I still remember my first day at work in Bangalore like it was yesterday. My new job started – as they should for some reason – on a Monday and I had moved to the country with three suitcases and into a hotel only the day before. I spent that Sunday in the hotel room relaxing, mesmerized by Indian television and focused on silly tasks like picking out the right outfit to wear for my first day at my new job. I also spent time trying to darken up my fair skin with a self-tanning cream to try to appear less pasty white and blend in better at work. You see, I was the first “white girl” hired by the company so I knew I was going to stand out a lot.
I walked up the stairs at work to an unassuming office that was chosen not for location or prestige but for its affordable rent. The interiors were simple and from my perspective in much need of a coat of paint, final touches on the construction and the interior design but … this is India. The importance that western cultures place on aesthetics simply doesn’t always exist here, especially in common areas and toilets, with the décor, etc. Sure there are some gorgeous offices here in the world’s 2nd Silicon Valley but until recent years that simply wasn’t the norm.
The first woman I encountered that day was the really sweet receptionist who called me Ma’am from the get-go, which is not my favourite way to be addressed and on my first day at work I certainly didn’t understand AT ALL that it was simply a sign of respect. Poor girl was off to a bad start because I thought she was insinuating that I was walking in looking tired or scrappy or OLD. But she seemed sweet enough so I let it slide.
After a few moments I was taken into the CEOs office for a big meet-and-greet with the C-level and management team, which I was part of the C-level team and very happily I was not the only female officer. The smiles I received felt genuine and welcoming and warm. I expected that from my male colleagues because typically men do not feel threatened by women but I was genuinely pleased to feel it 100% from the ladies too. It was a nice change and I tell you…and the smiles never faded. My first day was lovely!
But is working with women in India all sunshine and rainbows? No, not always. But not for the same reasons that I experienced in the U.S. or Europe. The negative reasons here are trivial and funny, whereas back home they were reasons that affected productivity and happiness at work.
For me , and probably most westerners, working with Indian women is a joy. First, there is something about the typical Indian woman’s personality that makes MOST women have a gentle spirit at work. Don’t get me wrong, Indian women can and will get the job done just like or even better than any man but they tend to have a gentle spirit in my opinion. Now, that’s not always 100% true because I did work with one woman in Bangalore who was a bully, rude, yelled at her staff in front of others and didn’t play well with the rest of us executives – but this was one person out of hundreds whom I have worked with now so I’d prefer to think of her as an anomaly.
I’m really struggling with the right words to describe why I think women have this gentle spirit because I truly don’t want to offend my Indian sisters here. My gut says it comes from tradition and the somewhat subservient role that women have played in Indian society – where the men were the bread winners and the women were dependent and I believe obedient in the household and, in the past, not characteristically independent women of power. Given all of that, the new power women of India are still balancing the old traditions with their new status and therefore are an amazing mix of intelligence and skill combined with a keen ability to process situations and reply to or treat others with respect. Like I said, aside from the ‘anomaly’ I have yet to see a woman at work lose her cool or raise her voice like I’ve seen the men here do time and time again – in fact, a bit too frequently for my taste that’s for sure.
In my experience, women at the same level or competing in a climb to the top in the U.S. and in Europe are typically vicious. It’s often a hidden trait but it is there. Maybe because I was always a bit older than the other women I didn’t feel the same need to prove I was superior to the boss. But the truth is that I have not been on an executive team with a single woman who did not make my life difficult or demonstrate some animosity or jealousy for no apparent reason EVER before moving to India. The change here is wonderful. Women are either simply more confident here or they haven’t adopted that overly competitive gene yet but it is a real treat to go to work and not worry if my colleague would be getting ‘up in my grill’ or not on any given day.
One struggle I have definitely had is with the clothing. Both mine and theirs. Although I have some western girlfriends here in India who love wearing traditional Indian clothes regularly and look fabulous in them…that’s just not me. I have never felt more feminine than when I wore a sari to a wedding and I look forward to my next occasion to wear one – but obviously I am not going to wear a sari to work. And I personally think that wearing Indian clothes just makes us white girls stand out even more and for me it would seem like I’m trying too hard to fit in and become Indian. I don’t know, maybe I should give it a try but so far I haven’t. I’ve stuck to my own style, which is typically a dress…just now I wear a scarf over my shoulders or wear a little cardigan over it. But I do show my legs quite a bit, well from the knee down, and I know that this makes people stare and is really a no-no for Indians but luckily as a westerner I am able to get away with it (thank goodness or I would have to go buy a whole new wardrobe). The plunging neckline so popular in the U.S. and Europe is also a big no-no here so I have had to chuck out a few dresses or wear scarves to cover myself up – this isn’t a negotiable factor like the legs unfortunately.
