Four women toppers among the top five in India’s prestigious IAS exams, as the news came in it was a moment of rejoice not only for the ladies and their families but for the entire country. Never before have the top spots been grabbed by women in civil service exams. Outshining hundreds and thousands among more than 4,00,000 aspirants is a feat in itself.
As a woman civil sevant who has walked the tightrope between responsibility and pressure of sorts, I would like to forewarn these achievers of challenges that lie ahead of them. A very promising career faces the danger of getting derailed due to several reasons. Firstly, it’s the image that counts and one should not be deterred by colleagues and seniors even in the State Secretariat who might get on your wrong side because of their pesky nature. Nuggets about the new female entrants are received with delight by one and all. And the test is more difficult for those in the limelight.
An IAS officer’s mettle is tested by his or her ability to anticipate problems and deal with them efficiently without rocking the boat. Administrative rules and regulations are important but the wisdom to anticipate public reaction and political fallout of decisions is also crucial.
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:
- 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.
- Be the first to put your hand up and encourage more women to join and support each other.
- Think through what you are going to say and do not allow yourself to be put down by interruptions or condescension.
- 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.”
- 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.)
- 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.
Shailaja Chandra, a former executive director of India’s National Population Stabilization Fund, was the first woman Chief Secretary of Delhi.Full profile
NEW DELHI – Last December’s fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi triggered an unprecedented public outcry in India. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to demand an end to police indifference to women’s safety, stronger laws, and speedier trials for those charged with crimes against women. The protests launched a countrywide movement, spurring nonstop media coverage of women’s issues. So, has significant change followed?
Within eight days of the rape, a special commission, led by former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma, was established. The commission’s roughly 700-page report, completed in only 29 days, urged the government to take swift, far-reaching action. Among the report’s recommendations were stronger penalties for sex crimes, including harassment; a requirement that police officers report every instance of alleged rape; and broader measures to address pervasive discrimination against women.
India’s government responded two weeks later, announcing a new ordinance that not only expands the definition of rape, but also makes behavior such as groping, stalking, trafficking, and voyeurism serious criminal offenses. But, as the commission’s report highlighted, India does not lack laws intended to deter sexual violence against women. Rather, amid widespread ignorance and apathy, government and law enforcement have lacked the motivation to administer existing laws adequately.
The recent explosion of long-dormant public outrage should be a tipping point, precipitating genuine progress toward a more equal society. But designing effective policies to diminish the obstacles confronting women and girls requires measuring the prevalence of the attitudes and habits that limit their potential. If the recently enacted laws are to have the intended effect, Indian society must reject discriminatory mindsets and practices.
Unlike conventional indicators, which capture inequality in outcomes like education and employment, the OECD’s Social Institutions Gender Index (SIGI) evaluates the underlying drivers of such outcomes, comparing factors such as preferential treatment of sons over daughters, violence against women, and restrictions on property rights. According to this metric, in 2012, India ranked 56th out of 86 countries for gender equality, lower than other major emerging markets like Brazil, China, Indonesia, and South Africa.
But Indian society, which comprises more than 1.2 billion citizens, is hardly homogeneous. Indeed, India is a complex amalgam of 28 states with widely varying social indicators. For example, the nine states that the government has labeled “high focus” account for 62% of India’s maternal deaths and 70% of infant deaths, but contain only 48% of the country’s population.
Meanwhile, the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh account for roughly 22% of the population, but less than 12% of maternal deaths. Similarly, while infant deaths account for less than 5% of all deaths in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, more than 20% of babies born in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan (all high-focus states) do not see their first birthday. So, given the limited value of countrywide generalizations, India’s leaders must focus on the differences between states in order to devise targeted policies.
India’s National Rural Health Mission has adopted such an approach, using region-specific data to identify low-quality prenatal care, unsafe deliveries, and lack of access to birth control as high-priority issues in 18 states. The measures that the mission has implemented since 2005 – including free contraception, pregnancy tracking, prenatal care, compensation for hospital delivery, and regular home visits to new mothers – contributed to a 20% drop in fertility rates in the targeted states by 2010, and helped to reduce maternal and infant deaths.
