I have spoken a little bit about “attention” in “Why Should I Care”. And hinted at several reactions to it in . Here I want to talk about navigating this attention that flows from demand to supply. I am not sure where to begin. This attention is such a woefully incorrect picture of the world that awaits you outside. And it will most likely render you so terribly unprepared for the blatant patriarchy that is headed your way at lightning speed, that you will mostly be blindsided by it. What do I mean by this? I will elaborate on that wave a little further down.
Most of the issues surrounding women boil down to skewed narratives. There was a graph I talked about in “Where are they” . This graph shows how the number of women studying Computer Science took a decisive downturn between 1980-85. Researchers are still working on this puzzle. The most popular theory at the moment for the drop of women in computer science is that the narrative around coding and women took a negative turn at some point. It is an ongoing study but whether further research dispels this or not, the fact remains, your personal experiences will be at odds with some of the common narratives surrounding women.
The easiest place to be in is to not have a problem with any narrative. That you are at complete peace with the world as it exists. And that wave of patriarchy that I was talking about is not anticipated to be a problem because you don’t care, don’t observe it and frankly speaking can’t imagine being bothered by it. If this is the case, most of this piece is irrelevant, before leaving please scroll down and take a look at the last section. Pretty please.
For the rest, I want to start with:
Don’t pay Attention to the ‘attention’
Here’s a thought exercise I have for you. Imagine a guy came up to you and said, I would like you to be a part of my group because it is good for vaguely defined concepts like diversity and inclusion. And I may not want to state this directly but because it may help my dating life. And for all of this I am willing to do the “favor” of “lowering the bar” for you.
Would you agree to join this person? If you said ‘yes’, again feel free to skip most of this article and scroll down.
There are 2 major problematic aspects of this attention. Say you inadvertently or willingly joined a group/individual which for whatever reason thinks that they have lowered the bar to let you in. What exactly do you imagine your future is going to be like with them?
You see, there are no free lunches, ever. It may sometimes seem great in the beginning, but the moment you try to negotiate for something more meaningful from the group/individual e.g. support, autonomy, control of resources, that relationship will fall through. Because, from their perspective they have done you a “favor” by “lowering the bar”. In the long run it is not going to end well. This is the reason why we have to deal with phenomenon like ‘glass ceiling’, ‘gender pay gap’ etc. Because someone may have ‘included’ you, but they still are not convinced that you deserve to be there.
There are only 2 ways of escaping the unhappy ending. 1) Never demanding more meaningful things (i.e. self fulfillment). 2) Changing the perception of it being a ‘favor’.
For (1), you know the drill, skip and scroll to the last section. Changing perception is a long, hard, thankless process for which at the very minimum you need to do good work. Cutting to the chase, due to the skewed ratio a lot of attention will flow your way to join and show up for many things. Some of you might even feel the pressure to show up just to compensate for the skewed ratio. However I would like to re-emphasize the principle of Occam’s razor for time management that I described in “Extracurricular“. Quantity and Quality, one at the expense of another basically doesn’t work.
The 2nd major problem is confusing “attention” with Respect. Simply put, they are not the same. And for some women this new found attention is so novel, taking it too seriously leads right to an adult version(*1) of princess syndrome. The princess syndrome has quite a few negative side effects. The worst effect being how it prevents any meaningful (but much required) change in narratives surrounding women.
Wave of Patriarchy
I have mentioned this so called wave of patriarchy as a reality in complete contrast to the scenario the undue attention might paint for you. Here’s what I mean. As you start to graduate and try to figure out what you “really” want to do with your life, many near and dear ones will start ringing wedding bells in your ears. Notice how that discourse treats you. Everything about your future: location, plans, goals, wishes, (even your name), rights to your time, rights to your income will be up for negotiation. You will mostly be referred to and addressed as a liability. Suddenly every digit added to your age will become a huge deal. Suddenly associating yourself with men at least half a decade older to you will become completely acceptable. You will notice how your current level will be compared to a man 4-5 years older than you I.e. someone who has had ‘x’ years of a head start.
This basic calculation gaffe of society stumps me to this day. If we are evaluating the suitability of an older man for a younger woman, shouldn’t one also project the woman’s life that many years ahead to make a fair comparison? Apparently this never occurred to generations past and completely escapes most women of our generation too. (So, please don’t make that error). I personally have been part of conversations where young female acquaintances, failing to answer me proceeded to impress upon me how much bigger their older husband’s professional status/bank balance etc. was in life. Implying I would have a hard time getting there if I put in the same number of years. (Wow, so much for your support miss! :|).
Most of the conversation surrounding marriage optimizes for the man’s self actualization and for the women’s survival. More brutally, the bar for you is survival, without much consideration for what else you bring to the table. (*2).
There’s also this usual trope among some patriarchal girls that if they are X, their husbands should be X++. I am not playing a blame game here. This kind of a mindset is encouraged by our parents, culture. The kind where the entire point of your education is viewed as a piece of jewelry, to negotiate a better husband from your community. Moreover it is reinforced by misguided definitions of masculinity where sometimes it goes the other way. If the guy is Y, necessarily his partner must be Y- -. Is it really that much of a stretch of imagination to ask for, to attempt at being the ‘++’ for someone’s X?
And again, it still amazes me that some sections of my extended circle, mostly older generations could only make peace with my professional success and drive for independence as they saw it as a technique to find a better, more educated husband. To this day, I find their lack of imagination about my life, irksome at best, disgusting at worst.
