Walking the tight-rope
(Published in Business India November 17-30, 1986)
(Published in Business India November 17-30, 1986)
With more and more women entering the work force, a gradual change has been affecting family life and the social structure of urban India. The emergence of women executives has added new dimensions to the study of stress. One of the most prominent aspects of their lives is a feeling of being torn asunder by responsibilities at home and commitments at work.
Rekha Malhotra, 34, branch manager of a large bank, is tense and irritable these days. She has lost her appetite and suffers from nausea. Worse, she has to resort to sleeping pills to overcome her insomnia.
Married to a naval officer and mother of one daughter, Rekha has recently been entrusted with ‘manning’ a difficult branch. Haunted by a fear of failure, coping at home without her husband who has been transferred, Rekha is a bundle of nerves.
Like Rekha, Shahnaz Mishra, executive director of a manufacturing concern, finds her health affected by the dual demands of work and family responsibilities. An MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad, Shahnaz rose quickly in her organisation to hold the number two position at the age of 35. With two small children aged 6 and 3, Shahnaz’s life is like a whirlwind. Staying late in the office or entertaining foreign visitors in the evening keeps her away from children. The resultant guilt has led to attacks of acute stomachache and loss of weight.
Rekha and Shahnaz are among a growing number of executive women who have to cope with a modern disease that is tidily labelled ‘stress’, but whose elements comprise fatigue, marital discord and guilt.
With more and more women entering the work force, a gradual change has been affecting family life and the social structure of urban India. While women have been working in the clerical cadres for three decades now, their entry into the echelons of management is comparatively recent. Though the number of such women at senior and top levels of management is still insignificant, they do form a sizeable group at both junior and middle levels. Some of the factors responsible for the change are: better education, the need for two incomes caused by inflation, and the urge to find an identity outside the home. The more liberal social values have released women from strict confinement to the home. The transition from the uncomplicated, clear-cut and well-defined role of housewife to the dual task of managing the home and performing well at work is fraught with tension. A woman executive is not only exposed to all the strains and stresses that her male counterpart experiences; she is vulnerable to many more.
According to a study conducted in Britain, women in junior and middle management experience the highest overall occupational stress levels, followed by male supervisors, senior women managers, male junior managers, female supervisors and finally senior male managers, who report the lowest occupational stress.
Since the stress experienced by women executives not only affects them as individuals, but also affects the organisations where they work, employers are finding it important to study the causes.
A female executive who is married and has children usually reports the highest stress levels. Whether or not her conflict between her familial duties and her work affects her performance, it definitely affects her as a person.
A sense of guilt haunts most working mothers. Even if they have made arrangements for the routine care of their children, the question remains about how to spend more time with them when they are ill., or when they have examinations or holidays. The resultant conflict takes its toll, both physical and mental.
Compounding the stress of coping with work and home is the lack of regular and dependable help at home. Nowadays, domestic help is both unreliable and expensive, and the bonds of the joint family are loosening in urban areas.
Forced leave from work, occasioned by a state of sudden ‘’servantlessness,’’ may cause a great deal of stress in the executive woman who is acutely aware of her responsibilities in the organisation and is, therefore, torn apart between her domestic responsibilities and her organisational commitments, especially when both are high.
This is clear from the case of Indu Patnaik, an officer in a central government ministry. Married for about four years, Indu has a six-month-old baby who is usually looked after by a maid under the supervision of Indu’s mother-in-law. But now the maid has left, and Indu is having a difficult time helping with the household chores, waking up in the middle of the night to take care of the baby, and coping with her heavy job in the ministry.
Work from the office, spills over into her domestic life and the fatigue accumulated in the household carries over into the office. To top it all, her mother-in-law is going away for a long-awaited holiday. Despite the crisis, she is not putting off her holiday and Indu cannot bring herself to request it. Indu’s commitment to her work prevents her from applying for leave. Her husband is prepared to take leave but refuses to change baby’s nappies. “That’s a woman’s job,” he says. The constant conflicts between Indu’s functions inside and outside the house have led to chronic fatigue and depression.
Indu’s is not an isolated example. Many young women in their thirties – a crucial period both in terms of career advancement and raising families – are put through the wringer of building up their career while maintaining a stable family life.
