Ground Zero: Ability, mind and passion are gender neutral

Women’s Day; an occasion that’s likely to invite a plethora of pictures and posts of celebrations and events and quotes and speeches and pinks and ribbons and asks for better diversity. All good. These are quite right in their context of expression. I do wish every woman out there a Happy Women’s Day and a big thank you to all men who treat women fairly for who they are. This time instead of harping further on the usual expressions, I choose to be off the beaten path and think it’s time to instead call out the elephant in the room.

Calling the elephant in the  room

Gender diversity is a topic that attracts discussion for various reasons. Many people and organizations look at improving gender diversity; again for various reasons—sometimes with clarity of objective and the path to it; and some maybe not as clear. As a result the outcome also lies somewhere in between a broad spectrum of effectiveness in terms of both reach of programs across woman employees as well as span of benefit.

This post is not focussed on why organizations need to drive diversity or how they can do it. That is a question best tackled at an organizational level on what it means for the organization and what type of appetite, scale and impact it desires to see; which will in turn effectively drive the path to it. The intent of this post is not to deliberate on possible options to improve it, but to take a step back and look at some of the “perceived reasons” causing it; and to drop some of those that don’t really stem from gender as really being at the crux of it. The intent is to look at some of the common boxes that have gotten created over the years and the wide usage of these labels without adequate thought to the situation in context which leads to less than optimal choices for individuals, teams and eventually organizations; and the gender gap… The hope of this post is to be able to take us back to “Ground Zero” to remove some of the incorrect silos created over time; and to be able to get forward with a more positive mind-set and sense of ownership as mind, ability, passion and dreams are gender neutral!

In short to picturize a path that is open for all willing and able drivers (read men and women) so that the ones who want to drive (read women), can drive (read work). Of course there will be multiple driveways (read organizations) and each will have traffic lights as well as other traffic rules based on what’s relevant in their context—one-ways (read geo specific roles), multiple exit points (job rotation), car pool tracks (tailored policies), time-based tracks (work from home), etc. and drivers will have to choose their paths and journeys to the destination accordingly. This should become clearer through the remainder of the post.

There are enough materials on the causes for diversity gaps and challenges faced by women that keep them from being fully engaged in workplaces. These commonly boil down to two categories. First; a long laundry list of life and biological events in a woman’s life which (suddenly) make her less eligible for a normal career path, and hence turns out to be the culprit-list of reasons for poor diversity, poor funnel, dropouts, etc.—think of it as the master list that plagues diversity. And the second that is seen to be more prevalent especially in gaps in leadership roles is around behavioural differences between men and women.

Let’s see how a lot of what is perceived need not really be the case via a few scenarios…

