Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign #BanBossy underlined the gendered nature of workspaces. The campaign’s message was simple: women are discouraged into assuming leadership roles for fear of being labeled as ‘bossy’, a tag boys and men usually do not have to worry about in their private or work lives. This movement put in focus how our everyday vocabulary has real effects on certain social groups.
My parents had equally demanding jobs because of which I had a privileged, non-gendered notion of social roles. In my formative years, I didn’t see human attributes as necessarily a function of gender. Formal education at school taught me otherwise. Teachers often berated me for being too ‘loud’ and for not sitting ‘like a girl’ in class; school authorities were concerned that I was ‘boyish’. Parents’- Teachers’ meet suffered a similar fate: Smitana is very bright, but she’s too outspoken. As is evident, ‘outspoken’ is used for girls as a pejorative.
My mother, now retired, was a competent Geologist often leading all-male teams at work. This is not to say that she had it any easy at workplace. In our conversations now, she would tell me how she had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously at the organisation. It was like walking on egg shells- if she was polite, she would be pushed to the wall and when she donned a no-nonsense attitude, they would call her bossy. Despite her excellent performance, most men in her department had almost a five-year head start when it came to career mobility. Women often face this lag because they have reduced access to informal hierarchies and networks within organisations that are crucial for an employee’s prospects. It works as a vicious cycle: fewer women at top management roles results in lesser women seeking out these networks. This in turn leads to fewer women in higher echelons. Those who do reach the top, have to then fight off pejorative labels (read pushy, overbearing).
For Indian women like my mother, while her male co-workers could socialize with their bosses till late after work, she had to revert to traditional gender roles after work. At home, she was a nurturing and compassionate parent, but like other ‘working-mothers’ (no equivalent term was ever used for my father) she always harboured guilt for having to constantly straddle between work and family. She was designing shopping lists and dinner menus while working on an oil exploration project, all at the same time. She was expected to be ‘pleasant’ both at work and home. Thus, working- women often grapple with this form of emotional labour in ways that their male counterparts, including my father, usually never have to. In many work settings, women carry on with an added burden of having to ‘perform’ kindness along with their core competences. As many female friends attest, this culture is pervasive across professions and organisations.
Labouring this point may seem trivial to some, given there are pressing issues such as sexual harassment and lack of institutional support for women at workplace. In this regard, the Vishakha guidelines and an amended legislation on paid maternity leave are welcome strides in India. Nonetheless, lets admit that language matters too, and is part of the same discourse that perpetuates and reinforces gender inequities. Banning the word ‘bossy’, as Sandberg’s campaign suggests, will not change these complex processes of socialization. However, questioning and problematizing its usage will sharpen our gaze at the gender roles that we internalize so early in our lives. Lets tell our children that ‘Boys can cry’ and ‘Girls can be outspoken’.