Why is there no room for women at the top?

Illustration: Anand Naorem

WHEN I was nine, I would stand by the school playground and excitedly watch seniors play basketball. Knowing I could not play with them, I would be happy if they let me fetch the ball. I felt ecstatic if they smiled at me. I didn’t complain when I was ignored. I waited to grow up.

Working in the corporate setup often reminds me of that. The environment is awe-inspiring. Everything is glossy and glamorous. People are busy doing important things. Big dollars are discussed. Glorious campaigns are designed. Cool bar graphs, complex pie charts, pretty jargon. Projector lights flood chic conference rooms. It is difficult not to aspire to be a part of it. And rise. And keep rising. Get prominent. Get money to match that prominence. Feel successful.

It was easy when I started out, confident in my heedlessness to hurdles and determination to deliver. It was like a dream. But something changed after seven years of work experience. (And they thought the seven-year-itch happens only in a marriage.) That’s when I noticed I am a woman, and that toughens the rules of the game.

It is certainly different to be a woman in the working world, no matter what you heard about hard work, aptitude and patience. I may not be the right woman to tell this story. I am not juggling work and family. I am single. From filmmaking to ad agencies to TV channels to digital space to news, I have dealt with as many suits as jeans-kurta clads or ponytailpiercings guys. I don’t hold a striking CEO-like designation, though I have been in top roles for over six of my 13 years of working.

My first experience of the differential behaviour felt so awkward that I couldn’t make sense of it. I had just won my company its biggest ever account after two long, difficult months. There was no confusion about who had cracked it. I was openly congratulated. There was clapping. An office party was called that evening to celebrate the milestone. They forgot to invite me. I found out two days later when the male club casually asked me why I did not come. Putting my dignity aside, I asked my boss the next day. “But you don’t drink!” he said.

I have lost count of how many times I have been asked: “Why do you need so much money?” I once met a Page 3 ad guru who passionately espouses women’s causes. He watched my showreel, appreciated my ideas and work. I quoted my expectation. (The gobetween consultant had given me an idea of their intent.) “Do clothes and cosmetics cost that much?” he asked me with a charming smile. “Surely you have a boyfriend and a father for the rest?”

Most questions are outrageous.

“Are you married?”


“Why not?”




“You see, women just aren’t serious about their career when they get married. Next, they want to get pregnant.”

“I believe you are married and have children?” I asked.

“Yes, and all my wife wants is to take care of the kids.”

I cried on my way back and laughed when I told a friend about it.

The production controllers and technology geeks I deal with are remarkably crude. They carry stereotypes to work, slot women in those boxes. They speak about it openly and are genuinely surprised when someone doesn’t laugh. “That’s why I don’t keep women in my team,” a manager once chided a subordinate, who, probably in her first job, felt guilty for being a woman.

After following up for months with a function head for a task through mails and verbal reminders, both of which he ignored, I sternly told him one day to deliver. He shot back angrily: “You need to rest your vocal chords.” Such bullying is standard practice across industry. Every time he was pulled up, a production controller would say within my earshot: janaaniyan ghabra jaati hain jaldi (women get hyper easily).

I AM ashamed that I did try once to mix well with men. I wrote an essay for a boss’ daughter on electronic devices. I have arranged tea-coffee at meetings. (I so wish I had refused.) I once held a glass of liquor throughout the screening of my corporate film to look the part. I ignored sexist jokes (though I could not bring myself to laugh). Nothing helped.

I may have always topped in school and college, and given paid tuitions to my classmates, but this is an entirely different game. Perhaps I am too soft or too brash. I doubt if men suffer from such doubts. Men who follow up on tasks are called result-oriented, motivated when they stay back in office, organised if they leave on time, jovial when they crack jokes, pleasant if they mix with juniors. Women are nagging or hyper if they push, overambitious if they work long, unreliable if they leave on time, loud if they joke, lacking leadership qualities if friendly. It is difficult to decide what to wear to work. A woman dressed in a well-trimmed skirt resembles more a secretary than a boss. I have often been kept out of board meetings, even when my role clearly required my presence. It is very clever: give enough so that I engage thoroughly, but a little less than what would embolden me to rightfully demand power and position. I learnt long back to laugh when others made presentations, I had worked several nights to make.

Once when I quit a company where I had a strategy role, my boss had this to say at my farewell: “Her key strength is that she writes well. Men don’t have the patience with long sentences and formatting.” I have lived through a serious, painful experience of sexual harassment. I lost my job to the company’s COO’s innuendoes. Outraged, humiliated, broken, I appealed to him, “Your wife works, too. How would you feel if her boss talked like this with her?” “Don’t bring my wife into it,” he shot back, angrier than me. “She is a doctor.”

Male friends say a woman should use the power of her smile, the charm of her manners, the fascinations of her coquetry. Demeaning as it would be, I doubt if even these would help her shatter the glass ceiling. Older and more confident, I have now some rules:

• I have fun with my job. Positive energy surges in me when I ‘achieve’ something.

• No matter what, I enjoy my work.

• I ask for the money I deserve.

• I don’t suffer office parties I don’t enjoy.

• I don’t care if I am not invited.

• I stop derogatory jokes.

• I never try to be ‘one of the boys’. It is delightful to be a woman.

• I am trying to be more forgiving and tolerant. I try to deploy humour.

Of course, I have had some great bosses who believed in me. Even in my worst jobs, I have had male supporters, even if closet. I have had a client who moved their contract to me after I quit the agency.

Maybe someday I will get ‘there’. Perhaps that’s why, on a day when I am brimming with optimism, I pretend to myself that there would be no glass ceiling when I rise enough. Maybe I am still in primary school and would get to play in the big playground when I grow up enough. Maybe this is what keeps so many women going?

(Sarita Pandey has worked in communications roles for over 13 years in online media, advertising agencies, corporate filmmaking and television)



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