  1. Life event 1 – Settling down, relocating:
    As a young employee a woman may have the “benefit” of being seen as a member with potential and get the opportunity in the early parts of her career without being disadvantaged for being a woman. But very soon, aspects like “Oh, she’ll soon get married (does anyone know what is soon, by the way). And will relocate. So the risk is too high to trust her with an important project or role. So let us look at others (read men).” This is not uncommon. While I realise and agree that there has been “some” change, it won’t be incorrect to say this line of thought still exists! What we have certainly bettered at though is that it isn’t spoken about as openly as it used to be. But the issue remains to be big enough to take notice of it.Sure, a woman can decide to settle down and may decide to leave the company if her personal life takes her to another place. My question to the working world is that how is that any riskier or different than a man finding a much better opportunity with another company and moving on or for that matter in another city where he too will relocate! Even if we look at statistics of a more progressive society where people make open choices about sett ling down personally (more than once and it is not such a social taboo anymore), the number of times people get married is much lower than the number of times they change jobs in their life time. So the probability of a woman getting married and leaving is lesser than a man finding another job. If the corporate needed to worry about someone not being there after being assigned an important job, the risk would have to be equally for men and women both (infact greater with men), than just singling young women out. Would it not be better to drive this evaluation and conversation based on what’s best for the organization at that time, than to start with disqualifying women right at the start based on a life-event that may “likely” happen for many other events “might” also “likely” happen?
  2. Life event 2 – Motherhood
    The next pet peeve is “Oh she needs to bear babies (which infact is the most wonderful gift a human being can give the world, so thank you to all the lovely mums out there!) and will be out of action for some time.” The “some” time can be the X months of maternity leave available to women employees for obvious reasons to an extended period of maybe a year or two more depending upon one’s preference in personal life or as a family. Fair point. Everyone lives a life one time and all men and women have an equal right to decide how much time they want to spend where. The point being, even if a dad felt he wanted to take a year off to spend time with family that should be totally fine! Since commonly men aren’t seen exercising that option, let’s go back to women.Why is it so hard when women want to make a comeback after maternity? Does their being away during maternity suddenly make them less eligible to get back to working passionately again? How can a gap of a few months (or even a few years) make the situation so difficult? If the question is about being away from the thick of things or the latest trends or such that make her “rusted” how is this any different than a man (or a woman) picking a bad job; having a skill misfit on a project; having a bad boss; having a misfired strategy; having an organizational change putting routine activities in a state of flux; having pivoted if in a start-up; having worked on a dated technology; being on a sabbatical… (and the list can be really long!)? None of these apparently create special buckets to label and silo people and make them less eligible for their next jobs. None of these makes for special “disqualifying” buckets. None of these stop passionate people from getting on the next best opportunity. Then why should women who voluntarily and gracefully decide to take time off to bear babies and are equally or infact as I see in many cases more passionate to get back, labelled as “handle with care” and siloed away! Does she really become less intelligent? Does she suddenly become less capable than she was in the past? Does she become less mindful? Isn’t her passion and drive to want to come back actually a positive sign of commitment (which with others—men as well as women who aren’t on maternity leaves can fade overtime). Of course in some cases, there might be a need to reskill as relevant, which would be applicable to any of the above too. Besides that why can’t we just provide women an equal opportunity to participate on merit! Why don’t we give her the room to dust off the dust if it has been a while to get current and allow her to take things on (rather than calling it a comeback and closing doors).
  3. Life event 3 – Family responsibilities:
    We also hear the need for women to be more “family oriented” to be a cause. Well, that’s a phrase I don’t quite understand. In the social and personal context, families are made of everyone at home—the man, woman, children, parents, grand-parents, everyone. Then what does it mean for women to be more family oriented than anyone else and hence being seen as less eligible or effective to do her professional duties? Are we saying it is OK for a man to not be family oriented and thus making him a better candidate at work? If that is the case, then aren’t we running with a much larger societal problem at hand? I mean in the larger societal context, to have happy families, don’t we want everyone in the family to be more family oriented. Imagine families with only half of the family being “oriented” (whatever that means)! That doesn’t sound quite right. I guess the essence is to take care and responsibility, so why not be partners and a healthy team? Given the scope of the current topic, we’ll let people solve that for themselves within their homes and limit our discussion to the corporate.The question would be does a woman’s being family oriented make her less capable or more risky to trust with required duties? If that were to be the case, how would it be different than a man who may also be working full time but say also recovering from a medical condition or caught with some other personal or financial problem that needs his attention? Do any of those situations make them less committed or capable where we bucket them and disqualify them? We of course don’t! These are typically handled on a “case-to-case basis”, if they are. Then why put women in a box and lazily just label them!Even if we look at potential future risks without looking at current challenges where a woman may not be invited to certain forums or roles as she has a family and the others decides on behalf of her that she may not want to do it and if she does, have doubts about her doing it well. If that’s fair, then even involving men can be considered as a risk based on their common habits or patterns. Typically men are known to smoke and drink more than women, and if it is above safe limits it could indicate medical complications with their health kicking in. Or given their habit to be more active and risk taking in personal finance decisions with investments and such, which could add to a person’s worry or mind engagement, does it make them risky for consideration too? Going by the same theory, does this then make all men more likely to be risker for consideration for key roles?
  4. Leadership material—gender readiness:
    And then the next big bucket tends to be around behavioural and psychological differences between men and women and how when they go up the ladder some may be more or less suited for roles. Since that atleast tends to talks about specifics and has buckets on both sides (it is a different matter than some are less and more privileged), we will park that for our purposes and treat it a consideration in flight already!

With that deliberation, let’s pause and ask ourselves if the boxes that typically label women and life-events as factors or risks for women inclusion and diversity, are these unique to just women? Or are we using those to camouflage the situation and as an easy recipe to sensationalize things (through both the positive and negative lens!) or to drive agendas or make excuses for not trying genuinely enough every time. It is adequately clear that there could be many other similar symptoms too that can lead to a similar situation and instead of just siloing those, can we not evaluate for the situation in context?

Borrowing what Jayshree often says that in both men and women laziness of mind is found alike; which makes us want to lead predictable mechanical lives. Being alert and evaluating for what is its worth seems like a lot of work. As a result, creating boxes and labelling them seems like an easy way. This is a question we have to answer as individuals and corporates that will we strive to do the right or strive for the easy! As we do that, the key thing to remember would be that the mind, ability, passion and dreams are gender neutral!

Can we help create Ground Zero? Can we all participate to make it even for better outcomes for individuals and corporates? I am not for an all quota-system and neither in favour of having different benchmarks for men and women. No. Let us remind ourselves that mind, ability, passion and dreams are gender neutral. Can we try to make this the ground rule instead of just life-events or biological, social or psychological differences between genders? My ask is simple—neither “pro” nor “anti” drives for improved diversity. Can we promote fair assessment based on fair opportunity and merit? Can we promote a culture where the best man or woman wins! That way we will have both heroes and sheroes based on their appetite and fitment.

This calls for many calls to action! The biggest for women!

