Twenty white men and five more.
No, it’s not the title of the book I am reading. They are faces staring at me, arms across their broad (no some are not!) chests and chairs pushed back with an air of nonchalance. Some preparing for their next meeting. Others working through their endless to-do lists. I glance around nervously- the seat of the Chair of the committee is still empty. I hear chatter in the room most of which I decipher, is directed at me. “She didn’t let wine be served at dinner”- a group of men standing around me whispered. A post-dinner session to convince the team, why the organization and teams they lead should be more Inclusive and diverse wasn’t their idea of fun. I was getting in between them and the London pubs.
Silence. It was heavy. The chair of the committee is delayed I am told. Chief Executive officer of a multi-billion Euro company, he is not in a good mood today. The analysts have just asked him why the organization was at bottom of the pack with Gender Diversity. I look around and see the questions on the defiant faces around me. “Tell us why we should listen to you?”.
Leading the Global Inclusion and Diversity function, I know I am a trophy candidate. Brown, Asian, Woman – I tick all the diversity quotients. Oh- well I am short too, for my Dutch colleagues are known to be one of the tallest in the world.
As I wait for the chair to be occupied, my mind meanders to my college days. It was placement season. The season when four years of sweating and swearing, semesters of toiling and tricking would finally put us on road to adulthood. Oh, we were adults all right. Chronologically. However, we had our own definition of adulthood- it was not asking our parents for money. That day dawned. We were in front of the interview panel of our coveted organization.
Their eyes widened. “Oh, you are all women!”
“Not today, of all days” a deep sigh escaped from the deep pit that had been digging itself in my stomach. Call it a woman intuition. “Did they think that we had decided to borrow sarees from our seniors in college, spend two hours wearing a garment that had a mind of its own, and disguise ourselves to role-play a woman? What were they thinking?” My overactive mind translates into a contorted face that my classmates recognize and acknowledge the same feeling. I should have applied to that other company. Maybe there is still time. Maybe I should drop all this and go back home.
“Sorry, but we don’t have women’s washrooms”. That’s it? That’s their reason? I am shaken out of my reverie. Please, I pray. I have prepared for this for days. They go on to tell the three of us that when they had asked for the top three students in our batch of Chemical engineering, they did not expect women- not one, not two but all three of us.
Being a woman, it seems, is our nemesis.
I could barely keep the tears from rolling down as I adjusted the pleats of my saree to raise myself from the chair. Gingerly avoiding the saree from getting stuck under the legs of the chair, I use the proud walk I had practiced, imagining a happy sunny day of an interview that went well. It was anything but that. I was annoyed that the pin that held my saree together also decided to unleash its might at that moment.
The pain of rejection, the prick of the pin- I could not decide which was worse.
We gather ourselves and huddle in the small room. I stare at the steel trunk* that held all of my belongings. It has seen me through four winters and also fiery summers of 49 degrees Celsius. Months of preparation had come down to this. In a few weeks, we will be finishing our course and holding an engineering degree. Going back home without a job was not an option. I try not to think of doomsday- for that’s how it all felt. Trying to focus on the next job interview, I go through my diary containing notes from the organisation training I went through during the summer months. I purposefully select the saree I will wear.
As I sit down, interview number two is a repeat of interview one. “Young women”, a stern-faced panel member says, “are not allowed on the production line near the workers, who are all men”. “Well, well- so not only are you the person who decides my career but also the moral police for all young women”. Smarting, I turn away. This time, I did not trip. This time, there were no tears. This time, it was their loss I decided. The coping mechanism comes early, as I start to deal with non-diverse thinking in the world around me.
A third company, a third round. They decide women are only suited for the engineering draft room. Secluded and in a corner. I resolve that is not going to be me.
Pursuing a different course, and charting a different career, I carry myself through 25 years of corporate life. Multiple countries and cross-cultural teams- I am conscious of my early experiences as they unfold for me and others.
A gentle tap on the shoulder pulls me out of my reverie. “Soma, your turn,” the voice says. Life has come a full circle and nothing much has changed since. I head to the front of the room, to convince the room full of naysayers, why inclusion starts with them.
For inviting someone to the dance is not merely enough- giving them centerstage on the dancefloor is. And we all have a part to play in it.
* Trunk: A Vintage quaint term for a metal box used to carry luggage
Image Credit- Disha Sheta from Pexels.com