May we have the check please?

Why do servers in restaurants always assume that the man will pay the bill/check? When my husband asks for the check, he is handed the check every time. But when I ask for the check, 8 out of 10 times, my husband will be handed the check. About 1 in 10 times, the server will place the check at the center of the table, not wanting to take a call on which one of us will be paying.. that’s better! And I am handed the check a measly 1 out of 10 times.

Recently, my husband and I had a wonderful dinner in a nice 5-star restaurant. At the end of the meal, I asked the server, a woman, for the check. When she came back with the check, she handed it to my husband, as usual. How disappointing!

Usually we let it slide, but not this time. Since I was paying, my husband and I discussed if we should speak to her about handing the check to the person who requested for it. I kept the check wallet on my side of the table, with my credit card in it. When she came back, here was the conversation that ensued–

Me: I am curious to know– why did you hand the check to my husband, when I asked for it?

Server (laughs): Because he is a gentleman…

Me: Do you mean to say that if he does not pay for this meal, he is not a gentleman?

Server (clearly uncomfortable): Umm, no…

My husband: You are a career woman… Why would you think a woman cannot or should not pay for the meal?

Server (addressing my husband): But it is nice if you pay.

My husband: In this day and age, I don’t think it should surprise anyone if the woman chooses to pay.

Me: I wonder when will we progress as a nation? I am surprised that you assume the man should pay for the meal.

Server: Umm..

She then went and got the credit card machine, took my card (from my side of the table), punched in the numbers, and then promptly handed the card machine to my husband to key in the pin!!! My husband and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. The server realized her mistake and then handed the card machine to me, muttering something about women empowerment.

Seriously, though, how deeply these notions have to be ingrained in every society for this to happen even when we explicitly told her that I was paying! While there was nothing intentional, it represents our subconscious biases. Have we coined all these terms–equality at work, equality in pay, equality at home, equality in society–just to pay lip service to the idea of equality? Will we ever actually practice equality in every single walk of life? Is equality just going to remain a pipe dream?

On Winning the Parent Lottery

The title of this post refers to a statement from the book and the talk, “The Last Lecture“, by Randy Pausch, a Computer Science professor at CMU, who had pancreatic cancer, to which he succumbed in July 2008. In his book, Randy talks about how you have don’t have any control over who your parents are, and how they influence your life the most in your formative years, which in turn determines to a large extent, the shape your life takes.

Recently I read three books on stories of women oppression- “A Thousand Splendid Suns“, “Not Without My Daughter” and “Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia“, based in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. All three are excellent books, and I highly recommend reading them all; especially the first one. I shudder to think what would have become of me if I were to have been born in a family/country that had no concept of women’s rights whatsoever.

I feel *so* lucky to have been born and brought up in India, by excellent, very well educated parents who have been most supportive and encouraging of all my ambitions, my goals and my interests in life. I very much consider myself to have won the parent lottery, hands down.

On Becoming Fearless: A Must Read For Every Woman

Recently I read the book, “On Becoming Fearless… In Love, Work, and Life“, by Arianna Huffington of “The Huffington Post” fame. It is an excellent read, and I would recommend all women to read it. She talks about fearlessness as not really the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome the fear that every single one of us- man or woman- has, in some form or another. A lot of the thoughts in there resonated very well with me. However, I did not buy her arguments in some of the chapters- especially the one on god. I highly recommend reading at least some of the chapters- the ones on fearless about the body, love, work, leadership, and about changing the world.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the book, that hit spot on:

Beyond the major moments of fear in our lives, there are many other times when we sacrifice our personal truth to go along, be approved of, or just plain be “nice”. Because despite all our advances, there’s still a huge premium on women being “accomodating” and “team players” who don’t “rock the boat”. As Marlo Thomas once said, “A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.”

Most girls are brought up with the “be nice” philosophy. If they are forthright or tomboyish (read: rude, daredevils), they are smirked at by everyone around. It takes a lot of courage and persistence to keep that attitude going. Even for a die-hard tomboy like me (S.E.S. junta: does that sound familiar?), there have been lots of moments when these exact fears had crept in, and I was unable to overcome those, thus forcing me to be “nice”. At some point, I learned to overcome these and just adopt the screw-you attitude. Over the last few years- especially after going to the US, I have become a lot more self-confident, fearless and aggressive. In spite of that, once in a while, I do get called a “mouse”; although these occasions are quite rare these days. I do have a long way to go before I can claim to be able to overcome the fears that I have in life..

Talking about sacrificing personal truth in order to be nice- there are times when our opinions are very different from those that are being discussed on the table. Now, whether to argue tooth-and-nail about these opinions with some random Joe Schmoe, or to let go and just nod your head along, is a dilemma we face quite commonly. Most of the times I just go along with the flow, not because I want to be nice or anything, but just because I don’t want to militantly argue about some random topic with someone, whose opinions I don’t care much about. Now if I know that someone very well (like say Niket) and we differ in opinions, I will of course argue my heart out.

There are times though when random people say random things and you don’t respond, thinking you don’t care what that random person thinks; and then a couple of hours later, you realize that you do actually care about that statement, because the fact that you did not give a fitting response at that time has been bugging you a lot. This happens to me especially when the statement is made about sensitive topics like diversity, women’s issues, independence etc. This, I would definitely consider as sacrificing personal truth.

