Growing up in a conservative middle-class family, I’ve always known that talking to boys wasn’t openly forbidden, but it was ingrained in our minds that boys equaled trouble. Throughout my education, attending a girls’ school from 5th grade to 12th grade and even in tuitions where boys and girls were made to sit separately, this division was hard to miss. I can’t remember any instances of teachers scolding girls for talking to boys or vice versa. However, we would occasionally hear parents complain about their children “wasting time” with the opposite sex in class. As a result, I followed the unspoken rules and avoided interacting with boys.
I’ve always been shy and introverted… Forget about boys, I barely make conversation unless approached. I simply went to class, took notes quietly, minded my own business and came back home. While I myself didn’t engage much during classes, I couldn’t help but observe the other boys and girls in the class.
The boys in my class were chaos personified. Half of them were over-confident know-it-alls while the other half wanted nothing to do with studying and just wanted to get through without getting called out by the teachers.
I remember my science tuitions in particular. The other girls and I would try to clear all our doubts through the given assignments. We always stuck to the syllabus and made neat class notes for each subject. On the other hand, the boys barely looked at the assignments and asked questions beyond the scope of the syllabus. Except for a few boys, most of them struggled during tests.
During college, it was a different scene with the boys. The ratio of girls to boys dropped from nearly 1:1 to 1:6, and not all girls were angels. I needed to overcome my shyness and make allies with “troublemakers”. I realized that boys functioned differently than us, girls. While I diligently prepared notes during mind-numbingly boring lectures, most of the boys would bunk classes and play football under scorching sun or hang out in the cafeteria.
They would only make photocopies of class notes right before tests, get tutored by a friend for an hour or two, and still manage to pass with decent marks.
I wouldn’t classify all the boys as backbenchers; there were some studious folks too. I’m grateful to the guys who let me copy their homework when I struggled to keep up with coding assignments. (To be fair, they learned programming from 7th grade while I learned Life Science, so I had a lot of catching up to do in the first year of engineering undergrad). Some guys had excellent networking skills and found the Holy Bible for every class to build a stronger foundation of the subjects. Not sure if the girls in my class were poor at finding such treasures or were outstanding at gatekeeping! Fast forward to now, most of my male classmates are working in big firms; plenty of them finished MBAs, and some even enrolled for Ph.Ds. Surprisingly enough, on average, both backbenchers and hardworking studious ones are doing much better than female students in terms of career success.
I have always been the top student in my class throughout school and did well in college too. However, I feel that somewhere along the way, I missed out on the secret to advancing in my career. Instead of discussing male privilege, sexism, and patriarchal society, I want to take a different approach to understanding the gap and how I could have done better. Let’s consider my science classes in high school as an example. While I focused solely on the syllabus, the boys enjoyed solving more advanced problems. A better strategy for me would have been to allocate 70-80% of my effort towards mastering everything from the syllabus and 20% towards understanding slightly more advanced topics. This would have given me an extra advantage over many students during competitive exams.
In college, I could have taken a different approach. Instead of religiously taking notes and distributing them before the exams, I should have built a better circle of friends. Instead of hanging out with the same set of people who gatekeep all the opportunities from me and look down upon me for coming from a small town, I could have found a group of open-minded people who believed in helping others succeed. At the end of the day, I don’t want to imitate everything that guys did to achieve success. For example, I wouldn’t play football with my friends while covering myself in dirt and mud or getting sunburnt. I still value my own personal traits and values and want to adapt a few good things that inspire me.
At the workplace, the gender ratio has gotten even worse. I hardly see any career-driven women around me, even though many of them have made it this far. My first supervisor at work was a Technical Architect, a very knowledgeable lady. She was one of four or five Bengali speakers in the whole building. While everyone else chitchatted in local languages (mostly Telugu and Hindi), she didn’t have any problem. However, as soon as she heard me talking to the only Bengali guy in our native language, she called us out. Now I am left with a bad taste in my mouth due to her hypocrisy rather than her knowledge.
In the following four years, I worked with three female team leads and one female manager who all had the same gatekeeping and hypocritical nature. As a woman in the workforce, I wasn’t asking for extra opportunities, but women do need to support and empower each other in this male-dominant industry.
One of my female supervisors took two maternity leaves in three years- instead of being transparent about her health, she played many tricks to get her job done by the team. She often complained about her personal problems without focusing on her role as the team lead. Both her bosses and subordinates did not respect her. It is unfortunate to witness individuals with such inadequate leadership skills and work ethics.
Not sure if it’s just a coincidence, but most of my female colleagues didn’t inspire me at all. I expected more from the strong, independent women of this time. 80% of the female colleagues I met didn’t like their jobs and wanted to do something else. It’s natural that they weren’t going above and beyond to excel in their current roles. I can’t say for certain what percentage of the guys hated their jobs too, but there was a consistent theme among them: do what you can, enjoy your time here, make connections, learn skills, and as soon as possible switch to a new job with better pay! It didn’t matter if they were doing their jobs well or not; I observed that most male colleagues focused on one or two things, becoming good at them and then leveraging those skills for a raise/promotion or a new job offer.
While I finally managed to join my second company, my male colleagues were already on their 3rd or 4th job. The average workers at the office were also preparing for other entrance exams on the side and found better-paying jobs as well! Does this mean that women are worse than men at tech jobs? No, absolutely not. If you have an average job, you need to understand if giving your best effort will lead to a promotion, raise, or added value. If not, it’s okay to divide your energy between your responsibilities and the things that will help you advance. Strategy is key. We need to surround ourselves with people who believe in us and who can motivate us to excel every time. And perhaps next time we should share our knowledge with future generations so they can carry it forward.
On a positive note, I now have opportunities to mentor young associates and use different tactics to motivate everyone. There were two team members who were slightly underperforming compared to the others: a boy and a girl. I spoke with each of them separately and suggested different ways for them to bridge the gap. For the girl, who seemed lacking in confidence, I asked her about what she enjoyed working on and how she could improve on her weak points. The young man needed guidance in finishing assignments, so I found ways to boost his productivity as well! While it may seem like I am complaining about the boys having too much fun throughout my post, we cannot afford as a civilization to empower one gender while belittling the other in order to move ahead. We simply need to identify and adapt different approaches in order to get the best out of everyone.