But this approach is not sufficient to address the gender inequality that characterizes Indian politics and society. Women comprise just 10% of India’s parliament, and only two of 35 ministers with full Cabinet rank are women. And, while the 33% quota for women in local-government bodies has placed a million of them in elected positions at the grass roots, the extent to which this has actually improved women’s status has yet to be measured.
Moreover, discrimination in India often begins in the family. Indian families’ tendency to prefer sons has resulted in an adverse sex ratio, particularly in some northern states. Moreover, in the same region, more than 60% of girls are married well before the legal age, making pregnancies among anemic and malnourished teenagers a common occurrence. But, at the same time, most girls complete 12 years of schooling in the northern mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, demonstrating that the north-south distinction is no more conclusive than countrywide generalizations.
To facilitate the design of effective targeted policies, India’s Central Statistical Organization is working to provide detailed data through a pilot project that captures Indian states’ SIGI indicators. The study will highlight the variations in social, cultural, and economic barriers to female empowerment across India.
Policies based on generalities will not work. To initiate a fundamental shift in citizens’ gender-related attitudes and behavior, India’s leaders must understand – by the numbers – the often-dramatic disparities between their country’s individual states.
Guests: Shailaja Chandra (Fmr. Secretary, Ministry of Health, GOI) ; Reva Nayyar (Formar Secretary, Ministry of Women and Child Develepment) ; Kirti Singh (Senior Lawyer) and Anchor: Arfa Khanum Sherwani
I come in at 1:52 Minute, 12:42 Minute, 16:26 Minute, 18:55 Minute & 25:12 Minute and 5 times in all.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us remember those who had a hand in making us the women we are today. It is time to give credit to one’s parents, siblings, husbands, bosses and colleagues who made that possible.
Today I salute my parents for investing in me as a child. For spending money on sending me to wonderful boarding school Tara Hall in Simla. I thank them for having faith in me and investing in my education without considering the cost or the outcomes. It never struck them to think that they could be watering a neighbour’s garden.
I thank my mother for pulling me off the stage as a budding actress in Miranda House and forcing me to confront the final examination or third division marks. I thank her for standing steadfast through my worst tantrums and sulks as I resented losing name and fame. How difficult it must have been for her as a single parent, recently widowed and having to cope with her own challenging job in a central Ministry. Her conviction and courage changed my life but little did I know it then.
I thank my brother for daring me to appear for the civil services without which I would have taken the soft line of earning good money for myself while not doing anything meaningful for society.
I thank at least 6 of the 16 bosses I have worked under – for having faith enough to give me difficult assignments in a man’s world; for navigating me through difficult times- A Central minister who chose to do the ministry’s most important work nearing midnight and another who sent me packing to “find a way.”. I remember a state chief minister who branded me as “that woman” for daring to stand in the way of approving illegalities.
Through all this I specially remember three unusual bosses in the ministries of defence, power and health. In the seventies and eighties, it was unusual to find male bosses with a liberal mind and progressive ideas. I did and I recognise now how special they were. Equally I remember three male politicians who made no distinction in their approach towards men and women officers, who appreciated candour during discussion and conviction on file.
It is impossible not to compare them to scores of other bosses and colleagues (mostly civil servants) who used every opportunity to pass hurtful remarks attributing success from perseverance to nothing but good articulation of English or worse, to pretty ensembles. I still recall a Cabinet secretary whom I met to apprise him of patent injustice only to be told, “All women are cuckoo.” Or a Union secretary who said, “Ambitious women are the worst.”
Three times in my career I became embroiled alternately with lawyers, activists, doctors, and even the state Lok Ayukta – all men. I had to fight those battles alone as no one was willing to listen. I hated myself because anger invariably brought tears to my eyes which were immediately seen as a sign of weakness. I hated all the pity coming from a host of onlookers who hardly cared but quite enjoyed the spectacle of an upright, outspoken officer getting buffeted by the system. Nothing came of all the ploys my detractors used to derail my career, but the experience left me devastated. Today I do not recall the pangs of what I had to go through as much as I recall the pain of being a woman.
