Women have been fighting to secure a seat at the table, to be treated equally or to be taken seriously for a long time now. Their advancement in a male centric environment resembles walking on a tightrope, in which they might trip at any moment by making the wrong behavioural move as they are faced with deeply ingrained gender prejudices and cultural behaviour expectations.
As per a 2019 study, the male to female ratio in India’s top 53% companies is 10:1, i.e. for every 11 people working in an office, only one of them is a woman, which is quite discouraging. Prevailing discrimination regarding age, behaviour and appearance affect and sometimes overrule their professional credibility. So when a woman enters the work environment, she tends to change herself in order to fit in a space dominated by men. There are existing norms around how things get done and how people behave. Conforming to those norms becomes a survival mode more than a choice.
Looking the part
As Sacha Romanovich, CEO of Grant Thorton, walked into a room at a networking event, she was aware that she was being looked up and down - “It was really quite intimidating, being assessed for something which wasn’t about my workability.”
The inexplicable obsession with what women wear and how they look is prevalent in almost all professions. While it has nothing to do with their experience, their competence and trustworthiness is evaluated on the basis of their appearance. They are often perceived as “too attractive” or “not attractive enough”. In fact, often these remarks aren’t even about the way they look but a subliminal way of undermining their capabilities and skills.
“My boss told me that I couldn’t train to be a manager as no one would take me seriously. When I asked why he thought that, he said it was because I was too pretty” said Anita, a fresher at a firm.
To combat this sexualisation, women change their hair colour, start wearing glasses and change their dressing styles to tune the pretty down. Eva Foster, a scientist, says, “When I’m at the lab, I dress as invisible as I can. I wear dark jeans, boring, long-sleeved shirts and hoodies, and casual shoes. My hair is tied back into a sloppy bun, and my makeup is minimal.”
Silicon valley boasts of its indifference to fashion with their hoodies and flip-flops, in reality they have replaced an older dress code with a new one. Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer’s fashionable ensemble displayed in Vogue magazine was met with disapproval with comments like “she comes off as if she’s on vacation; she’s relaxing while everyone else is doing work.” Silicon Valley’s men have created their own set of rules which everyone must play by. Failure to do so is met with judgement and criticism. Shaina, who recently started working as a software engineer, felt the need to wear jeans and hoodies in order to fit in, “I feel the need to be louder, to take up more physical space, to be somehow memorable while making a conscious effort to not care about fashion.”
To control a woman’s appearance is more about controlling her behaviour which differs at different stages in her career.The masculine aura that surrounds the leadership roles is a disadvantage for a woman. At managerial positions, women, in order to fit in and survive, have to adopt a persona, they tend to emotionally lose themselves and take on more aggressive leadership styles. They think that if they showcase feminine traits like being supportive, empathetic, and helping the team, they’ll be taken advantage of or not be taken seriously.
The fratty modern workplace environment gives very little space for them to be themselves. Their brusqueness and their “bitchy” and “bossy” behaviour is a way of responding to the little prisons they are trapped in. Neha, a financial advisor who works in a Mad Men-esque environment, says “I have a different way of communicating that’s more like a guy, I played a lot of sports, and I expect us to knock around a bit and still be friends at the end of the game. Guys like me and respect me.”
Women had to adapt and contort their identities around people’s expectations. “I have learned to hide my femininity under neutral clothes and stoic demeanour. I don’t socialise much, keep my head down, in fact, don’t do anything that makes me who I am. But someday I want to laugh out loud, talk about my kids, wear colours and still be taken seriously.” says a woman who still hopes.