Gender Roles at the workplace

OR – Should they have a role at all?

I‘ve never felt discriminated at work in any tangible way, because I am a woman. No one has ever denied me a promotion on account of my gender. I don’t think the pay varies in my industry. Even on less obvious things, for e.g. allotment to a project, I’ve never felt gender has mattered to my career. This could partly be because I work in an industry where the presence of women, and high-ranking women at that, is no longer anything to be commented upon. Media, Market Research, Branding – all the industries I’ve been associated with, employ a good percentage of women, to the point where there is no longer any question of having to prove yourself specifically on account of being a woman.Still, there are times, when I notice gender quietly rearing its head and making its presence felt at the workplace. This is not so much to do with my organisation or how it works, but simply because while men are much more comfortable with women at the workplace, perhaps their ways of dealing with women in their personal lives has still not completely changed. (Note – some men, not all). Naturally this flows over into the workplace.

For example, in one of the companies I used to work in, I noticed that my divisional head had this tendency to automatically assume that some of the men had more work experience, or were more qualified. This didn’t directly affect us at evaluation, because there were some processes to see that through. But he seemed to suffer from a “little woman” syndrome, where he tended to see many of the women as a little more ‘delicate’, ‘emotional’ , ‘impulsive’ than they really were. By contrast, he was always assuming that men with roughly the same kind of experiences were more ‘hardy’, ‘practical’, ‘older’ and so on. It used to annoy me no end, since there was nothing very directly implied, yet somewhere in the background, I used to have a sneaking suspicion; If his inherent impression of these men was as hardy breadwinners who would therefore be that much more involved with their jobs, he could be thinking of me and other women, as little people who were doing a decent job, and so, deserved to be treated ‘nicely’, but not really to be considered pillars of the organisation. I could have been wrong – since he was never explicit about it, but I felt that he did bring in his inherent biases about the roles of men and women into the job.

Then, there so many small ways in which some men betray these biases and make you cringe, without even realising that there is anything unprofessional about what they are doing; The other day, we had a colleague’s birthday party being celeberated at office. Once the mandatory song and clapping routine was done with, the birthday boy proceeded to cut the cake, displaying his ‘natural’ helplessness in the face of something as complicated as, well, cutting cake. One of my colleagues had a brainwave, “Hey, step aside na, let the ladies do it!” Excuse me! My role here is as a consultant, in no way different from what your role is. I am not sure why you think being a woman makes me automatically qualified to cut and serve. Ofcourse, my outspoken self was not content with thinking all this and blurted out instead, “Thats so sexist!” whereupon the fellow proceeded to pretend to sink into the earth and not hear.

What surprises me is that some young men don’t seem to be aware of how unprofessional this sort of thing is. We are becoming politically correct in so many other areas, some would say too much so. Maybe it will be a long time before these men start considering the women in their lives as true equals, or as people in their own right, without pre-assigned gender roles. But still, I can’t wait so long – In the meanwhile, one hopes they learn some political correctness atleast and keep it out of the office.  



  1. […] At Cubically Challenged, Apu ponders over the subtle nuances of gender roles in corporate life. […]

  2. You know, Apu, I have noticed this in many places outside India as well. Being a male, I have sort of had it brainwashed into my head that no matter what personal opinions are, once you walk through that door into your workplace, you are to treat everyone equally. I do know however, that many of my colleagues at work and back home in India tend to think of this as a trivial matter. Do you think though that women may need to prove themselves over and over again for this sort of a mindset to change?

  3. If I were you, hearing that comment I would have rather turned it around as a compliment as in ‘I am a consultant and I do this well too’. I don’t think there is a reason to feel indignant about gender stereotypes like these.
    Certain men do feel threatened by women gaining ground over them in their ‘bastion’ and that is quite natural I believe. But we are good at working our ways around male egos aren’t we!

  4. Rithesh, yes, to many people, it does seem like a trivial issue. Why crib when its not such a big thing? But the point is, it has little to do with women’s professional capabilities. However much I may prove myself, if someone brings his baggage along with him, he is unlikely to change his behavior unless he makes a conscious effort.

