Birds of a feather sit together

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Unless women show confidence no one will show respect.

On International women’s Day I write this to encourage women professionals to show solidarity -by not getting cowed down by male bluster. This is not another “anti-male gripe of frustration” but a quiet lesson to ponder over. What I am recounting is based only partially on personal observation. A lot is founded on academic research into men’s and women’s behaviour patterns which have been studied for decades (including in western settings.) The sole purpose of the article is to make women understand that the biases, prejudices and stereotypes continue to exist even in the most urbane and sophisticated settings and if these are to be overthrown, women and only women can do it.

Women’s Seating preferences

Consider some findings from discussion groups when participants from both sexes are present. Invariably women bunch-up together at one end of the table. An odd woman may sit sandwiched between two men but by and large women tend to flock together, something which is quite apparent. When seats in the front row are limited, women tend to sit in the second row but usually near other women. On long tables they seldom venture to occupy a chair next to the Chairman, even if a seat is vacant.

Women’s politeness seen as timidity

When the floor is thrown open for questions and comments, two things can be observed: first, men are first to speak. Second, women speak in fewer numbers and clamp down the minute they are interrupted. Women tend to phrase a comment like a question making it sound like a doubt – not a statement. They accept a brusque Chairman asking, “So what’s your question? Come to the point,” by promptly ending whatever was being said. This never happens when a man speaks – not only does he finish what he is saying, but usually takes a disproportionately long time to do so. And except when it becomes really tedious, no one stops a man from rambling on.

In hundreds of meetings I have attended, the amount of time given to men far exceeds the time given to women. When a woman’s hand goes up and the Chairman says, “Sorry no more time for questions,” she dutifully puts her hand down; but every man who had raised his hand at exactly the same moment manages to be heard. Sometimes a man, who never put his hand up initially, suddenly intrudes, but even so he is accommodated!

Classroom behavior of women students

And this trend is not confined to only senior professionals. I quizzed numerous academics about classroom behaviour and this is what I learnt: really knowledgeable women students who perform exceedingly well in examinations and interviews however choose to stay quiet in co-educational settings. It is almost as though they feel, “maybe there is more to be said on the subject; maybe what I know is not enough; maybe the class will not agree.” On the other hand all academics agree that men are decidedly more competitive and even with little reading assert their opinions with enormous self-assurance.

Women in male settings

Among the many groups that I have joined, I belong to one where I happen to be the only woman. Whenever we meet, I find that my male colleagues are keen to be chivalrous, to compliment me on my clothes; also to build me up as some kind of prima donna. Two things then follow almost automatically. The task of ordering the food is, without exception delegated to me as though that is always a woman’s job. The order for drinks is however a purely male thing and (although I do not crave the job,) alcohol preferences are conveyed only by men. This is not to invent new stereo-types but to show how women’s roles are perceived, even in professional settings.

When it comes to conversation, one or the other in the predominantly male group will start by narrating a story in which our man always comes out as courageous, resourceful and a winner. No man ever shares a confidence about domestic ups-and- downs, impossible children, difficult colleagues, impertinent subordinates or even a spat which took place on the way. (This all women will bear out is staple diet when women meet other women.) Men’s stories invariably describe some sort of one-up-man-ship like clinching a big deal e.g. buying a house, a car or the latest computer gizmo. The effort is to project oneself as knowledgeable, inventive and smart. And this when it is invariably the woman who has done extensive back-end research, exercised a considered choice and even negotiated the deal!

During my forays into a man’s world, the moment I start becoming assertive the response is always the same. The tone becomes patronizing and I get lectured to – much in the tenor used for very young children. If I stick to my point, it ceases to be a conversation. A buzz starts somewhere else in the group effectively drowning whatever I was trying to say. And if I still persist with my point, a couple of male colleagues will put me down collectively – not rudely- but with insufferable condescension-without even hearing what I had to say! On these occasions, I have discovered that forceful speaking is the only way and to be taken seriously, one simply has to behave like men do and forget about being liked. More of that later.

Women in social gatherings

In social gatherings like cocktail parties or dinner get-togethers, not only do professional women gravitate and sit together but just in case it becomes a mixed group, the roles get typified very quickly. As long as the banter remains gossipy, frothy and hilarious it is the women who command the conversation. But dare you start giving opinions on politics, cricket or investments, conversation quickly gets stultified and either the men start talking among themselves or wander off for a drink. A woman who persists is seen as entering unknown territory – to the point of getting chided by fellow women. “Oh come on yaar, stop talking to the men-don’t neglect your food, I have slaved all morning cooking it!”

The point of all these stories is to show that women themselves need to reverse this trend, without losing feminine cool and inborn graciousness.

The message I wish to give is this:

  1. Make it a point to go and sit with the men even if it looks odd. Try and sit as near the Chairman as possible which is what determines seniority and stature.
  2. Be the first to put your hand up and encourage more women to join and support each other.
  3. Think through what you are going to say and do not allow yourself to be put down by interruptions or condescension.
  4. Be upfront just when you start speaking: “I will not be able to raise my voice so please be gracious enough to let me speak without interruption.”
  5. If someone still interrupts, just say, “Since I have waited so long, now please give me a few moments.” It works with TV anchors and will work for every woman if she just says it- in front of an audience. It puts everyone on the defensive and thereafter no one will dare disrupt you. (But keep it short- always more effective.)
  6. And should anyone still butt in, say loudly but very slowly, “Excuse me I was speaking,” and just listen to the silence around you. Having started, persevere. Don’t let your voice fade into the afternoon. That’s worse than never having opened your mouth.

Here’s wishing every woman who reads this blog a wonderful International Woman’s Day. Today, show solidarity with other professional women, take a vow to be assertive, to help other women to be assertive and refuse to take crap in the classroom, in the office, in the sitting room or in the club. Sit along with the men. Have something important to say. Insist on being heard and say it all.

Unless women show confidence no one will show respect.

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