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An American’s View on Working with Indian Women

I still remember my first day at work in Bangalore like it was yesterday.  My new job started – as they should for some reason – on a Monday and I had moved to the country with three suitcases and into a hotel only the day before.  I spent that Sunday in the hotel room relaxing, mesmerized by Indian television and focused on silly tasks like picking out the right outfit to wear for my first day at my new job.  I also spent time trying to darken up my fair skin with a self-tanning cream to try to appear less pasty white and blend in better at work.  You see, I was the first “white girl” hired by the company so I knew I was going to stand out a lot.

I walked up the stairs at work to an unassuming office that was chosen not for location or prestige but for its affordable rent.  The interiors were simple and from my perspective in much need of a coat of paint, final touches on the construction and the interior design but … this is India.  The importance that western cultures place on aesthetics simply doesn’t always exist here, especially in common areas and toilets, with the décor, etc.  Sure there are some gorgeous offices here in the world’s 2nd Silicon Valley but until recent years that simply wasn’t the norm.

The first woman I encountered that day was the really sweet receptionist who called me Ma’am from the get-go, which is not my favourite way to be addressed and on my first day at work I certainly didn’t understand AT ALL that it was simply a sign of respect.  Poor girl was off to a bad start because I thought she was insinuating that I was walking in looking tired or scrappy or OLD.  But she seemed sweet enough so I let it slide.

After a few moments I was taken into the CEOs office for a big meet-and-greet with the C-level and management team, which I was part of the C-level team and very happily I was not the only female officer.  The smiles I received felt genuine and welcoming and warm.  I expected that from my male colleagues because typically men do not feel threatened by women but I was genuinely pleased to feel it 100% from the ladies too.  It was a nice change and I tell you…and the smiles never faded.  My first day was lovely!

But is working with women in India all sunshine and rainbows?  No, not always.  But not for the same reasons that I experienced in the U.S. or Europe.  The negative reasons here are trivial and funny, whereas back home they were reasons that affected productivity and happiness at work.

For me , and probably most westerners, working with Indian women is a joy.  First, there is something about the typical Indian woman’s personality that makes MOST women have a gentle spirit at work.  Don’t get me wrong, Indian women can and will get the job done just like or even better than any man but they tend to have a gentle spirit in my opinion.  Now, that’s not always 100% true because I did work with one woman in Bangalore who was a bully, rude, yelled at her staff in front of others and didn’t play well with the rest of us executives – but this was one person out of hundreds whom I have worked with now so I’d prefer to think of her as an anomaly.

I’m really struggling with the right words to describe why I think women have this gentle spirit because I truly don’t want to offend my Indian sisters here.  My gut says it comes from tradition and the somewhat subservient role that women have played in Indian society – where the men were the bread winners and the women were dependent and I believe obedient in the household and, in the past, not characteristically independent women of power.  Given all of that, the new power women of India are still balancing the old traditions with their new status and therefore are an amazing mix of intelligence and skill combined with a keen ability to process situations and reply to or treat others with respect.  Like I said, aside from the ‘anomaly’ I have yet to see a woman at work lose her cool or raise her voice like I’ve seen the men here do time and time again – in fact, a bit too frequently for my taste that’s for sure.

Angela Carson
The typical western business attire …. so masculine in comparison to the traditional Indian attire worn by my female colleagues here.

In my experience, women at the same level or competing in a climb to the top in the U.S. and in Europe are typically vicious.  It’s often a hidden trait but it is there.  Maybe because I was always a bit older than the other women I didn’t feel the same need to prove I was superior to the boss.  But the truth is that I have not been on an executive team with a single woman who did not make my life difficult or demonstrate some animosity or jealousy for no apparent reason EVER before moving to India.  The change here is wonderful.  Women are either simply more confident here or they haven’t adopted that overly competitive gene yet but it is a real treat to go to work and not worry if my colleague would be getting ‘up in my grill’ or not on any given day.

