Leading to International Women’s Day, my hope is that we make the world more equal, and when people make the most of equal opportunities, we let them do so in the manner that works best for them
I still remember, when I was in high school one February, the streets of Dhaka had these posters leading up to International Women’s Day. The posters showed women in their daily professional and personal lives, with the text “Imagine a world without women.” Back then it did not make a very big impression on me, but clearly it has stayed with me in the long run.
In the little over two decades since then, I have been a part of three college campuses, and worked in probably half a dozen jobs. I consider myself fortunate in that in quite a few of these jobs, part and full time, I have worked with female bosses. I do not believe this is very common in Bangladesh. If I am wrong and it is in fact very common, I can hardly think of any other time when being wrong would feel like a pleasant welcome.
I am not going to name all the different jobs where I had to work with a female boss. Nor have all of them been in Bangladesh. However, I do have some big picture thoughts to share about my experience in these jobs.
My first job with a female boss was around the same time I had just finished high school. I deeply enjoyed that job, but looking back, I do feel that my boss felt the need to be feared and held in awe. To be fair to her, I am sure it stemmed out of many lived experiences of not being taken seriously by a male employee with less than ten percent of her experience, but all the confidence of a Bangladeshi man about every topic under the sun. As I have often remarked to friends this past year, no one in the world is more sure of themselves than a Bangladeshi uncle telling you about the latest conspiracy theories.
I am not delusional and am not going to claim that Bangladeshi men who failed every physics class they ever stepped in, no longer explain physics to female physicists. Nor is this a Bangladeshi problem, this is a men problem, one I myself try to be cognizant of when working with female peers. But something tells me that things must have gotten at least a little better.
Why do I believe this? Because in the past several years, female bosses I have worked with did not seem to be as concerned about being treated the same way as a male boss would. They did not seem to always have to watch over their shoulders, to see if they are being accorded due respect. Instead, I got to see them lead from their strengths. I see them using empathy, understanding, and in general, lead on their terms, not terms laid down by a society with a history of mostly male authority figures for the most of its history.
There is a possibly apocryphal story of Bill Gates speaking at a college campus in Saudi Arabia, where he noticed the audience was exclusively male students. Towards the end of his presentation, Gates addressed this by musing out loud that it must be hard for a society to flourish when half of the population is not given the same opportunities as the other half. I would go one step further and say that it must be hard for a society to flourish when half the population, even when given opportunities, is expected to fit into a mold set by the other half. We all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses, a lot of which is determined by our inherent nature and a lot by lived experiences. Just because so far in our culture, bosses or authority figures used to be one way, does not mean that all future generations must stick to that script.
The point I am trying to make is, I have had both male and female bosses. There have been good and bad examples in either group. But the best ones have been those who knew their strongest and weakest points, and always leveraged their leadership style so as to have their subordinates complement their skillset. This was probably harder to do twenty years ago, when my first ever boss felt she had to project an image consistent with how bosses are expected to be. But that is the thing. There is no one way bosses have to be, and trying to go by the past is a singularly bad idea when we are living in a time when so many things are happening for the first time ever. Who cares how it always used to be done for a certain rank, when no female/visible minority/person under 35 etc has ever held this rank before? If we force everyone to fit into some expected cultural norm, we might be missing out on a completely innovative approach to the world.
So this year leading to International Women’s Day, my hope is that we make the world more equal, and when people make the most of equal opportunities, we let them do so in the manner that works best for them. Happy Women’s Day, everyone!
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens