India: Getting Down To Business

I made two serendipitous decisions as an eighteen year old that have proven to be instrumental in defining how I conduct my professional life.  What were they?

1. Joining the men’s crew team as a coxswain (a.k.a. the one who yells at the stern of the boat).
Throwing myself into an all-male arena was unusual.  I had one boyfriend in high school and I also had (still have?) a solid reputation as a goody goody.  Crew taught me how to flip back and forth from being “just one of the guys” to being the woman confidently in charge and getting the guys to follow my lead. 

2. Rushing and joining a classically feminine sorority (a.k.a. the girls in pearls).
Sorority life taught me how to bullshit my way through any conversation and when to lay on the charm to close the deal, and I’m not talking the salacious ones.  I didn’t really embrace sorority life but I’m serious when I say I’m grateful for the experience.  At the time it all felt superficial and much of it was.  Yet, I look back and acknowledge that it really taught me social skills I use daily. 

We know life in India is a life of extremes.  In professional matters, the extremes play out in gender roles.  I have learned to navigate through working here with the lessons from the social extremes of men’s crew and women’s Greek life.  With those bits of information as a framework, let’s get down to business.  Literally. 

Just me and the boys.  Like always.
Everyday Life

All of my seatmates on the international flights over have been men.  I’m driven everywhere by men, served food by men, have my beauty routines done by men.  In-country business travel is with only men from our office.  Client meetings are 90% male populated.  I am the only woman from our US team who comes and stays for long periods of time.  It’s a boys’ club.  All. The. Time.  If I want to have any sort of social life outside of work it means I better like crass jokes, crude language, and beer.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  It can be a lot of fun and I can be pretty good at it, particularly the swearing part.  My crew coach took me aside one day just to teach me how to curse with vigor so I could be more convincing in the heat of a race. Watch out in this post!

I’m not super proud of my occasional sailor mouth but I’ve also never liked being handled gently because I’m of the fairer sex.  Coworkers know this well but demonstrating it to clients or others outside of the office can be tricky.  Yet I take the risk because proving I can be one of the guys often opens doors that would otherwise stay closed.  Take, for example, the other day when a doctor asked if I could eat Indian food for lunch or would it upset my delicate system?  I flat out told him, “Yes, I can eat Indian food.  I’m not as fragile as I look.”  A bit abrupt for someone who is called “Sir” by his direct reports?  Maybe.  But from there we quickly developed a pleasant and straightforward rapport.  Soon he was connecting me with all sorts of knowledgeable people at the project site who had the feedback I needed to collect.  If I’m tough enough for Indian spice then I must be tough enough for Indian critiques.

If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Work Life

Overpopulation and a hierarchical, deferential, caste-based society lead to a fight to the top that is simply unbelievable until you witness it yourself.  I have never felt the buzz of testosterone or the intensity of ego-driven behavior as much as I do in conference rooms here, despite my years working with egomaniacal neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons.  That is saying something, y’all.  It is amusing, alarming, fascinating, and, I’ll confess, sometimes intoxicating. 

At first, I thought my answer to this should be a crew team-like response, that I should try to assimilate.  But I’ve concluded that is a bad idea.  I’ll never be “one of the guys” in a conference room.  And why should I? Sometimes it can seem like my sole purpose at meetings is to be the visible token woman on the team.  That may sound deplorable for a modern American company but it happens everywhere to everyone.   My feeling is I can get upset and feel used/objectified or I can turn the tables and play it to my advantage.  Why fight among all the boys when I can set myself apart rather easily? 

At the surface level this means skirt suits as much as possible. A full face of make-up.  The highest heels I own.  Impeccable hair, nails, teeth.  Charm, charm, charm.  Smile, smile, smile.  But it can’t stop with appearances.  If you stop there then you are nothing but a token, a cute sorority girl, and I take my work too seriously to play that game.  Instead, I use femininity in a few strategic ways.

Pearls look good with scrubs, right?
All that testosterone virtually guarantees a pissing contest will happen in every meeting.  I've watched in internal and external gatherings alike.  When that moment comes and a conversation gets particularly heated, I jump at the chance to temper the mood and demonstrate I’m more than just a pair of heels.  I’ve noticed that my male partners are so intensely business-focused that they can miss connecting on a personal level and by now you should all have some indication as to how personal every relationship is here, business or otherwise.  Keeping quiet until a carefully timed moment can be very powerful.  In a flash you can go from being the gentle bystander in the skirt to having all the boys in the boat chilled out enough to get back to pulling in the same direction.  The key is knowing what to say.