One struggle I have definitely had is with the clothing.  Both mine and theirs.  Although I have some western girlfriends here in India who love wearing traditional Indian clothes regularly and look fabulous in them…that’s just not me.  I have never felt more feminine than when I wore a sari to a wedding and I look forward to my next occasion to wear one – but obviously I am not going to wear a sari to work.  And I personally think that wearing Indian clothes just makes us white girls stand out even more and for me it would seem like I’m trying too hard to fit in and become Indian.  I don’t know, maybe I should give it a try but so far I haven’t.  I’ve stuck to my own style, which is typically a dress…just now I wear a scarf over my shoulders or wear a little cardigan over it.  But I do show my legs quite a bit, well from the knee down, and I know that this makes people stare and is really a no-no for Indians but luckily as a westerner I am able to get away with it (thank goodness or I would have to go buy a whole new wardrobe).  The plunging neckline so popular in the U.S. and Europe is also a big no-no here so I have had to chuck out a few dresses or wear scarves to cover myself up – this isn’t a negotiable factor like the legs unfortunately.

With respect to Indian women at work, fashions are still very traditional.  The breakdown goes something like this:

  • 75% wear salwar kameez (the traditional Indian matching trousers/blouse/scarf combos)
  • 20% wear a sari
  • 5% international fashions

I have had trouble trying to sort out the role that someone has in the company if I don’t actually know them.  From a purely physical standpoint, it’s typically impossible to tell how high up someone is on the food chain simply by the clothing they wear.  This is something new and can be tough on a westerner given that things are so different in our world.  Back home we have much clearer lines in wardrobe.  The women in higher positions will dress up much more in a suit or fashionable business attire whereas the women starting out in their career or in entry-level positions are able to keep a more casual appearance.  So how can I tell who is who when 95% of the women traditional Indian clothes to work?  The simple answer is I can’t.   This is India and in the workplace attire plays a small role at work but like so many other superficial things…it simply isn’t given that much weight.  Sure, after so many months I can now tell by the jewellery or perhaps the fabric and shoes that a woman wears who might have a better salary but the power suit doesn’t make the woman here in the workplace – they differentiate themselves with other traits.  I like that.

There is hierarchy here that doesn’t exist in western cultures – with very clear lines.  I am addressed as Ma’am or Madam by many of my fellow female colleagues in junior positions.  I am used to it now but it still feels strange to me and I really wish they would just call me Angela.  Okay, in all fairness a couple of them do but then they might add Miss to it so I’m Miss Angela.  Another thing with hierarchy is that there are typically no questions asked if someone senior asks someone more junior to do something, even if it is not typically their job.  For me, this isn’t always a good thing but … this is India and that’s how we roll here.

I am now working for my 2nd Indian company here in Bangalore and so far in my experience, receptionists and front office ladies are always truly diplomatic and lovely.  I have never seen a single bitchy or rude or uncaring receptionist or “first face” in any company since my arrival, which is quite commonplace in Europe and the U.S. and I’ve certainly run across a ton of them while living in Spain over the past decade.  So this is quite refreshing, let me tell you.

In both companies I’ve worked I am the only ‘white girl’ at the office and here I’ve been approached and engaged in conversation by my female colleagues more than in any other country I’ve lived in or travelled to.  Indian women are as curious about me and my culture as I am about them and they go out of their way to ask questions and also to make me feel at home.  They want to know where I’m from and ask lots of sweet questions.  I really appreciate how willing the women are to patiently explain cultural differences and activities that are going on – or holidays – so I understand and appreciate what I am experiencing.  And the women always have a big, genuine smile.

My favourite “bonding” moment with someone at work took place recently in the restroom at work.  I was going directly to dinner after work at a very swish restaurant so I had brought a change of clothes and I was frantically trying to glam up my hair and makeup when a junior colleague walked in.  We had never met before and she asked my name and introduced herself.  She was really charismatic and asked me some questions but after a minute or two I was done getting ready.  She sort of looked me and up and down and then said that she had the perfect thing for me.  She offered to go to her desk to fetch a bindi for me to wear because she said it would make me look prettier (a bindi is the small decorative dot on the forehead).  I thought that was the sweetest offer I had heard in so long.  Of course, to me, the bindi didn’t quite go with my knee-high boots, slim black skirt and black top so I said no but I loved that she saw me that way and had offered.

Language can definitely be an issue here.  Although we both speak English, I still don’t always understand their accent and the other way around, which does make for some funny misunderstandings at times.  But I have found this in every part of my life so it is not exclusive to the workplace.

When I was a little girl, I used to tell people that I wanted to be a truck driver or work on telephone poles because I never saw a single “grown up girl” doing those jobs.  I have very strong opinions about equality, apparently formed from a really young age.  It rubs me wrong that I’ve never seen a single female taxi driver or auto rickshaw driver or hospitality worker outside of the fast-food chains or family run businesses.  Women are forbidden by law to be bartenders in Bangalore which I also find difficult to stomach.  I know that these norms and rules or laws are in place for the safety of the women but it still upsets that part of me that believes that everyone is equal and that women can do just about anything that a man can.

Powerful female executives are on the rise in India and the workplace is becoming more and more accepting of women so rock on, India!!!  As for me, I’m going to take it all in stride, try to learn as much as I can and just enjoy the fact that I get to be surrounded every day by “power girls” in saris and traditional Indian attire, which I could never experience anywhere but India.

Don’t miss the flip side to this article: Working With Indian Men

XOXO Angela

© 2011 Angela Carson

Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 37 countries on 4 continents, residing in 8 of them (currently Indonesia's Riau Islands is my home). I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!

This Post Has 30 Comments

  1. sunith

    It is strange to see no comments to this post after 24 hours……..
    I admire the power women/girls a lot, the ones in their sharp suits or crisp saris and their confident, assertive nature. It is endearing. The dress code differs for different organizations. Government, private, IT, ITES, media, retail, fmcg, all these industries have different dress codes. When I worked for an MNC which was a competitor for Dell and Apple, I came across women dressed in salwars, suit ensembles, casuals and even hipster clothing. Media and events have more of a western inclination with suits, skirts, cardigans…. But the usual hierarchy of dress sense is not that apparent in India, A CEO might wear a sari or a suit, and convey power equally. Personally, I love a top honco woman in a sari, someone who is comfortable with her identity and still can run the show. It would be a mundane world when globalization takes over and everyone wears the same attire across continents…. I am waiting for the time when wearing a lungi to work becomes acceptable…. That would be heaven for the ease of everything you can imagine 😀

    1. Ahmed

      Ditto!! [:)]

    2. angela_carson

      Hey my friend, we really need to meet up soon. Thanks for commenting. I agree with the power girl in a sari being very cool. I love it 🙂

  2. arjunpuri

    Very cool post Angela. Being an Indian, a working woman, I agree your opinion. And many a times, we don’t even get a chance to raise our voice, blame the conservative and male-dominated society. When you get time, please do bump into one of my posts and see how we are discriminated and still fight for equality… Here’s the link:

    1. angela_carson

      Thanks for the link and for taking the time to comment. Glad you liked the article too 🙂 I will read your article tomorrow and comment. –angela

  3. s kumar

    Hi Angela,
    I am a man, was born in India and now live and work in the West- have worked in Europe, and in the UK. It does not cease to amaze me that I have seen more empowered working women in India than I do in the work place here. There is definitely a ‘Glass Ceiling’ in place. The few Indian working women I have come across in Europe and UK, are no longer the gentle one’s you describe; they are as aggressive as the man’s world hey work in. So enjoy your experiences in India. Back home there isn’t much fun at the work place.

    1. angela_carson

      I do intend to enjoy this time and learn as much as I can from the Indian women I work with…I’m having an amazing time so far. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂 -A

  4. nathalie

    Hello Angela and commentators (do you say so ?)
    This is a very interesting post, and interesting comments too.
    I first noticed these lines : “In my experience, women at the same level or competing in a climb to the top in the U.S. and in Europe are typically vicious. It’s often a hidden trait but it is there. Maybe because I was always a bit older than the other women I didn’t feel the same need to prove I was superior to the boss. But the truth is that I have not been on an executive team with a single woman who did not make my life difficult or demonstrate some animosity or jealousy for no apparent reason EVER before moving to India.” … because I recognize this so much ! My two last experience in France were with women, on top of hierarchy, and in small teams – so I had direct contacts with these women, who were acting in such aggressive ways, and quite vicious, that’s true. I spent so much time trying to find good strategies to put and end to bad behaviors, or fix limits to what my superiors could tell me…
    It seems to me that the whole trouble comes from the way we all behave in our western countries, where we always try to prove things (that we know what the other is talking about…, that we are able to…, that we are efficient….) because we feel very little self-confident inside. For me, as I see it, India seems to be a place where everyone has his/her own place, even though difficult for many, just for being alive, part of life.
    Which is very far to be true, and to be the way we see it in France !!!
    But this may be my own “indian dream”… ? I don’t know !

