I was part of this learning program recently. And the discussion was happening around how we create labels, identify with them and once we identify, the labels start controlling us.
This is when a young lady, with sincere large eyes, and a voice with the steadiness of a Ghazal singer asked earnestly “But what when others label us?“.
“I work in a field which has men as the majority. How do I avoid not being seriously, because I am seen as a lone woman in a man’s world? I mean I cannot change my biological reality to be taken seriously, right?”
It reminded me of a game that I was playing with my 5 year old niece. I showed her a coffee mug and asked “What is this, pillu?”
“Coffee mug!” she said.
Then I took a couple of pens, put it in the mug, placed it on the table and asked “What is that?”
“Pen stand!” came the reply.
Then I emptied it, turned it over, took a candle…melted its bottom and stuck it on the mug. I lit the candle and asked.. “What is that?”
“Candle stand!” she chirped.
“Pillu, how can you give me 3 names? What is it really? Coffee mug, pen stand or candle stand?”
“Coffee mug!!” she replied with the innocent and full confidence of a 5 year old.
“Why? Why not pen stand?”
“Arre, it is a coffee mug, which you used as a pen stand!!” she explained, amused at my stupidity.
“But it can be a pen stand, which I am using as a coffee mug na?” I asked.
She paused and thought for a while, then laughed. “Arre but it is a coffee mug only na?”
Luckily, she was taking it lightly. She was not offended at the identity games I was playing.
But I am not sure about adults.
Am I a CEO who is a father, or a father who is a CEO?
Am I a Vice president who is a mother to 2 beautiful children, or a mother who works as a VP?
Am I a Hindu who is a citizen, or a citizen who is a Hindu?
Am I a woman who is a chef or a chef who is a woman?
Intellectually, we know that the answer is “all of them”. They are just roles we play, not who we are. But emotionally, we do tend to get attached more with one of them. But even that is not the problem.
The problem is when we identify with that role. Then it is no loner a role. That is who I am. And if somebody challenges who I am – it is a survival threat! I feel threatened. Angry. Offended.
Coming back to the original question, the issue was “not being taken seriously” but the assumed cause was “I am a woman in a man’s world” Now, whether I call it a coffee mug or a pen stand does not really matter, until I start taking ‘Coffee mug’ very seriously.
Once I have identified with “I am a woman in a man’s world” and taken on the identity of a ‘neglected minority’, the possibilities narrowed down too: “Nothing except a gender change would work.” In other words, the problem was impossible to solve.
If we recognize that the cause is an assumption, then possibilities open up.
Can there be other reasons for not being taken seriously? Can some men also be not taken seriously? What can the reasons be? Lack of confidence? Lack of substance? Lack of persuasion? Maybe coming from a tier 2, 3 college? Maybe because I remind someone of an ex girlfriend he hates? Maybe plain jealousy?
Maybe 10 men have 10 different reasons. But once I have identified with one, that dictates my world view, and hence the possibilities. And the biggest challenge with identity related issues is we feel “Nothing can be done. Because that is who I am!”
But the bigger question is, does it even matter?
What if I simply focused on the issue, rather than the cause?
What if I asked “What do I mean by being taken seriously?”
Does it mean unquestioned compliance? Unanimous agreement to whatever I say? Acknowledgement of my opinion?
If it is the acknowledgement of my opinion – maybe I simply need to ask “Does that make sense?” or “Do you see any gaps in my suggestion?” or “What do you all think?”
Maybe that is enough to break the pattern. Maybe it turns out that it had nothing to do with my gender – all 20 men saw gaps in my suggestions. Maybe 3 of them did have a bias, and my question invited them to recognize it, rather than demonize them for having it. Maybe 1 out of these 3 will stick to his bias, but the other 2 will reconsider. And the rest did not have a gender bias to begin with.
We don’t know. But things will move.
I am no longer ‘stuck in an impossible situation’. I realize that I can never be certain about what 3 billion men think about me, but if I have certainly identified with “A woman in a man’s world” And naturally, that feels hopeless.
Once I see that the identification is my own making, I am liberated.
I will no longer be a ‘woman fighting in a man’s world’, . Or a ‘man in a woman’s world’, ‘a woman in a male majority board’, ‘A male teacher in a female majority staff’, ‘minority struggling against the majority’, ‘Lone south Indian in a north Indian dominated company’ and so on.
I will simply be a human being trying to express and be heard, like all other humans.
Like a flower trying its best to blossom in the wild. Not a boat fighting against the waves that are hell bent on drowning it.
The efforts will continue. But the battle will end.
We can argue that it is a battle. But the efforts needed will be the same anyway.
Maybe my efforts will bear fruit. Maybe they won’t.
Maybe I will persist. Maybe I won’t.
But I will get to choose. I will be free.