How humiliated I felt when no one took me seriously. How every man I met wanted a good story but was not prepared to do anything about it – almost presuming that this was the outcome of some womanly overreach. How much I tried to convince my direct bosses – all male – to please examine the facts and intercede. I kicked myself then for being a woman. For being unable to find even one sympathetic ear because I had failed to network with the boys over golf and drinks. Every man I knew of who had faced similar situations had managed to extricate himself. Why did I have to wait for years for the Delhi High Court to find no truth in the allegations? Because as a woman I did not have the contacts and connections needed to pull me out?
The anguish of being pitied hurt the most. “Poor woman” was a comment I could not bear.
And through all this who stood by me the most? My husband. Never once did he chide me for returning late from office day after day. Whenever opportunities arose and there were several – he always encouraged me to travel. He told me never to worry about the children. We had brought them up to be independent and everything would be fine. When I was posted outside Delhi, he looked after three children, the youngest being just eight, without making it sound like a burden. I recall his wisdom and clarity of thinking whenever I was struck by doubts in the office or at home. Most of all he gave me the freedom to invest in my own career without promoting his. If every husband were to do that much for a career wife, every woman would gather the courage to stay on track without enduring pangs of guilt.
Last but not least, on International Women’s Day I must remember all the women I have worked with. Women subordinates and office staff-for showing incredible patience, good humour and infinite trust in my ability. To my women friends, some of whom have stayed friends for over 40 years – for sharing the ups and downs, the turmoil of facing teenage rebellion, domestic upheavals, illnesses, death and more. All the things that needed empathy not sympathy, certainly not solutions. Just an intelligent mind and a patient ear. That is what my women friends did for me-something no one else- not even family could do so well.
I have mixed feelings about women bosses because I too have been one and I know what it is to wear the pants in a man’s world. Undoubtedly women bosses are exacting and impatient. Often it is because instinctively their mind races forward anticipating hurdles long before they occur. But ironically this natural perspicacity far from being seen as a God given gift becomes a blight. Exasperation with incompetence results in sharp words but coming from a woman boss they are hard to swallow. That is why women chiefs seldom command admiration even if they command respect. And yet women bosses are much more capable of burning down hierarchical structures and showing genuine warmth and compassion – emotions most men are incapable of showing leave alone voicing.
If I had to give a message to women still striving to come up – particularly in the civil services but equally in any career, my advice would be: first, invest in stable domestic arrangements. Combative men are waiting for you to make excuses to leave early, take casual leave and decline coming to the office on weekends. Remember all important decisions are taken after 7 PM. If you aren’t there, you aren’t there.
Second, early in your career let your husband or partner know that putting your career before him or the family does not mean you love them less. Your success is what will make them proud of you. Your children will learn to respect their wives and daughters more. They will accept responsibility and learn to stand on their own if they see their mother enjoying her success.
Third, if a woman underperforms she is much more likely to fall off the ladder of success than a man. But that failure will not only make her a loser in her own eyes but in the eyes of the entire family too. It is better therefore to run the extra mile and be prepared for occasional huffs and jibes from colleagues. As the bottleneck narrows there are no friends- only rivals.
Parting words to husbands, in-laws and parents: help her to push her career because in the ultimate analysis her happiness will add to your happiness. A woman should be supported to pursue a well-planned career – not just a job that brings money. Encourage her to make difficult choices. Help her to excel in what she does. Excuses are what people expect. Steadfastness is what people do not expect. Give her the space and freedom to do things really well. Because that is what will make the difference between her aspirations and her achievements.
And celebrate International Women’s Day!
Talk on Gender Empowerment in India – Challenges and Opportunities at the National Defence College, New Delhi on 8th February 2013.
Measuring progress and societal changes
from global project to stiglitz report
How to go beyond MDGS
OECD World Forum Busan 2009: workshop