With respect to Indian women at work, fashions are still very traditional. The breakdown goes something like this:
- 75% wear salwar kameez (the traditional Indian matching trousers/blouse/scarf combos)
- 20% wear a sari
- 5% international fashions
I have had trouble trying to sort out the role that someone has in the company if I don’t actually know them. From a purely physical standpoint, it’s typically impossible to tell how high up someone is on the food chain simply by the clothing they wear. This is something new and can be tough on a westerner given that things are so different in our world. Back home we have much clearer lines in wardrobe. The women in higher positions will dress up much more in a suit or fashionable business attire whereas the women starting out in their career or in entry-level positions are able to keep a more casual appearance. So how can I tell who is who when 95% of the women traditional Indian clothes to work? The simple answer is I can’t. This is India and in the workplace attire plays a small role at work but like so many other superficial things…it simply isn’t given that much weight. Sure, after so many months I can now tell by the jewellery or perhaps the fabric and shoes that a woman wears who might have a better salary but the power suit doesn’t make the woman here in the workplace – they differentiate themselves with other traits. I like that.
There is hierarchy here that doesn’t exist in western cultures – with very clear lines. I am addressed as Ma’am or Madam by many of my fellow female colleagues in junior positions. I am used to it now but it still feels strange to me and I really wish they would just call me Angela. Okay, in all fairness a couple of them do but then they might add Miss to it so I’m Miss Angela. Another thing with hierarchy is that there are typically no questions asked if someone senior asks someone more junior to do something, even if it is not typically their job. For me, this isn’t always a good thing but … this is India and that’s how we roll here.
I am now working for my 2nd Indian company here in Bangalore and so far in my experience, receptionists and front office ladies are always truly diplomatic and lovely. I have never seen a single bitchy or rude or uncaring receptionist or “first face” in any company since my arrival, which is quite commonplace in Europe and the U.S. and I’ve certainly run across a ton of them while living in Spain over the past decade. So this is quite refreshing, let me tell you.
In both companies I’ve worked I am the only ‘white girl’ at the office and here I’ve been approached and engaged in conversation by my female colleagues more than in any other country I’ve lived in or travelled to. Indian women are as curious about me and my culture as I am about them and they go out of their way to ask questions and also to make me feel at home. They want to know where I’m from and ask lots of sweet questions. I really appreciate how willing the women are to patiently explain cultural differences and activities that are going on – or holidays – so I understand and appreciate what I am experiencing. And the women always have a big, genuine smile.
My favourite “bonding” moment with someone at work took place recently in the restroom at work. I was going directly to dinner after work at a very swish restaurant so I had brought a change of clothes and I was frantically trying to glam up my hair and makeup when a junior colleague walked in. We had never met before and she asked my name and introduced herself. She was really charismatic and asked me some questions but after a minute or two I was done getting ready. She sort of looked me and up and down and then said that she had the perfect thing for me. She offered to go to her desk to fetch a bindi for me to wear because she said it would make me look prettier (a bindi is the small decorative dot on the forehead). I thought that was the sweetest offer I had heard in so long. Of course, to me, the bindi didn’t quite go with my knee-high boots, slim black skirt and black top so I said no but I loved that she saw me that way and had offered.
Language can definitely be an issue here. Although we both speak English, I still don’t always understand their accent and the other way around, which does make for some funny misunderstandings at times. But I have found this in every part of my life so it is not exclusive to the workplace.
When I was a little girl, I used to tell people that I wanted to be a truck driver or work on telephone poles because I never saw a single “grown up girl” doing those jobs. I have very strong opinions about equality, apparently formed from a really young age. It rubs me wrong that I’ve never seen a single female taxi driver or auto rickshaw driver or hospitality worker outside of the fast-food chains or family run businesses. Women are forbidden by law to be bartenders in Bangalore which I also find difficult to stomach. I know that these norms and rules or laws are in place for the safety of the women but it still upsets that part of me that believes that everyone is equal and that women can do just about anything that a man can.
Powerful female executives are on the rise in India and the workplace is becoming more and more accepting of women so rock on, India!!! As for me, I’m going to take it all in stride, try to learn as much as I can and just enjoy the fact that I get to be surrounded every day by “power girls” in saris and traditional Indian attire, which I could never experience anywhere but India.
Don’t miss the flip side to this article: Working With Indian Men
© 2011 Angela Carson