Working in healthcare suggests a life of altruistic pursuits and many genuinely are.  But let’s be real.  The golden wheel of capitalism turns as everyone acts in their own best interests.  Figure out what those personal interests are, play into them without exposing people for what they’re really after, and boom!  You too will get what is in your best interest.  I learned this first in sorority life and then refined it when working in hospital administration with the surgeons.  Here’s an example: We had one major goal for recent business, which was to get a set of information from a client representative.  The client rep didn’t want to share that information with us because he favors another consultant for the project, against whom we’re competing.  The rep had given the information to the favored consultant and kept insisting we should just get the data from that guy instead of himself.  Right, because that’s realistic.  My project director pulled out every logical business reason as to why we needed the data from the rep himself, to the point where he was getting red in the face and visibly flustered.  So I cut my manager off. Then I calmly suggested to the rep that if we had the information today we would be better prepared when we eventually met the other consultant, thereby cutting down on wasting his friend’s time and ensuring we would be of greater help to the other guy.  Seconds later, the prized document was in my hands.

Playing the game can feel manipulative at first, but to be trite, it is what it is.  You know the most gratifying part of that whole meeting? It wasn't winning the paper fight.  It was having my project director and a principal see me in action and then acknowledge that I controlled that meeting from start to finish, handling the client in a polite but firm manner to ultimately get what we needed.  You don't get those moments by acquiescing to the idea that you're nothing more than a token.

Stranger Danger

When I'm not the chick in the conference room then I’m the oddball woman who is eating dinner by herself (or any number of other activities).  On my 30th birthday, after being tormented by my coworker endlessly about getting old, what happened?  A guy at the pool asked me out to dinner.  Flattering, right?  Now I’ll tell you that he was old enough to be my father.  Don’t you know my coworker loved that one. 

But the thing is, that wasn’t the last time some random guy approached me.  Admittedly, after the third or fourth time this happened I was starting to feel pretty good about myself, even if the men were all several years (decades, even) my senior.  Then I took an honest look around and realized I’m the only freaking single woman in sight.  And I have a wedding ring on.  Do these guys not give a damn and thus hold true to stereotypes of philandering businessmen?

So I asked one of the guys at work one day how I should respond to such friendly behavior from total strangers.  Long story short, he said, “Don’t be stupid, but also know that Indians are very social people and are huge on networking.  You’re only as valuable as the people you know.  They’re just trying to extend their networks.”  I was wary (and still am) but my coworker’s comments paired well with another Indian I knew.

Dipak Jain was the dean of the Kellogg School of Management when I graduated and he loved telling stories (often over and over again).  Every story had a lesson; he was like Aesop of Kellogg.  One of those lessons was don’t shy away from talking to your seatmate on an airplane, or any other stranger, really, because you never know with whom you’ll end up chatting.  Just like my coworker, Jain stressed that networks are powerful so never miss an opportunity to strengthen yours. 

This has been a little tough for me to adopt because I don’t love networking.  I loathe it, really.  But, thanks to sorority life, I can carry on a non-committal five minute conversation like a champ all in the name of being polite.  You’re probably thinking, “Or, you could just shut the conversation down and walk away.”  That’s true, and I often do.  But I’ve pushed myself to at least chat for a minute or two.  Because, while I don’t need another man in my life, everyone can always use a new client.  We are submitting a project proposal to one of these “strangers” later this week.  Of course every random conversation won’t turn into a new building yet many of them do result in an interesting way to spend an hour or share a meal.  At the risk of sounding cocky, here’s the running tally: 

  • breakfast with a Bollywood film producer
  • lobby chat with South African Cricket player
  • lobby chat with German diamond dealer
  • chat across dining tables with an American healthcare professor partnering with Indian medical schools
  • dinner with the CEO of multi-billion dollar company
  • birthday cake with Indian and Israeli real estate developers
Very cool people, right?  

Mr. Real Estate was trying to feed me birthday cake, per Indian tradition.  That freaked me out.
The Takeaway Message 

So there it is, y’all.  What it’s like to do business halfway around the world and as a heavily outnumbered minority.  Some of it probably sounded glamorous but mostly it can be quite lonely and frustrating.  And I have a feeling that I have come across as arrogant and self-congratulating.  I sincerely hope not. But perhaps that's the most important lesson I've learned from all these men: they don't apologize for being who they are, particularly when they are the star student of the day.  Neither should women.


Karen in Paris said...

Awesome post! I want my almost 19-year-old daughter to be as confident and prepared for anything as you obviously are. She's majoring in geology and will likely be working in a male-dominated environment. You provided much food for thought -- thanks!

Carole Mellin said...

Very well written, congratulations on your achievements.

Christine said...

Congratulations, Catherine, you are a brilliant woman with a great head on your shoulders. Love the Pearls! Miss you, and see you stateside soon!


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