The absence of a symbolic “wife” at home aggravates stress in the executive woman. Whereas her male counterpart often uses his wife as a buffer to absorb or at least reduce the level of stress generated in the work situation, the executive woman, alas, is unfortunate in this respect. However stressed she may be at her office, she has still to confront the domestic stresses of children and home. And while a male executive often misdirects his anger towards his wife and children and thus lets off steam, a woman executive can ill-afford to do so if she values peace of mind for herself and the family. The resulting bottling up of feelings invariably takes a heavy toll.
Apart from the balancing act between home and office that is unique to the female executive, there are other stresses arising from sex bias that male colleagues don’t have to contend with. Though like them, she spends eight to nine hours at the office, she often does not develop close relationships with the people around her. While male executives develop a camaraderie among themselves which they can rely upon in times of stress, the female colleague is excluded from this circle.
There are several reasons for this. One, she may find the male-dominated environment strange, even hostile. Two, even if she wants to participate, her colleagues may view her with wariness, mistrust, or uneasiness. If they have no prior experience of associating with female colleagues, they may not know how to react to her presence. They will hesitate to share office gossip or discuss confidential matters in her presence. Their diffidence creates a distance which generates additional stress in the woman executive who feels isolated despite her best efforts to win their confidence.
Sex-bias may block inter-personal relationships in other ways as well. In our society, a male child is usually brought up to feel superior to his female siblings. As a child he usually sees his father dominating the mother, sisters being treated differently from brothers, and later, wives being dependent on husbands, financially and emotionally. So, if he has a woman boss, he may adopt an attitude of defiance and distrust towards her.
For similar reasons, a male executive often finds it difficult either to encourage or reprimand a female junior. On the other hand, he prefers to grumble behind her back and attribute her faults to her femaleness. Thus, as she is not made aware of her shortcomings, she does not get the opportunity to grow and develop.
With peers too, it has often been observed that the female executive is accepted as long as she adopts a stance of dependence on male colleagues. But the moment she establishes her independence, she is perceived as a threat. Similarly, if a man is compared with another man, he can take the criticism but…..
Then again, a woman is rarely perceived as an individual. She is either seen as a mother, daughter, sister or wife. It is therefore difficult for men to interact with women who are not on the list of acceptable relationships but persons in their own right.
As a result of all these preconceptions and conditioning, women managers ger stereotyped by male colleagues, as a result of which a number of myths have gained currency:
· Men are intellectually superior to women
· Men are emotionally more stable than women
· Men value achievement, promotion and meaningful work more than women
· Success as a manager calls for masculine attributes
These stereotypes, which have been proved fallacious time and again by psychological research, often distort the performance evaluation of female employees. In one study, raters were asked to evaluate the quality of a professional paper, with half believing the author was a female. Those who thought the author was a female judged the paper poorer in its professional quality than those believing that the author was a male. In another study, raters attributed the god performance of a man in traditionally male tasks to intelligence while the success of a woman at the same task was attributed to luck. Though these myths have been proved wrong a number of times, men still believe in them and their perception of female colleagues’ performance is often coloured by them.
Apart from the problems arising from myths and perceptions, there are more concrete difficulties. Sexual harassment is one m. Then again, women feel physically insecure problem when required to work late at the office or travel alone to remote places where there may be no facilities for women to stay. Dr Sunita Bhalla, who has been working in a government hospital for 20 years, feels that since she is afraid to work on night shifts, she invariably gets stuck with duties on Sundays and holidays. This means that she hardly ever gets to spend a holiday with her children and husband, himself a busy executive. Her pessimistic conclusion is that “a working woman’s life is hell….she gets the worst of both worlds.”
But this need not be, if more organisations acknowledge and accommodate the realities of two-career families. It is high time they reviewed organisational processes concerning female employees; discrimination, if any, in promotions, training opportunities, awards and recognition; personnel policies regarding transfers and placement and so on. Training programme to help team-building among executives of both sexes may also go a long way in creating a healthier climate.
Meanwhile, the woman executive may have to walk the tightrope as best as she can for some time to come. At home, she can invest in intelligently in domestic help or rope in others who may be willing to take on some of her responsibilities. At work, she will have to develop an effective style of functioning.
All of this may help to make her a better manager, though not sadly, to reduce her stress. That will depend more upon greater understanding from male colleagues and the enlightened policies of progressive organisations