Gender issues at the workplace can be a minefield and they were certainly more challenging some 30 years ago, when women employees were fewer and misogyny all-pervasive in many offices. I learnt this the hard way when, briefly, I handled establishment matters in my organisation. There was a litany of complaints against a section officer. No supervisory officer was willing to have her in his department and it fell to my lot to find a suitable slot for her.
Before posting her to some branch, I decided to first meet her and counsel her, if required. My personal secretary warned me. ‘She is a regular troublemaker, sir!’ he said. ‘No matter where she has been posted, she has created trouble.’ ‘What kind of trouble?’ I asked. ‘Well, all kinds,’ was the vague answer.
She came for the meeting with an air of disdainful hostility. She was in her late 30s, but looked older. After pleasantries, I discussed her work and organisational matters. I discovered that she was quietly confident, intelligent and knowledgeable. She did not say so, but I was convinced that she did not gladly suffer fools. I suddenly realised why she was a misfit — her male colleagues and supervisory officers felt threatened by her!
After thinking the matter over, I posted her to work under the best branch officer in the organisation. There was an initial howl of protest from him, but things soon settled down. A few months later, I was happy to get glowing reports about her work and dedication. Years passed, and I forgot the so-called troublemaker.
I ran into her at a social gathering last month. She walked up to me and greeted me warmly. She said she had recently retired after a successful career, for which she thanked me. I expressed surprise that she remembered me at all. ‘Oh, I remember you well, sir. You are the reason why I continued in government service,’ she said.
I must have looked as puzzled as I felt, because she explained, ‘Sir, the day I met you, I had decided to quit because of the environment in the office. I decided not to resign only because you did not ask me what my husband did for a living.’
I wondered what faux pas I had committed. ‘Oh, my God! I am so sorry. It just never occurred to me to ask. Should I have asked? Is he someone I know?’ I blurted out.
Seeing my bewildered expression, she burst out laughing. ‘No, sir. That’s just it! I wasn’t married then, and I am not married now. But you were the first person who did not ask me what my husband did. That convinced me that I could exist on my own,’ she said.
Quite unwittingly, I had done the right thing! Many a times in life, one does not know what one is doing wrong. Serendipitously, there are also times when one does not know what one is doing right!
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