The times they are a-turning!

One of my senior male leaders walked up to me the other day and said “OMG boss you have practically turned me into a woman!” When I laughingly asked him why, he recounted that he had just spent the last hour counselling a young woman and a new mother on his team on the best ways to feed a new born baby!
Now to my mind it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that men should morph into women, that’s called evolution after all 🙂 But be that as may, in this VUCA world where all norms are breaking and we are so hell-bent on not following the traditions and teachings that our ancestors have laid out for us, it is about time that we also reevaluate gender roles and responsibilities to suit the modern day and age, right?

While increasing women’s participation in the work force improves the economic condition of the family, increases the profitability of the organization and the GDP of a country, is a widely accepted fact; the roles women are given within any organization is also an important way to improve diversified thinking which in turn better helps an organization manage change and innovation. Unfortunately, the stereotypes about women being nurturers and men being hunters have stayed with us and dictate our interaction with each other even in professional lives. So HR which is supposedly a collaborative function is more suitable for women and sales which is cut throat and competitive is suited to males is an accepted trope.

Men and women working collaboratively in a corporate environment and being put in atypical roles only enables both the sexes to tap into their dormant sides.By working closely towards a common organizational goal and in diverse non-conformist functions men for example learn to become more nurturing towards their peers/juniors, and women learn to become more assertive in their professional decisions. At the core, both men and women thereby evolve into better humans while contributing significantly to economic growth.
Sheryl Sandberg once said, “Next time you are about to call a little girl ‘bossy’, say instead: ‘She has executive leadership skills” To that, I’d like to add, “Next time you are about to call a little boy ‘sissy’, say instead: “He is highly risk aware and has good judgment”.

If only we stop asking men to apologize for so called weaknesses and stop judging women for being strong, then we will raise the coming generations to be equal and more advanced human beings, where both men and women have the freedom to share the responsibility of earning the bread as well as nurturing their progeny.
And as long as there’s food on the table to feed our stomachs and art to feed our souls, it shouldn’t matter who earns the bread or who made the croissant!

How are organizations dealing with #MeToo

When the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 mandated the setting up of the policy on Sexual Harassment (POSH) most organizations obeyed the letter if not the spirit of the law. Due processes were put in place, ICCs or Internal complaint committees were set up and training conducted for all employees regarding understanding what constituted sexual harassment, and the redressal mechanisms thereof.

Over the years I know that in all the organizations that have set up POSH, the complaints that have come in have gone through the necessary steps required to address them, they have been escalated to the organizations’ boards and subsequent and necessary action taken.

Have all the complaints made, been taken to their natural conclusion? Most certainly they have. However, have all the complaints been true? Not necessarily. Some women have tried to avenge themselves for imagined slights by complaining against their male colleagues/bosses through the POSH, which is tremendously unfortunate. Equally has every instance of sexual harassment been brought to the notice of the organization? I am quite sure it hasn’t. In some cases, women have been too fearful to do so, in some cases they have been actively discouraged from complaining.So what do organizations need to do to deliver both the letter and the spirit of the law? What do they need to do to ensure that women are treated as equal professionals and colleagues by the men in the room, that they feel safe in working in the organization and the male gaze is a level and collaborative one, and neither a patronizing nor a sleazy one?

The biggest service the #MeToo outrage has done and will continue to do for some time to come, provided it doesn’t lose its steam, is to bring this conversation to the fore, right up and bang in the centre of the room. This is no hushed whisper in the corridor or gossip at the water cooler but loud, deafeningly noisy, public and pervasive. The whole world is talking about it, men are feeling queasy and looking over their shoulder and about time too!

For too long has the feminine voice been shushed and suppressed to a frequency that has been disregarded by the human ear. And what is not vocal is considered invisible! To ensure a wrong is redressed it has to be heard first, and in the #MeToo era, organizations have no choice but to hear the complaints internally and quickly, because if they do not do so, there is a large and public platform now waiting for women to be heard. The reputational risk for the organization can be colossal and irreversible and that fear itself will ensure far more diligence, which is a big win for gender equality. Witness the speedy dispatch of various senior leaders on enforced leave in Corporate India!

The second and equally impressive victory of #MeToo has been emboldening women to stand up and complain. With 90% of senior leaders in any organization being male, with the historical baggage of being seen as playthings, and with the immense pressure of being a ‘sport’ just to fit into a fundamentally male culture, women have been wary of complaining, despite the organization creating avenues for them to do so. It is my hope that genuine complaints will be voiced speedily and just as speedily addressed, and women will continue to find the courage under the aegis of #MeToo to come out and speak!

Thirdly and finally, the unassailable and enduring way to ensure equality and fairness for women in the workforce is simply to have more women in the workforce. The more women there are at all levels; entry, middle and at the top and the more women there are in all fields and industries, the more their voice will gather strength and the more impetus it will give to the gender equality agenda.

