CHENNAI: Despite dramatic growth in women’s participation in the workforce, approaching a person from another gender freezes many. Stammering, shaking, heavy breathing, blank mind and assuming that a colleague, you have never met before, hates you are all common symptoms many experience.
Having gender diversity in senior positions, and promoting healthy social culture between genders at work not only alleviates this problem, but has drastically improved the output of employees and the efficiency of teams, say corporate experts.
The boys sat together on one side of the hall and the girls on the other, both groups silently whispering among themselves. They are not school students, but young corporate recruits on the first day of their jobs. When N Dhamayanthi, the associate vice president of the software company’s Chennai branch walked in, she was surprised at this division. “I instructed them to get mixed up and a wave of giggles spread through,” she recalled. Few months, an orientation programme, a freshers’ weekend-away and several game sessions later, this stopped being a problem, she said.
Bala Sivan, who works at a software company at Thiruvanmyur, went to an all-boys college. His class of 40 in school, had only two girls. “I never understood what to talk to a woman. I’d go ask about the latest cricket match’s score to a boy. I assumed boys like automobiles, sports and movies. I used to wonder what women spoke about,” he said. In the first few weeks of joining work, he said that he’d just stare a female colleague long enough hoping that she asked what he wanted. “If I had to ask a question to another team member, I’d wait till a male colleague showed up,” he admitted.
This pattern first broke, when the Human Resource team at his office organised a friendly interaction among newcomers. “We were asked to play a game of Chinese whispers. We had group discussions. Subsequent to these events, we started smiling at female colleagues we played the games with. Eventually, I could talk to everyone,” he said.
Arun Kumar* (currently unemployed) studied in a college in the outskirts of Chennai, that penalised boys and girls for talking to each other. Sitting in gendered rows in classrooms was only the start of the division. “There used be a mesh in the middle of our college bus, to prevent us from talking to girls. If any faculty found us talking to a girl, we’d be called to the staff room and chided. The experience of talking to a girl was humiliating,” said Kumar. When he was assigned his first project at a BPO, three-fourth of his team-mates were women and he had to share a cab to get home. “It took me at least six months before I could finally hold normal conversations with my female colleagues,” he said.
Sharmila Shyam*, who went to a girls’ school and an women-only arts college in the city, faced a different kind of problem. “At first, I thought that any boy who was talking to me was hitting on me. Second, I was horribly intimidated when my male colleagues spoke to me,” she said adding that she dreaded being judged when talking to a male colleague.
The fear of approaching a person from another sex is inculcated way back in childhood and early adulthood, says Aditya Mishra, director and CEO of CIEL HR Services. “Youngsters often misinterpret their lack of access to talk to an individual from the opposite sex, as their inefficiency to talk to them. When this happens through their early adulthood, around college time, it gets carried a long way forward,” he said adding that interpersonal skills are best learnt at a point in life when there are less responsibilities.
The problem manifests in different situations, said Mishra. “A manager maybe uncomfortable demanding work from a person from another gender. People have asked me to change their desk position because there were more men or women nearby. Deciding where to sit during lunch is a major hurdle,” he said.
Pointing that certain situations are more complex than others Rani Muralidharan, the Executive director of GK Sons Engineering Enterprises Pvt Ltd recalled a peculiar problem at work when men would report to her every time they found a male and female colleague talking to each other. “At first, as a manager I didn’t know how to solve this problem. I told him to not bother about what they did outside work or during lunch hours, but they wouldn’t listen. This guy came up and complained that a girl was distracting a boy and it was distracting his productivity,” she said.
While Rani did not agree with his opinion, she wanted to cut-off the bias that a girl in a work space is a distraction. “So the next time he complained, I told him that we should fire the boy whose productivity was supposedly affected. Because he was in-fact talking to this girl. This left him confused. Soon, such complaints stopped coming in,” she said laughing. She added that having gender diversity at leadership positions would bring in novel solutions to managerial problems like these. “It would automatically break their inherent gender-bias,” she affirmed.
Rituparna Chakraborty, the co-founder and executive vice president of TeamLease Services said that she has seen a tremendous positive transformation in gender interaction in work places in the recent years. “When they see a diverse mix among the leaders, their own apprehensions become smaller by the day. The key is to make them feel at ease with the work they were hired for and keep the focus on that,” she said. She pointed that there are no gender-based solutions to get people to interact with each other. “When competency is the focus, and the work environment facilitates that, the rest will follow suit,” she said.