Women and the workplace: Once you've made it to the top, don't forget to check your privilege

Editor's Note: This is part two of the series on women in the workplace. Read part one: 'What should a woman do in a case of sexual harassment?'

I was recently invited to be one of 64 speakers at a conference of entrepreneurs. Here’s the gender breakdown: male speakers — 59; female speakers — 5; number of women on the main stage at any point of time — 2 (and one was a Member of Parliament).

The other female speakers included a former editor of a business magazine and now a director in an MBA program; a renowned HR head; a CEO of her own software services company. We were all relegated to side rooms and side roles. It was telling. Before our sessions, which ran parallel with the “more important” ones in the main hall, people were cajoled and rounded up to come and attend.

I spoke on a panel on female entrepreneurship. I insisted I wanted to be on it because it is clear to me that women do not have the same opportunities. However, one woman didn’t want to be on a women’s panel because she believed all entrepreneurs were created equal. The previous evening she had said to me that she did not believe that we had fewer platforms, opportunities and were conditioned and wired differently.

She finally did speak as part of the panel, and through the talk made many points.

"I don’t believe that women are different than men. We all have the same opportunities. It is up to us to take them. Why is there no Man’s Day? I don’t believe in feminism I believe in equality…"

 Women and the workplace: Once youve made it to the top, dont forget to check your privilege

It's important to remember our privilege. Image Courtesy: The Feminism Project/Janna Yaschuk

Of course, I was dumbstruck. Unsurprisingly, the men in the audience clapped enthusiastically.

She added that it was her birthday a few weeks ago, and that when her friends dropped in unexpectedly at midnight, her husband made the tea. It was meant to be some kind of majestic “ta-da! We are all equal” moment. She also said that neither she nor her husband were embarrassed that he had made the tea.

This was the final straw as far as I was concerned. I felt compelled to take the mic and say that it was fabulous that she had such a great husband, but the day I would consider men and women equal would be the day we didn’t have to laud the fact that a man made a cup of tea. The women clapped. The men did not.

The panel was moderated by a well-known man from the government who smugly admonished me on stage. “Take it easy,” he would say.

When I later asked about why a man was moderating, given that he wasn’t even an entrepreneur, I was told they specifically wanted him so that men in the audience would be more comfortable relating to him (I wish they gave women who attend conferences the same consideration).

The panel, frustrating as it was, highlighted again for me, the issues that I face with educated women who take advantage of everything feminism offers them and then reject it at their convenience. These very women reach positions of wealth, privilege and power and forget the battles we fight everyday. They should appreciate they indeed are the beneficiaries of the women’s movement. And they are not representative of all women.

The panel brought to light the privilege that we women carry and expect others to naturally have.

Our lack of sensitivity when we walk into these panels.
Our need to be appreciated by men and be seen as a “reasonable mature” mind.

In the research I did for my book, I spoke to Nilanjana Dasgupta (professor of psychological and brain studies at MIT) who told me: “Seeing successful women can hugely impact a young woman’s leadership aspirations by making her feel that success is achievable. However, if that person is presented as privileged, has attended good schools and colleges, and things are easy for her, this can have a negative effect on the morale of young women who view them as insurmountable odds.”

We have an additional responsibility on us to step out of our own stories and understand those of the people around us. Whether gender sensitivity, which is most discussed yet whitewashed in corporate India or disability, LGBTQ, religion and caste, which is rarely discussed. Our “inspirational stories” need to resonate and not seem so far ahead that women find it impossible to get there.

So whether post-feminists, feminists or “equalists”, be mindful of the audience you address. In this, we all need to check our privilege.


Aparna Jain is an Integral Master Coach and the author of Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do (HarperCollins 2016).

Updated Date: Mar 20, 2017 14:20:52 IST

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