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Kanika Datta: Standing instructions

In the workplace, is one a woman first and a professional second or vice versa?

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson PLC, walked into the conference room and everyone stood up respectfully to greet her. “Sit down,” hissed a woman colleague to my left, “women don’t have to stand.”

Since my male colleagues, the majority gender in the room, remained standing while the introductions were being made, I ignored the advice if only to blend in. Still, it was confusing. Did I not have to stand because I was a woman or because our guest was a woman — indeed, the first woman CEO of a company — or both? Should I have remained seated if our guest had been a man?

As far as I understood it, women didn’t have to stand up when a guest, especially someone older or more powerful, walks into a room only in social situations (though precisely why, I never understood: were women’s leg muscles weaker than men’s?). But in a professional situation, surely these norms did not apply? In the workplace, were we women first and professionals second or vice versa?

Obviously, things get easier when you think in terms of being a professional first. In the event, I was happy I had decided to stand, if only because any dilemma over gender differences was set at rest by the charismatic Ms Scardino, with her southern US drawl, firm handshake and businesslike manner.

But social relations are a dynamic business so, it’s easy to make mistakes, however unwittingly, on both sides of the gender divide. Some years ago, a male colleague in the office was roundly ticked off by a woman colleague for holding a door open for her. He was puzzled, but she explained that it was actually considered a sexist gesture. Why? Apparently, it indicates that men think women are the “weaker sex,” lacking the strength to open doors on their own (by the same token, it is probably wise for men to jettison the heavy-handed gallantry and cringe-inducing habit of referring to women as the “fairer sex”).

In the West, I was later told, a man could be hauled up for sexual harassment for doing just that. Indeed, in the eighties, the UK introduced such stringent guidelines for conduct in the workplace that The Economist wrote a mocking editorial about them. For example, men were required to keep their hands visible at all times when they were talking to women colleagues (a giggle-inducing rule, until you thought about it). Eye contact was to be minimised (how minimal would be left to the judgment of the person concerned).

To be sure, many of these confusions are unlikely to afflict the next generation of men and women professionals entering the white-collar workplace. But for the current generation caught on the cusp of change, gender relations in the workplace are a fairly new element of the corporate cultural landscape. Add in the habits and practices of Indian custom, especially the low level of interaction between boys and girls in the domestic social milieu, and the complexities multiply.

We know, for instance, men can no longer swear loudly or expel bodily fluids or gases openly in the office environment. But what about risqué jokes? Should they be strictly forbidden in mixed company? How risqué is risqué?

These complexities get compounded when professional life converges with social life, as it increasingly does in corporate India. Here’s one dilemma. Most men visiting the home of a male boss will offer to pour their own drinks. Should a woman professional visiting the home of her male boss offer to do the same? If we take gender equality at face value the answer would be yes. If we take Indian cultural norms into consideration, the answer would be no (especially since women don’t pour alcoholic drinks in their own homes).

Should women not drink liquor at all at the office party? Interestingly, the issue does not arise in professions like advertising or journalism in which women have been fairly well represented for some decades. In banking, accountancy and manufacturing, where the complement of women began to expand mostly in the nineties, it’s still a moot question.

It is a fair bet that many of these issues will automatically get dissipated, as they have in the West, as more and more women executives enter the workplace and men get used to having them being around as equals. Till then, the arguments over acceptable behaviour will endure, and they remain a healthy sign of dynamism in corporate life.

Of course, some things will never change, no matter how much gender relations get leavened out. Ms Scardino may be one of the most respected professionals in the corporate world but, gosh, where did she get those gorgeous pumps? And at least a third of my attention when I met Carly Fiorina, then CEO of Hewlett Packard, was diverted to her perfect make-up and hair. And yes, I do so wish I could style Hillary Clinton’s clothes.

First Published: Thu, May 10 2012. 00:26 IST