Call to action for women:

My number 1 request to women is first of all to stop feeling disadvantaged or victimised. Sure, there may be potholes, but is that big enough to fully handicap us? I would simply like to quote renowned spiritual teacher, author, and lecturer Marrianne Williamson; “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” Really, the question is why not!

The why and what of personal journeys in personal and professional spheres will vary for each woman. What’s enough and right will vary for each woman. There is no single formula that can be commonly applied. It’s key for women to feel empowered to decide what’s right and enough for her.

Having done that, the next key thing to remember and internalize is no one else can help you as much as you can help yourself! Of course there will be supporters, mentors, well-wishers, policies, etc. but it all comes to a naught pretty soon if you aren’t going to be geared up yourself. And again being geared up will be very different for each of us based on the path we envision. Let’s figure for ourselves and then take it on without feeling disadvantaged!

  • I ask you to think and decide for yourself.
  • I ask you to feel empowered and responsible for your decisions.
  • I ask you to feel free to express yourself—be it in personal or professional settings.
  • When in meetings, you have a point, speak.
  • When you have an idea, convey it.
  • Have an issue, table it.
  • Take ownership for your own desires, actions and outcomes.
  • And trust me you will soon find that not only each interaction seems more fruitful but also becomes a lot more satisfying.

Often professional satisfaction and success are incorrectly tied just with achieving tall titles. Titles indicate the scope of contributions but do not disqualify others from being effective in whatever their role might be. Having a productive day; day after day is a great sign! And this by no means suggests you shouldn’t have aspirations. The idea is to shape your thoughts, actions, days and these will in turn shape your moves too. You will have to start with taking a lead to see how far you can go having fun along the way!

In the nutshell, can you make a promise to yourself? To stop feeling disadvantaged and victimised and to start taking the lead for yourself!

Call to action for men & corporate:

My ask from the corporate and men is simple—can we promote a culture of fair assessment based on fair opportunity for mind, ability, passion and dreams are gender neutral! Can we stop labelling and siloing people based on gender or life-events? Can we promote fair assessment based on fair opportunity and merit? Can we promote a culture where the best man or woman wins? Can we promote a culture where the women workforce is encouraged for better engagement and to be productive on a daily basis?

By the way, none of this is a personal rant. I am unmarried and have no children. In my entire working life, while I have travelled enough, I have never relocated for professional reasons. Also most women I know stand up for themselves. But I still hear and see many sharp, driven women who want to work to make a contribution, but struggle due to one or more of these labels (e.g. you just got married, you relocated with your hubby, you’ve had children) or their own inhibitions (leading to hesitant participation, etc.).

This post is for all the women I don’t personally know but know they are feeling disadvantaged somewhere. And for corporates housing those to help them have engaged and thriving times within the context of what’s right for business. Organizations get stuck with diversity in different tracks and at different levels. Some feel accomplished with enabling activities like extended maternity policies, target diversity ratio, work from home, flexi-hours, in-premise childcare, entertainment events, etc. This is all good, needed and a great enabler. But these are like traffic lights that you can only expect to bring order to traffic. One must be allowed to and taught to drive on the road and to get to the destination. And that is where the biggest challenge seems to be. At different points, due to life-events women seem to need to come out of the tracks without a way to go back in, or not having an opportunity to drive on certain tracks for these very reasons. Can we allow willing and able women to drive? Again, businesses and employees exist for business reasons, so keeping that reasoning intact, the ask isn’t just for quotas—just a fair opportunity in a true sense for the best man or woman to win! Merit to meritocracy!

I fully realize this will be a long journey, and we all have to contribute—for ourselves and where we can for others too! I am up to play my part. I promise to continue to pull my own weight and earn my spot (I quite like the Bournville ad!). But yeh dil maange more! There might be some that could do with some help. I am open to offer help I can to anyone who needs it. I am happy to commit 4 hours a month.

And what can I help with…

  • I’ve dabbled in a number of areas in my professional life so far—civil engineering, sales, pre-sales, product management, technology.
  • I have worked in the software product industry for the last decade and a half. Have a decent view of the journey, opportunities and challenges.
  • I am a passionate volunteer on a number of eco-system forums focussed on product eco-system, product management, product leaders and happier women in happier work places—a fairer work place (let’s not get stuck with just diversity).
  • As a hobby, I like to write. How good or bad it can be; the sample is right in front of you.
  • I can be a neutral and interested conversation company playing both roles of listening and sharing.
  • I am a sportsperson. Have played volleyball at the national level and tried my hand at a few other sports whenever I’ve had the opportunity

Of course the universe is much bigger. And thankfully I have some cool, grounded and passionate friends. If there is something outside of the above you need help with, reach out, there are enough well-wishers in the journey—you aren’t alone.

But you need to take the first step. And if it is becoming hard or you have inhbitions, just remind yourself, who are you not to be!