    Kirthi – I don’t think I want to be known for doing something like that well. Infact, my point is precisely that – what makes someone think I can cut and serve well simply because I am a woman? I am a klutz 🙂

  5. Apu, at the risk of sounding confrontational, I think the views you expressed here were too passionate, and not clearly thought through. Yes, there are gender biases in the workplace. I would not expect them to disappear overnight. The two incidents you narrate (to me) seem to expose your suspicions and prejudices based on your package of experiences, but nothing beyond, and in my opinion do not add substance to your basic point. If, like you say, the point has to deal with professional capabilities, the cake-cutting incident does in no way belittle women’s professional capabilities, just because the man thinks women are better are wielding the knife than men are. That’s not to say that all (or even most) men are respectful of women and their capabilties at the workplace. I think women should care little about “assumed” biases, because if men bring in their baggage of experiences relating to gender roles in “assuming” somethings, women also bring in their baggage of “assumptions” and prejudices. Its all based on trust and respect and egos (male or female) at the workplace do no good.

  6. Sri – This post is not just about how our professional capabilities are belittled. Its about the way we are viewed; Someone seeing me as good at cake-cutting (by extension, at ‘domestic’ activities) doesn’t belittle my professional capabilities – I believe I am good, and certainly no one can take that away from me; The point is – what gives you the right to dictate that “let a woman cut the cake”? It is certainly disrespectful. I am not being paid to cut cake.

    Its not a question of ego. If I were being recruited to be a sweeper, I would certainly do that well, but my point is, please don’t assume we will be happy to take on certain tasks just because we are women. At no point did the guy first turn and ask any of us, whether we would like to volunteer. He assumed we would do it. It is extremely annoying, even if it is a small issue.

  7. Apu, well, I guess we both have different views on this. I can only say that when I view the two incidents you mentioned in isolation, they sure seem disrespectful and insensitive, but to say anything beyond that would mean bringing in our prejudices. Edmund Burke may have said that the age of chivalry is gone, but in my limited experience I have seen men gladly offering to do work that they are not paid for, in socio-professional settings similar to the ones you mentioned.

    Certainly the tone and manner in which the fellow spoke could have had an impact: he may have smacked of contempt, when he dictated such and such as opposed to sounding more pleasant by making a request. My point is this: asking a lady to cut the cake or help in serving is no more offensive than asking a guy to help in moving the tables, or lifting heavy objects or dropping a few colleagues off at their homes. Ofcourse, if there is an implied contempt or insinuation to such effect, that is different and condemnable. But “assuming” sexist connotations when there is no such intention in everyday work life is very easy. It does not require effort to take offence. One can lament the fact that there is still no level playing field for women at the work place but it is not entirely shocking that the gender roles ingrained in the cultural and social context trickle into the the professional environment. Harassment and abuse notwithstanding, a fair percentage of men are openly – some perhaps grudgingly – chivalrous and respectful.

    In a more generic context, I sincerely feel that if we continue to put every single thing under the microscope and tirelessly look for traces of a war between the sexes, we will most certainly find them.

  8. i too agree with u acros sthe article. men are definitely perceived to be better & relied upon more & considered for grooming for next in line

  9. Sri – this has been one long discussion, but to my mind, this is not justified by saying that men do certain things too. Infact I would be wary of asking a guy to lift stuff etc, that is sexism too. Yes, if someone is larger/stronger, chances are they will volunteer. If a woman is capable of doing this, she should infact too, no reason to step back and let the men do it. Having grown up in an all-girls household perhaps, this kind of division of labour is not ingrained in me.

    Itchy, thanks for dropping in and leaving a note!

  10. The WIP has moved, Apu! I got the idea after I visited your blog…thank you for that. By the way, no new posts?

  11. ‘The age of chivalry is gone'(ref. srihari) but the age of differentianting between men n women-roles has certainly stayed on.
    The sad part is not that women are considered better programmed to do certain tasks but that they are NOT considered as good to perform certain other tasks like say driving or challenging office work. How many female bus drivers do we have in India? How many indian men would actually feel safe travelling in a bus driven by a female?
    I am not a feminist per se. Not even a strong believer of levelling the grounds for the genders for every said task in the world. I think because of some inherent differences women(or men, for that matter) need less training in certain areas. However the incidents apu mentioned in this post are humiliating and certainly sexist. Such things are even more evident in traditinal male-dominated areas like Engineering…and Yes, in areas like this, women do have to work extra hard to prove that they are as capable, if not less, than their male counterparts.

  12. As long as Gender does not rule I am okay. I am not sure if the previous gen can be completely objective but our gen has NO excuses

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