What my 92 year old Grandmother Taught me about Being a Woman in the Workplace Today

I spent the past week in India. I was there for work, but coincidentally my trip coincided with the timing of my paternal grandmother’s first year death anniversary. Traveling from Mumbai to Chennai to Kancheepuram to Hyderabad in just four days was intense, but the time on the road in my grandmother’s native country gave me a lot of time to reflect on her and her life.

me&grandmaMy grandmother was known to be a difficult woman, and it’s no secret that some people may have found her to be downright unbearable. However, I’ve always had a certain fascination with my grandmother. Perhaps it’s hard to comprehend what a woman living and juggling work and life in the twenty first century could find fascinating, and even didactic, about a woman who grew up in a country half a world away, before the onset of the information age, and with only an eight grade education. But my grandmother was one of the most influential people in my life and the lessons she imparted to me are some of the most valuable for any woman in the workplace today:

Have presence. “Majestic” is the only word that can bring justice to my grandmother’s description. She wasn’t tall in stature, or incredibly beautiful, but she made her presence known everywhere she went. The way she moved and conducted herself was truly majestic. While this may not seem that impressive, you have to remember she was born in 1922 in India. For most women, their existence wasn’t even acknowledged, much less revered. In fact, it was only in 1955 that Indian women received the right to even inherit and own property that was bequeathed to them (see pic).

This image is from a early 1900s home set up for tourism in Kancheepuram, India

This image is from a early 1900s home set up for tourism in Kancheepuram, India.

They were at the mercy of a man to recognize them and their value. The modern workplace has come a long way, but we have yet to win this battle fully. Unlike men, women are still penalized in the workplace for speaking up or sharing ideas. If my grandmother could establish her presence and demand recognition of herself in a world that wanted to look right past her, we can too.

Not everyone has to like you, but find ways to make most people respect you. Not everyone liked my grandmother. She knew it, and what was interesting to me was that she never made it a goal to make everyone like her. She was intimidating, and sometimes even, well, mean. But, miraculously, most people wanted her approval, or at least her buy in. Maybe my grandmother was wise before her time: she knew that success makes women less likeable, something that Sheryl Sandberg described in her book Lean In and something that this research study out of Harvard substantiates. So, acknowledge that as you become successful, not everyone will like you, but conduct yourself in a way the gives them a reason to respect you.

Be a forward thinker. There were few things a woman could successfully insist on in the rural India of the 1930s, but my grandmother convinced her family that when she marries it has to be to someone that has a college education. Even in her day, when a degree was somewhat of a luxury and not deemed necessary even among the wealthy, she knew that education would be important for the livelihood of her family in the future. At work, we should try to understand where the future is taking us and how it will affect our work. The glass ceiling won’t be shattered once, but many times over and over again. While our mothers may have fought for the right to go home, we now fight for the right to be present when we are home. And the next generation will find a new battle cry.

Be accepting and embrace change, but make it work for you. My grandmother could speak five languages fluently, and one of them was Japanese. Most people are shocked when I tell them that, but it’s the truth. My grandfather was an engineer and worked for the Indian railway system. His work took him to Japan, and he brought my grandmother along. She packed up her youngest children and traveled by sea to Japan (with many entertaining adventures along the way). While there, although her primary activity was homemaker, she spent time learning the local culture and language. A few years later, when a visiting delegation from Japan paid a visit to my grandfather’s office in Madras (presently known as Chennai), she was asked to attend and serve as a translator and host. Pretty impressive for a women with just an eight grade education! In our own careers, we’ll face constant change and challenges. We may be asked to relocate, or travel, or join a new organization, or lead a new team. Change is constant, but how can you embrace it and become a better person? How can you find a way to make it work for you?

Never doubt your worth. My grandmother always knew her worth. Self-confidence was never an issue. She was very self aware – she may not have been the most likeable nor the most beautiful nor fashionable, but she was highly intelligent and she never doubted that she had the skills to be valuable to herself, to family or to society. At work, many women regularly struggle to ask for what they are worth. In fact, sometimes I think we continually doubt our own worth by neglecting to negotiate our salaries, or take on risky projects that we’re interested in for fear that we may lose our jobs, be considered less likable, or not a “team player”. Be confident in your strengths and don’t doubt your worth.

Always have options. My grandmother knew that because of her gender she would have to be cunning to maintain her status and whatever recognition she could obtain. We often said she was a master of politics, and she navigated social situations effortlessly.   I suppose you could say she had mastered the art of manipulation – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. She made her own options; she always had a card to play. You couldn’t back my grandmother into a corner, and even if you tried, you wouldn’t win. At work, we need to take control of our careers and make our own options. Knowing your own worth is the first step – it helps you take the calculated risks you need to create different opportunities and paths. When one career bridge crumbles, be one step ahead with the next adventure (or maybe two steps ahead).

It’s been one year since my grandmother left us at the age of 92. She lived a long and memorable life and I am thankful for all that I’ve learned from her. I only hope that I can leave a similar legacy of wisdom and lessons for the generations that follow.

Have Kids, Will Work



Categories: Diversity, Leadership, Mindfulness, My Thoughts

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