Sonali Gokhale's witty account of thriving in an all-men work space
It is 1 pm and I have been stuck in a team meeting since 9.30 am. As we break for lunch, my nine teammates make their way to the lunch room, dropping their serious professional façade and making playful jibes at each other. They could easily be in a college classroom.
I return to my desk and eat my lunch of chickpeas curry and cold rice feverishly reading reviews of The Fault in our Stars on my laptop. Now, before you go thinking that I am sort of a social pariah in the office, let me give you a background to my desk lunch habit. High finance has been a traditionally male-dominated field and my current workplace proudly upholds this tradition with women making up approximately 20% of the total employee strength.
I am the only woman in my team. I remember my first day here. I sat in my cubicle in one corner feeling the usual first day feelings of disorientation and despair, sizing up who to make eye contact with. By the time it was lunch hour, I had found no one, stared at enough backs and had convinced myself that being here was a horrible decision.
I went home and explained the whole thing to my husband who wondered why I looked so grey and unhappy just after my first day. No, nobody bullied me or made me uncomfortable. I was just alone. I had spoken only to my boss and the office tea boy. First days are hard. It will take time. It will get better. Team spirit takes its own course. I tried a bite of the chocolate donut held out as a peace offering and sniffed away my tears, took a deep breath hoping and wishing it would be true.
It has been eight months since that wobbly first day. Things have changed in some ways and not at all in some. Men in my team have a peculiar form of social interaction—a mix of leg pulling, one upmanship and general ribbing. They talk and talk about the news, the world, the Syrian war crisis, why Keynesian Economics is flawed, why the new government will work, or fail. All within themselves. I have wild carded my way (never really invited in) into a couple of these discussions, only to find that the tone and the texture of male bonding is a bit funny. One is always falling over the other to prove that they know better.
The ‘I’ll be locked out of the house if I forget the wife’s birthday’ brand of jokes are common and though harmless, it can be annoying to someone who has to hear her whole gender being broad swept into a 1950s cliché. Are the men in my team being particularly exclusionary or unkind, I wondered out loud to a friend the other day, who works in an office with a much more balanced gender ratio. It is like in school, she said. You are the only different outlier, and no one wants to be seen as taking the initiative of including you too much for the fear of ridicule from others. Different is always dangerous.
So this is just men being insecure men? Fortunately, where working together on tasks is concerned it has been smoother sailing. We all bring our unique perspectives to joint projects. There is an atmosphere of mutual respect for everyone’s ideas and contributions fostered by our supervisor. And it is a redeeming factor of working in such a challenging climate.
Is it lonely? Absolutely. I went from having a great group of friendly colleagues to shoot the breeze with over a cup of tea at my old work place, to lunching by myself and catching up with friends over the phone or chat during the rare tea break. If I am sick, or PMSing, having a bad day or just plain bored, I have no one to talk to in real time. The other ladies in my office who have been here much longer are in secretarial positions or are in much more senior ranks. Both divides are turning out harder than envisaged to cross. I have yet to decode the grapevine in my workplace and am frequently the last to hear of gossip, if at all.
But, then I have learnt some valuable life lessons over the past eight months. That I can co exist peacefully and gracefully alongside people who are not my friends and are very clearly colleagues. That lunching at my desk has opened up a lovely avenue to catch up on some reading or music. Freedom from gossip is actually quite stress relieving. And that all that quietness leaves a lot more energy at the end of the day for exploring my creative pursuits of writing and art.
Oddly, being a social outlier in a gender-lopsided team has paved the way to better understanding of my own mind, my identity and life choices. Barring the occasional pang of longing for office companionship, I find that the experience is turning out to be rather rewarding.