Male patriarchy is not the only issue though. It is by now a fairly well accepted idea that for many complicated reasons, women are not always good at supporting each other. Of many such relationships I want to focus on the one of mentorship. It is easy to mess this relationship up. The many problematic narratives associated with women results in a wide variety of baggages. While you may have developed your own mechanism to deal with it, it is very hard to be open with someone whose baggage may differ vastly from yours. But it is the same thing at the end of the day, baggage. And then there is also the age gap which introduces a natural time gap between the baggages two similar groups of women may develop.
In an ideal world they would be able to help and learn from each other in dealing with these because the differing baggages are temporal-local instances of the same abstract inequalities, of the same thing expressed slightly differently in time. In fact it is because of cumulative actions of many ordinary women over significant swathes of time that narratives shift and your particular life has become easier (or occasionally harder). In reality however it is very hard to remember and appreciate this.
I remember at a NLP conference in the US one day, a BITSian female junior walked up to me out of the blue and went on to inform me: “I think you are a very sad person. You are super quiet and don’t seem to talk much.” I had never met this girl prior to this infantile accusation, and ofcourse had never had a conversation with her before this. Now you see, I care a lot about the issue of younger women who have walked and will walk the same path as me (its the reason I’ve now written an odd 5ooo words on the subject)so I did a little digging around. And it turns out that this specially affected case of princess syndrome walked up to me because she somehow felt that I needed to recognize her. Apparently I was on her checklist for acknowledgement thanks to a presumed BITSian connection.
While the changing times (thanks to the efforts of many men and women who have come before her), had done a great job of letting her know the historic odds she has beaten, is it that hard to factor in a little consideration for all the efforts that went in to make this possible? Of the communities of ordinary men and women who went ahead and did the right thing in their own small and big ways?
I had been rudely jolted into the realization that I now occupy that stage in my career where younger women are going to have expectations from me. And thanks to the skewed ratio, the exhaustion that follows from regular challenges and battles I face myself and their own baggages (like the princess syndrome in this case) I will be perceived to fall short.
Another time, in a conversation with a younger girl I was tackling the touchy topic of dating. I was trying to impress on the fact that it is hard to say ‘no’ to the right things. Staying single or alone or without a gang or without a community is always incredibly hard but I was insisting that waiting to find the right partner would make a transformational shift in her life experience and was therefore worth the trouble. This advice was tossed aside when this person informed me that “well, just because you got lucky does not mean everyone will”. In a different set of circumstances I would have laughed but the irony was just too excruciating. For someone who spent most of their 20s realizing just how much of an outsider I was for the world, I had felt anything and everything but lucky.
You see, this was 2 exhaustions colliding with each other. Just as 2 wrongs don’t make a right, 2 exhaustions do not produce something constructive, similarly 2 baggages do not a good mentorship make. It seemed like just yesterday that I was standing closer to the beginning, searching for someone to look up to, for someone to mentor me. And now I stand a little further up the chain. The conclusion is not very grand, anti-climactic even: Make some room for everyone’s baggage. If there’s nothing you can do to help up or down the chain, let it pass.
This leads me to the main takeaway I want to emphasize for this whole piece:
Please don’t make it Worse
I have talked about the joint probability chains that result in a funnel. And then how the funnel leads to a skewed gender ratio. And then how other problematic cultural aspects load onto this to lead to havoc. To survive all of this you need to be very lucky, talented, strong and smart about maneuvering the many spanners that will be thrown in your works. In this piece I also at various points ask people to scroll down to the last section. This is that last section.
To quote a dialog from the excellent TV series Home Before Dark – “Familiarity brings Comfort. And Comfort brings Safety. And for most people Safety is more important than the Truth”. Our cultural and historic discourse wants to familiarize us with only a single, self serving idea of what a woman should be. Many words float around in my mind but I am a little tired of making sense of them. Anything that is not familiar, is not comfortable, possibly unsafe no matter how close it is to the truth.
As I was growing up and putting in the work to change the narrative surrounding my life, to shed some light on my truth, it inspired a proportional backlash in the form of isolation and ostracism, a lot of times spearheaded by other women. Your attempts at changing the narrative will provide an unwanted damning contrast to some people’s hyprocrisy, inspiring a backlash that will seem to come out of nowhere. Directly in proportion to how much the contrast highlights their actions (and lack thereof).
Please don’t be that person.
You and I reading and writing this stand at some point in the funnel. Everyone of us is here because of many reasons like: slipping ‘up’ the cracks, extraordinary privilege and/or extraordinary merit. We may not appreciate this but we have beat some incredible historical odds to be standing here. I personally believe in the power of storytelling and that one single successful story makes it that much easier for many others. That a single submission makes it that much harder for many others to escape their mental bondages.
In my short life, some people have gone on to take painstaking efforts to remind me that it is not an obligation for them to do much with this privilege. Maybe so. But please, please don’t make it worse. If there is a journey or struggle you don’t understand and don’t want to do much about, at least don’t make it harder. At the very least, don’t fucking make it worse.
If you find yourself wondering why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.
*1- What I mean by adult versions of princess-prince syndrome is this class of people who confuse ‘attention’ with respect and interpret it as a measure of how ‘important’ they are. Such people usually graduate to then assuming that their needs are above everyone else’s needs and points of view. Moreover, the greed for attention keeps growing with time. You will notice how such people love discussing themselves at length in any and every conversation. They will cultivate so called ‘friendships’ only with people who are willing to satisfy this need, in which case you are not actually a friend but simply a member of their ever growing audience.
*2- I mean there is the whole messy business of financial gifts/expectation flowing from the bride’s family to the groom’s family etc. etc. but that is for another day, another blogpost.