We will, we can

October 16, 2018

I was at an Omani Women’s Day lunch earlier this week and the host raised a couple of very interesting questions. What have you done, she asked all of us, to mentor other women, help them come up and learn from your experiences? Having noticed that many of us in the room already knew each other personally, her other question was whether we knew what the other did in her professional capacity.

And suddenly, after a long time, Women’s Day was more than a celebration of cakes and flowers (and now WhatsApp messages with hearts and flowers emojis) between women.

My answer to her first question had to be ‘not that much’. I don’t think I’ve actively sought out women only to give advice to or help. If someone had a problem, I have stepped in, but that goes equally for a man or a woman.

This could possibly be a result of the industry I was in. When I started work as a journalist in Mumbai, we had one lady in the top tier of editorial heads. A brilliant writer, with a tongue that could cut us into shreds when we forgot an assignment or wrote poorly, no question, there was a lot to learn from her.

However, I didn’t automatically come under her wing, as mentorship was based on the actual beats we followed and not gender. Our country head of advertising was a woman, and we were all in awe of her, but at that age, I never stopped to think anything more about it.

In terms of work those days too, I don’t remember feeling I was missing out on anything when it came to assignments. I used to cover a section called Manufacturing and I travelled everywhere from a cement factory near Diu, a zinc factory in Cochin to a two-wheeler manufacturing facility in Ludhiana and a semiconductor facility in Nasik.

At no point did the men at these factories talk down to me while explaining their operations and they seemed to accept me in my professional capacity – and that was good enough for me. I never stopped to think even once why there weren’t any women engineers at these factories. I didn’t find it odd that the only jobs where I saw women were in administration or at best in human resources.

When you’re young, everything is less complicated and you don’t spend that much time wondering about things like women’s issues or equality unless you directly bear the brunt of discrimination.

As the years go by, and life stops being all about yourself, you look around more and see all those subtle (and not so subtle) nuances that you missed before. You learn along the way that you can never judge or make sweeping comments on the status of women in the professional world just by your own experiences or even worse, by your perceptions. And as if we didn’t have enough sexist comments from men of the ‘you people only have to smile and the job gets done’ variety, unfortunately, women tend to comment on other women often and negatively.

And it’s not as if we women are not guilty of falling prey to stereotypes: I have assumed when talking to a man and a woman in a hospital, that the man is the doctor and the woman the nurse. When I met the Dutch envoy to Oman last year, her first comment was that she was glad that finally, someone didn’t automatically assume she was the spouse of the ambassador.

Going back to our host’s other question, I agree that it’s also very rare for women to ask other women what they do, so it’s unfair to blame men who wouldn’t ask us that question. I can think of at least five women I know well and I can tell you their children’s names but hardly anything much about what they do. With men, it’s almost always the opposite scenario.

However, this may be happening because we tend to talk about everything from art, books and children to oil prices, yoga and TV soaps. Work is just one part of it. I am guilty of generalising a bit here but take away business, sports, politics and cars and you may just find the men standing silently.

Looking around that room that day and seeing so many talented women ranging from their 20s to their 50s representing a wide variety of professions and expertise, I couldn’t help but think that we are on the right path. There were women who were at the top of their organisation in fields that have traditionally been male bastions like finance and law for instance, which makes me particularly happy.

And as I got ready to leave with a friend who takes on multiple challenges in her day job and remains as passionate about it since the day I met her, runs a flourishing business on the side and was rushing to do a school run at that moment – I thought, who else but a woman could do all that?

Happy Omani Women’s Day!