By staying in the workforce and by being visible in public domains we add our voice to the chorus that forms opinions and becomes the basis for actions.The wisdom of the crowd always prevails. It is up to us to ensure we are a significant percentage of that crowd!

Why is everyone objecting to being called a feminist ?

These days whenever I meet any senior woman and the talk turns to diversity, the first thing she starts the conversation is by saying in a half apologetic-half defensive manner “I am not a feminist”.

I don’t understand when feminist became a bad word and being one, considered akin to being part of a clique one should be naturally ashamed of, like I am not religious ok or I don’t understand anything except Hindi Bollywood music, or I don’t know how to waltz. None of these things are essential to you, however you know it is nice to be part of this assemblage and you enjoy it, but you are also conflicted in the perception it will create. If you say you are religious will you be seen as old fashioned, and will knowing only Hindi music brand you as a dehati ? If you say you know how to waltz will you be seen as namby-pamby or worse still, an imperialist, who has Queen Elizabeth’s picture hanging over the mantel piece?
When did the feminist agenda become something we look over our shoulders before agreeing to become complicit to?

In her Ted talk ‘We should all be feminists’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared a hard-hitting anecdote from her life wherein a male colleague said he doesn’t understand how things are harder for working women today, maybe in the past, but not today. While the rest of the anecdote is a story you should hear yourself, the point is just this – even today the problems of women that seem so self-evident to us are not so obvious to the larger world.
Contrary to popular beliefs, there are still a lot of subtle, unconscious biases playing a role in hindering the process. These biases are oftentimes a result of an oversight and a lack of communication of the problems to men. We cannot really blame them though, the poor men are simply and sadly a product of generations-old conditioning which says they need to ‘lead’ women; that they are the ‘fierce hunters’ and women are the ‘meek nurturers’. But it is time we change that by engaging more and not less, in conversations about feminism, and I don’t mean swinging in the opposite direction of men-are-here-to-cause-the-ruin-of-women feminism, but the liberal one that understands there is a problem with gender and wants to change it.

Feminism is about advocacy for access to equal opportunities and thereby cerebral equality. Being privy to the gender ratio in the corporate world, I think it’s the job of business leaders to bring gravitas to the feminist agenda. It is not about choosing one gender over the other, it is as much about men as it is about women.
Having been a part of the corporate world for over three decades and witnessing the disparity myself, I can assuredly say that we are seeing a more liberal and equal work environment today. I believe we must now engage in transparent communication by steering the conversation about feminism and women empowerment in a way that includes men in the equation too. After all, what we are aiming for is a society where girls can play with cars and boys with dolls; where women can be independent and men can be vulnerable.
Think of it as a play that need both parties to take the story forward. And like the great playwright Shakespeare himself said,
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Women Superheroes are out to save the world, we should too

History is proof that literature, movies and theatre have all portrayed gender roles the way we have popularly known it – women are homemakers, men are breadwinners. In superhero terms, men are supposed to save the world while women are the passive facilitators. But winds of change are upon us and we have none other than our superheroes rooting for it.

After 14 years of the first Incredibles’ release, when Incredibles 2 hit the theatres this year, it was no surprise that comics and superhero fans were in a state of frenzy. The part that surprised me the most, however, was the reversed gender role portrayal of the superheroes. Helen, or Elastigirl is out there saving the world from evil, while Bob, or Mr. Incredible is having a hard time keeping the house and kids in check. But surprisingly, both of them are still saving the world in their own heroic way.
Previously, women were thought to be incompetent in the fields of science, technology and war. But in the movie Black Panther, T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister Shuri, her impressive intelligence and her way with science is what really saves the day while Okoye, another strong female character, is the leader of the Wakandan army.

Back in the day, the only role models women were supposed to look up to were other women who set good examples of being ideal homemakers. But the most important movie of the year – Wonder Woman – played by the astounding Gal Gadot, has now set a splendid example for just how strong women can be; that they can save the world even with their innate nature of being loving and fragile and if it comes down to ending a war to save the world, it has to be a woman.

All of this just goes on to signify the shift we are undergoing in terms of ‘recognizing’ women as equal contributors to society. That is to say that women have always been equipped with the powers, probably same as their male counterparts, but they were previously expected to keep it dormant and limited to traditional roles and responsibilities laid out for them; it is only that we are seeing women making use of their potential in a ‘man’s world’.

