promoted

2. This same report indicates that more women than men asked for a raise, 29% compared to 27%

3. Gender imbalance has existed even on music charts. Although, today it is at a significant low

4. Yet another report suggests that number of women on the Board of Indian companies has gone up. And, the percentage change in the figure is highest in India across APAC.

The glass ceiling – that elusive barrier that keeps women out of upper management, is obviously still very much there. It might be cracked but it still needs a few more blows to be completely shattered.

What can be done here? Start a revolution? Absolutely not right now. Hold onto those ‘belan’ and ‘morcha’ thoughts though. We need small wins, incremental changes. Through the 60s, 70s, 80s women have led movements using radical protest marches and legal action to drive out discrimination. But most of the barriers that persist today are deeply ingrained – not the kinds that a revolution could blast away. These barriers are more subtle, more nuanced and therefore that much more dangerous – and they start young.

I loved BBC’s poignant expression of how kids view differences between each other – if you haven’t seen it yet, stop right where you are click here: We could all learn from these kids.

The adult in you will see the obvious and striking differences – different ethnicities, different levels of able-bodiedness, accents, gender. However the biggest differences the children see between themselves are whether or not they like tomato sauce or lettuce, or who talks more or less and who has “squirrels in his roof and who doesnt” !!!!

The video ends with a message, ‘When it comes to difference, children see things differently’.

Every child’s response is a strong reminder that discrimination is an evil bred in our society, and not something we are born with.

How did we even get here? What happened between childhood and adulthood?

As kids, we have an impressionable mind and start learning at as little as two years. Girls and boys start playing with kitchen sets to imitate their mothers, or toy cars to imitate their fathers. But soon enough, the boys get reprimanded – “go play ball outside”and girls are asked to sit indoors like dutiful Hindu cows, to “dream of their own pantry”. And foul, antediluvian prejudices get reinforced with pretty, fuchsia (read: blue for boys) coloured packaging to generate sayings like ‘like mother like daughter, like father like son’. What a shame.

The truth is that we’re all hard-wired to some form of gender discrimination at a very early age. We need to revisit that time in our lives when we first began to believe the bullshit that boys don’t cry and must be tall, and girls wear pretty frocks and must be fair. The one in distress is always the damsel, and the rescuer is always the knight. My personal favorite is when my son at age 6 told me he would grow up and marry someone exactly like me except with long hair! I was quite flummoxed with this outdated notion of beauty that he had, till I realized all the ads on TV for any beauty product invariably showed long lustrous haired models, accentuating repeatedly the preconception that long hair is a sign of beauty if not a joy forever!

Indeed if all parents had believed that playing sports ( and that too, god forbid, in shorts ! ) would ensure their daughters became dark/never got married/were perceived as women of loose morals/wouldn’t know how to cook and so on, we wouldn’t be raising a toast to our womens’ cricket team reaching the finals today!!

So to all the ladies out there who wear the pants and the frocks – raise a toast to yourself. And try to remember that while you may have been the damsel, you’re also your own knight!

Only dead fish go with the flow!

The recent Wonder Woman movie is a rage, both at the box office, and critic ratings. It has, in fact, gone on to become DC’s highest grossing movie. Kudos Gal Gadot! What struck me the most about the movie is the fact that Diana returns, finally, to a home, satisfied in knowing the truth of who she is.

And the key word here is satisfied ! How many of us are truly content with who we are?  Being comfortable in your own skin, ironically, is very uncomfortable. And, unfortunately women end up having the maximum amount of self doubt. The mind of a woman dressing up for work, for college, or even for a morning run, is less potpourri, more pandemonium. Can I carry off this shade of lipstick? Does the back of my blouse seem low? Is a sleeveless top appropriate for class? Will the shorts ride up during the run? If Wonder Woman questioned her outfit this much, she’d be fighting crime in a Teletubby suit!

And, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we compiled all the doubts women have about themselves into a book, we’d have a new record for the ‘lengthiest book written in history’.

While I have nothing against being self doubting Thomasinas, since self doubt is very good for the soul and makes all of us better (and more humble) human beings; in the corporate world, being tentative is a strict no–no. As a consequence of this, women often assume that it’s outrageous to ask for a raise, double promotion, scholarship or volunteer for the challenging assignment or the next role. And we hesitate to ask for support from family, friends – because God forbid, ‘meri wajah se kisiko taklif hogi’ (I will be a cause of worry for someone close). All this ends up holding us back, and we end up boxing ourselves in a tight corner all of our own making!

Tentativeness gets seen as not only a lack of confidence but also as an inability to raise the bar, to accept challenges at work and deliver desired results!

To be fair – there have been some stray glimmers of hope in recent times. Not enough to make a revolution happen, but enough to get me excited. Increasingly around me I see for example, so many single women who are leading life on their own terms. They have CHOSEN not to get married not because they didn’t have opportunities but because they preferred either a solitary, self dependent life-style , or had selected a satisfying career which gave them complete fulfilment or they chose to focus on other pursuits beyond the normal ‘college-marriage -2.5 kids’ routine. One of our highest performing sales heads is a single woman from a fairly traditional background who starts her day by saying “hum jahan se khade hotein hain line wahin se shuru hoti hai” She has worked in the most difficult of markets, with extremely challenging clients in highly stressful environments and delivered stellar results. Some of the markets which she regularly visits have starkly retrograde views on women and there she goes with a  song and a whistle on her lips,confidently and nonchalantly!

However to convert these aberrations into a fast paced change, women need to fight their inner demons and become their own versions of Wonder Woman. The world deserves to see you in your full glory. The one who is comfortable in her own skin, will kick the s#!t out of biases, claim what is rightfully hers and enjoy a big piece of the cake – with both hands!

As a parting note, I would like to share this very moving speech from Theodore Roosevelt, titled ‘The Man in the Arena’. Tip – feel free to read it as ‘The Woman in the Arena’.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the (wo)man who points out how the strong (wo)man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends (her)himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that (her) his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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