I did not plan it, but it so came to pass that in autumn last year, having returned somewhat reluctantly from under the shadow of the dreaming spires of Oxford, I found myself managing an all-women team. Since then, more women have joined my team whose goal is to deliver world-class research.
Very recently there has been one male addition, but he and I are by far the minority.
I am writing this essay because more than ever it is urgent for businesses to learn some vital lessons in feminism. As the world over and in India, more women rise to positions of power more rapidly than ever before, they will be jostling against and supplanting male managers at every level.
Protracted patriarchy will, and it indeed is, bitter about this, and this will continue to toxify workplace gender relations unless a major rethink is conducted, primarily by men. It is astonishing, of course, that we are still discussing this. More than half a century ago, in a seminal work Economics of Discrimination American economist and Nobel winner Gary Becker pointed out that discrimination in the labour market propagates inefficiency. This bears repeating in a country, India, where share of women in the labour force has been declining. By some counts by an astounding 10% between 2005 and 2018.
This kind of trend has seeped into both blue and white-collar jobs, and in the latter, one of great potential sites of change are behavioural aspects of male managers, that is, people like me. Unless we spend some time thinking about our position and how to embrace and rejoice in a world where women take centerstage, it is difficult to see how things would change for the better.
So, presumably, I have had reason to conduct this contemplation in the last few months. What, though, did I learn? Three key things.
My first observation is about something I would like to term ‘third party patriarchy’. This is a societal, an ecosystem problem. This occurs due to the insidious seeding of the idea that all-women teams are somehow unusual. This is a sort of ‘collective gaslighting’. This often takes the form of subtle suggestions that such a team, especially with a male manager, is ‘different’, ‘brave’, ‘interesting’. These are all words which sound complimentary but are far from it. They work to seed doubt–both in the minds of the team and the manager–about the feasibility of the team. The most important thing for a male manager for a women-driven team to remember is that the situation is far from unusual. It could even be termed as ‘often ideal’.
Allow me to explain.
In my experience, it is an invaluable site of learning for the manager. More than really ‘running’ or ‘managing’ my team, what I am doing every day is really learning from them. The most important lesson–for me at least in the last nearly six months–is in handling complexity with compassion. Working with my team has helped me to reflect on my instincts to confront situations (something I have always thought of as courageous, and a strength) rather than contemplate. I have learnt that stepping back is not weakness. On the contrary, it could both create space for understanding what one really feels about a situation beyond the first impulse and generate room for negotiation or even a negotiated settlement. I have learnt that while I am right in believing that all battles eventually must be fought, and worked through, not all of them need to be fought immediately. Neither are many battles what they really seem–often what seems like a classic case to call for the cavalry might better be contained, for the time being, with merely skilful archery from afar.
I have also learnt a vital lesson of modern feminism–that every feminist theory and self-proclaimed feminists themselves, sometimes forget to ask the women for whom they pretend to speak what those women would really like. There is a form of patriarchy that revels in proclaiming that ‘everything’ has ‘been given’ to women. It forgets that this everything almost never includes the freedom for women to themselves announce what ‘everything’ would they really like.
This kind of, what I call, ‘feminist patriarchy’ shows up in the work-life of women where it has a deeply insidious manifestation. Its home is in the critical aspect of choice-making. One of the most important things for men and male managers to consider is how much of what women seem to have chosen was really their choice. The role of the manager is at the interface of this choice-making process. A good manager, according to me, ought to be able to filter out the difference between knee-jerk choices based on conditioning and encourage a reimagination of possibilities beyond the boundaries laid out by patriarchal conditioning.
My final lesson has been what I call ‘spread out’, a role a male manager ought to play, and one that is very different from Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’. This is about bringing into the managerial role an aspect of understanding that the male context of work and the female context of work, in a country as patriarchal as India, could often be very different. And therefore, making systems and processes (mind you, we are talking about systems and processes and not quality standards) flexible and individualised, rather than top-down heavy and regimented, allows women (and more often than not, even men) to build individualistic paths to excellence which are not pre-determined by patriarchal parameters.
The most important question of the workplace (and life in general, of course) is why not. Imagining the impossible and then delivering it, seamlessly, is what creates great companies. Patriarchy is the biggest barrier to women asking why not. If there is ever a role for evolved management, it is to create the space for women colleagues to consider, fearlessly, the why not.
Views are personal.
Hindol Sengupta is vice president and head of research at India's investment promotion agency Invest India. He is also a historian and a multiple award-winning author.