Women are consistently and increasingly breaking all barriers and stereotypes to establish themselves as intellectual, rational decision-makers. We are no longer the ‘Suffering Sitas’, as I like to call it. We’re strong, fierce and capable of being the superheroes we always have been. Science, technology, aeronautics, business, media, medicine, economics, politics – all of these spheres which were previously dominated by men are now witnessing a growing participation and success of women venturing into it.
Literature and cinema has played a crucial role in shaping the society we live in today. Whatever we read in books or see on the big screens, is what we accept to be the social norm. With that in mind, maybe we should notice the transition in process right now, revel in it and fodder it. To conclude, there’s only one quote quite appropriate for this:

“If you need to stop an asteroid, you call Superman. If you need to solve a mystery, you call Batman. But if you need to end a war, you call Wonder Woman.”
It’s time we end this constant battle for equality and accept both men and women for their true potential.

Japan – Love in Tokyo

For the longest time, my perspective of Japan was distorted by the cinemascopic lens of Asha Parekh and Joy Mukherjee (of the pink lipstick and drain pipe trouser fame), cavorting on the flyovers of Tokyo amidst perplexed looking Japanese men and women, lustily singing about Love in Tokyo with neon signs psychedelically blinking away in the background and bullet trains whizzing past. (it seems the Japanese have been trying to sell us the bullet train since 1966!) The Land of the Rising Sun seemed to me to be a bit dyspeptic in a very avant-garde sort of way.

The next time Japan popped up in my mental itinerary was when my father made one random official trip there and mother dictated to him in no uncertain terms that unless he came back with two Mikimoto pearl necklaces for his two daughters, he would be deemed persona non grata. My poor dad I think survived on bread and water, but made sure that the two necklaces were dutifully brought back. Japan’s lustre went up marginally in my mind after these gifts but it still remained fairly low down the ‘likes’ ladder.

Much later a friend who came back from Japan informed me in awe struck tones that if there were earthlings living their plebeian existence here on the one hand, and then there were higher order Martians somewhere lolling about on their planet, the Japanese came in between the two of us, so impressed was he by the technological advances he saw in that country! Japan moved up quite a notch in my list with that description; however, we finally got around to going there only this year.

As a person I am not very easily impressed and am even less likely to go around showering fulsome praise on anything, which comes from being of a morose disposition having been forced to read Thomas Hardy by my mother in my formative years. However, I must tell you several things that completely bowled me over about that country and their society which makes me strongly urge that all of you should go there at least once (especially us loud and noisy Indians!)

1. The food, my god the food!! If sushi is the only thing you equate Japanese food with, my dears, the wagyu beef, the tonkatsu, the ramen and O-nigiri are to die for. We had a different type of meal every single day and are still not able to come to a common ground about which our favourite meal was!

2. The loos – which frankly where the one place I truly saw the technological marvel my friend was raving about. But again what a marvel! Hands free, six buttons to do various interesting things, everything automatic with sub sections to appeal to different requirements and preferences. Let me say no more ….

3. The cleanliness – Despite the high population density of Tokyo there was not a speck of garbage anywhere in the city. Not on the roads, not on the by-lanes, not even on the side of railway tracks. There was enough and more plastic being used, people were eating and drinking in the parks and on the roads, but not a scrap anywhere, despite (hold your breath here) a singular lack of public dustbins! And that was because everyone carries their garbage home!
No matter how many systems and processes one puts in place, the reality is that till the attitude of people changes, one cannot change anything. If only we understood that change begins from within – there would be no need to ban plastic, try and figure out ways to clear the masses of litter we dump on the roads, spend crores on setting up dust bins in public places and then even more money to ensure nobody robs the lids of said dustbins!

4. Their gardens- oases of peace and beauty and calmness amidst the stresses of quotidian life.

5. Finally, the lack of noise – no one honks, no one talks on cell phones in public places, basically no one speaks loudly in public places.

The basic tenet around all these I was given to understand, is respect for fellow citizens and the belief that communal spaces require every individual contributing to take care of them!

Travel is supposed to energize, educate and expand the mind and truly our Japan visit did just that. We came back recharged and reinvigorated with our souls filled with Zen like peace – and then the plane landed and barely had it touched the tarmac, our fellow passenger whipped his cell phone out of his pocket, furiously dialled a number and right next to my ear loudly bellowed “Heloooo kemccho, hun avigyo chuu….” Sigh!

Little Black Dress – An Epitaph*

 

“Here rests my LBD upon the back of the closet
In youth it served me well, to fortune and to renown
Fashion frown’d not on its simple classic lines,
And stylists mark’d it for their own.

Elegant was its cut, and its silhouette full of grace,
Heav’n did a recompense, my XL size it toiled to mend
It gave to me all it had, a trim waist and shapely base,
It became for me (’twas all I wish’d) a dear and trusted friend.

No longer do I seek its merits now to use,
Or draw upon its figure-shaping tricks, however clever,
Failing the weight and the bulge to lose
With a sigh and a tear I lay my LBD to rest, forever!”

 

* With sincere apologies to Thomas Gray (1716-1771).

For those of you classically inclined, here’s the original: An Epitaph – By Thomas Gray

 

 

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!

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