It was with fascination and amusement that I chanced upon a post on Facebook that talked about August 4th, a day designated as the International Day for Single Working Women. My first reaction was ‘What! There is a day dedicated to me- a Single woman?! Am I even a thing?”
Needless to say, I was curious. A part of me was happy. And of course, it led to further probing on “Dr.Google”, which brought up the fact that it was not just a day, but an entire week dedicated to us, between August 3rdto August 11th. As I read through the history and philosophy behind this dedication, I realized that it is not just me, but we as a group face a fair bit of biases of our own.
And being an inclusion champion, I felt inspired to share some stories and experiences, of single women, including myself, with the intent of bringing it to fore as well as offer some ideas on working through them, from an organization’s perspective. Especially as a recent discussion with a friend, who is also at a decision making level in an organisation, reminded me of the deep-seated mindsets and the urgent need to address it.
We were about ten minutes into what was mostly an ice-breaking small talk to overcome the awkwardness that comes with a 15-year gap and silence by both parties. And that’s when she blurted out the question that obviously was on the top of her mind. “Am really confused, Deepa. Why has an attractive and intelligent woman like you never been noticed by a man? How come no one has proposed to you?”.
Of all the things that she could have asked me, she asked me this! It revealed to me the entrenched patriarchal mindset that has several layers to it- that as a woman, being single was not a matter of my choice but a circumstance caused by not getting a proposal and that I was not living a ‘complete’ life.
This question of marriage follows me everywhere- both in personal and professional space. People may use different words, but the meaning and the curiosity it drives is pretty much the same. It somehow also gives the license to people to advise and ask questions of personal nature.
During the various stages of my career I have been told many things, like I was doing “time-pass” until getting married; I was not considerate towards my parents; that I am being short-term focused and someone even called me weird, for not being in a relationship. At interviews, I have been probed about having a boyfriend and if my single status was in fact a reflection of a stubborn and un-adaptive nature and yes, have also been denied a job on one occasion. The interviewer was certain that career aspirations would fly out the window once the right man comes along. On one occasion, a senior colleague and a friend, took a very proactive step of creating my profile on a marriage web-site much to my chagrin.
The worst conundrum I have found myself in was, once, when my super-boss (during my employment days, of course), expressed ‘concern’. “You should consider getting married quickly. You are pushing the right age. This is the right age to have the first kid, else you will be mid-career when you have it. The wrong time to take a career break.”
Something in that tone made me remain silent and not reveal the point that becoming a mother was not in my life’s plan. I just had this feeling that it would be held against me.
In fact, this question of marriage is a very common phenomenon shared by members from the LGBTQ+ community as well, that causes much discomfort.
In the above cited instances, the discrimination is neither blatant nor intended either. Yet, the need to put oneself in a box just to please others or find acceptance, is the issue that requires attention.
So, what is the role of an organization and how do they benefit from it?
Well, the same business case for an inclusive workplace applies here too. A specific intervention is not required to be designed but the existing ones can be expanded to bring out the following points:
– Behavioral training programs on topics such as Communication and Body Language should include the topic of Personal Space; what is personal space, how to identify if one is encroaching upon it and the right balance between concern and intrusion. Such an understanding will in fact help resolve many issues including harassment.
– Recruiters and leaders who may see a single woman as a ‘hire risk’ should be advised that the marital status of a person does not guarantee a long tenure of a candidate and undergo a session on biases.
– Leaders especially should be advised on the fact that singlehood does not preclude happiness of an individual, nor does it lend to credibility and productivity of a person.
– Respect individuality- without doing this, the idea of inclusion will be completely lost.
– Watch out for micro-aggressions in the language used by yourself and your team members- ‘Where you from?” “Why do you have an accent?” Such seemingly harmless questions indicate the need to see people through a lens.
– Create a workplace of the future- project assignments, remote working options, work-from home etc. This way even if there is a situation that a woman does have the need to leave due to marriage, you can continue engaging her through other formats, going beyond the traditional 9-5 work hours.
Ultimately, all this will happen only if we are able to challenge our individual selves to look beyond what we know as ‘truth’. And to overcome our individual needs to see people and situations through a familiar lens.
Once again, inclusion is about everyone. It’s about you. It’s about me. And if we can for a minute look at the person first, dropping the frills of marital status, persons with disabilities, sexual orientation etc., then these questions will not arise.