Some of the other discussions on fearless about body, work etc. are also very interesting. To every woman I know- rather than worrying about “how will I look at the holiday party if I wear x y or z” or about “what will my boss think of me if I say or do x y or z”, please do yourself a favor and go read the book…

Sampoorna Woman: Follow Up

Here’s a follow up to my earlier post about the “Sampoorna Woman” track on PANIIT. If you go to the site now, it has been changed to: “For The Family”. I am unable to retrieve the original cached page. In summary, the track has been now changed to be less disgraceful to women. It is termed as being for the family, and everyone is welcome to attend. They got rid of the “sampoorna woman” term. Although the core activities of the track are almost the same, they have now invited everyone to attend the main sessions. This was a welcome change from what the track was in its original form.

However, change does not happen by itself. You’ve got to fight for it. After writing my previous blogpost, I would have just given up and walked away, furious with the PANIIT organizers, furious with everyone involved, and more importantly, enraged with society. Luckily for me, I have an extremely supportive husband, who thought it was important to pursue this topic further.

Additionally, in this case, I was lucky to have a supportive colleague who realized the ridiculousness of the whole thing and who had the tenacity to follow up the matter with the concerned folks. He pointed out that as a sponsor company, we should engage in a dialogue with the organizers, and highlight the wrong attitude of the track in question. After some back and forth between the organizers, and our HR folks (who were very persistent themselves), the outcome was quite positive, as seen in the final changed version.

It helps to work in a company which understands its women employees and fights for their issues; it helps to have supportive, persistent colleagues; and it definitely helps to have an extremely understanding and encouraging husband. However, note to self for future cases like this one- despite the luxury of such a wonderful support structure, I should be the one fighting for change myself, rather than relying on others to fight the issues for me.

The Sampoorna Woman: WTF

The PANIIT 2008 Global Conference‘s program designed “Especially for Spouses” highlights the height of obnoxiously obsolete thoughts in the midst of technological progress. In a world that’s taking huge strides forward in terms of making the workplace a bit less cold for women, the so-called highly educated minds, who choose to inspire, innovate and transform, have actually chosen to transform back over a century in time.

There are tons of things I can point out that are wrong with this program. I’ll write about a few over here:

1) The program starts by saying it is designed “especially for spouses”. You think- whew, at least they said spouses, not wives. Wait, you thought too soon. The very next sentence is:

The theme for the spouses’ track in this year’s PANIIT is “Sampoorna” – programs meant for the complete woman, who is able to perfectly balance her personal, professional and public personality.

What about the female IIT alumni? Are their husbands supposed to be encouraged to be a “complete woman” as well? Hmm, maybe! Or maybe these people are finally accepting homosexuality with open arms!

2) The “Sampoorna” woman is such an archaic thought that I need to first sit down and think what it can possibly mean. Well, by the PANIIT definition, the “sampoorna” or “complete” woman should be able to perfectly balance her personal, professional and public personality. Huh? What’s wrong with these “stalwarts of technological advancement”?

If a woman has an excellent professional and public personality, there’s bound to be a compromise on the personal life. Does such a compromise make her an “incomplete woman”? And of course, a man in the same situation is always a “complete man”. What the hell!

3) The program includes activities like visits to dakshin chitra, cholamandal artists’ village, kalakshetra (all famous for their arts, crafts, music, dance), as well as some shopping for jewellery, silk and handicrafts. There are also some workshops for mehendi, cooking, dandia etc.

Really! Is that all they think a “sampoorna woman” should be exposed to? Well, how about a tour of the campus facilities- the library, the labs, the departments, the sports facilities, the swimming pool? How about a tour of leading research institutes in Chennai, like the IMSC, Cancer Institute etc. How about a few demos that were recently showcased at Shaastra 2008 in IIT-M, like the NUS robotics show, the defence tanks, the vertical take off and landing? What about talks by Nobel laureates? What about talks by leading industrialists and researchers and academics? Oh wait, I forgot. Maybe these are reserved only for the “complete man”???

4) The eminent women invited as chief guests for the program are- hold your breath- Hema Malini and Shilpa Shetty. They will speak on how to be a “complete woman”. What! Are these the only leading women that they can think of? How about inviting leading women researchers, scientists, doctors, businesswomen? Oh no, I forgot. They are not “complete women” anyway!

5) The program included a “Mystic Trail” track, which has since been taken off from the website. The cached page on Google describes this track as:

In the afternoon our Mystic Trail will take you through some of India’s most well known practices such as Astrology, Palmistry, Gemology, Nadi and Kili Josiyam. The entire trail will be set in the IIT Campus, giving the participants an opportunity to get a first hand experience of some of India’s most occult practices and beliefs.

I just cannot absorb the fact that the alumni of IIT, which supposedly gets the “cream layer” of the country’s brightest minds, actually believe in and encourage these “occult practices and beliefs”. And on the very premises of one of the most prestigious educational institutes in the country! Seriously- Astrology! Palmistry! On campus? WTF!

Wake up, people! The world has moved far ahead of you. It will take eons for you to catch up. Please make some use of your “bright brains” and of the education that has been imparted on you. Please think!

– Written by a Proud-to-be-Non-Sampoorna-Woman (who managed to complete the blogpost without dying of cerebral aneurysm)