    1. angela_carson

      Hi Nathalie, I’m glad that you commented…it’s nice to know that I’m not alone 🙂 Though I am sorry you had to put up with it too. I experienced it both in southern California and Barcelona — always a real pain in the ass. -angela

  5. nathalie

    … and I really appreciate every single contact I have here with indian women !

  6. syamukamath

    Hmm. Women Bar attenders! And we would hav another 100 rape case per day.
    But there are women auto, taxi bus drivers in kerala. May be it’ll get more , as time passes.
    And most women also wnt do bar attending jobs,. Hinduism says they shouldnt,.
    If a person uses a woman for such jobs , its like he offending hisown mother.
    Every woman other than ur wife must be seen as mother, or sister..(although later india turnd male superior society).
    And even wife is representation of Godess, she is shakti , the energy of a man without which he cant survive. Every couple s a single person with male and female half. Its called ‘ARDHA NAREESWARA’ , half man half woman, form of Lord shiva. And alcohol and alcoholics are unculturd here. So women dnt go for such jobs.

    1. angela_carson

      Hi, thanks for commenting. I’m curious why there would be more rapes? Would the woman working at the bar or restaurant be raped? Also aren’t auto/taxi drivers MORE at risk to be raped because they are alone with men in their vehicle?? I don’t quite understand but am very curious. Please do come back to me with your thoughts… all my best, angela

      1. syamukamath

        Some people won’t ‘waste’ any oppertunity to exploit women. In bar when, the people are drunk you can just imagine the situation , they would have greater tendency.
        Given the corruptn these criminals are sure they can escape bribing the authorities.
        Another thing is that, drinking is still considered bad in The society, coz of our culture. You can see hindu , christian missions conduct awareness class etc against Alcohol. So people ,even if they drink, they do it secretely. And only a section who dnt care of such norms , dnt go with society are the ones who go bar. This will also increase the risk of security.
        Its hard to digest but certain adjustments are needed to live in a corrupt country like ours.
        Ps. There had been widespread demand for ban on alcohol from all religions, feminist organisations, etc. The govt. Is not doing it , mainly coz of influence of Liquor Barons like Mr. Mallya,. And in some states like my own kerala, the 60% of gov’s revenue come from the liquor company run by kerala


        1. angela_carson

          Hmmm I still don’t understand how a female worker at a resto-bar or pub would increase the number of rapes 🙁

          All of my Indian girlfriends drink and enjoy going out and listening to music…they have amazing jobs, make great money, are smart and beautiful, and are really good people. I guess it just depends on lifestyle, family expectations and – to some degree – a person’s class in society. I’ve had this kind of chat with my driver who has never been inside a bar before, nor his family and he hopes his son never will either. Personally I don’t see anything wrong with listening to music, socialising in public with friends at a place that serves drinks, etc but I always enjoy hearing otheer opinions and ways of life

          1. syamukamath

            I didnt mean girls would increase rape. Lol. And many of my friends drink occasionally too.
            But , such jobs are seen as inferior and those grls would be seen as ‘easy’ going and usable ‘goods’ by anti socials . And they have a tendency to attack such women.
            India is not like USA ,where a bar girl accuse a high profile person like straus -kahn and police take immediate action.
            Here everything Goes on money and its only the girls , who will lose. Criminals would easily escape.

          2. angela_carson

            ahhhhh okay…thanks for elaborating 🙂

  7. syamukamath

    But indian males , always use every oppertunity dominate, control or be superior to them , nt respect’em.
    Thats the root cause of male superiority etc.
    It s prohibitd for men even to take weapon against women in war, even if she takes on him. Its better to die ,than attacking her back. She should always be seen like a mother or sister . And its duty to protect her from any violations of her right or rules. One who doesn’t attempt to protect women is considered equivalent to a deadbody.
    But again some people beat’em, go rude, abuse etc without reason.

  8. syamukamath

    Yes. There is risk for taxi drivers etc. But its our duty to protect them and their right to work.

  9. Nids

    So I was trying to find about “working women in Bangalore”, because we want to come back home, and your blog was 3rd result. Congrats 🙂
    I agree with lots of things which you have mentioned here regarding clothes, jobs where you don’t see women and other stuff. But I still have to settle myself with the thought that you find them “gentle”. Maybe they are lower in career chain or they could be polite towards you. Even in US, I’ve seen Indian female managers who can give really hard time and a surprising look on everyone’s face who is around. And I feel even after working here for so long, how they can be so harsh and even (borderline) abusive at times.
    12 years back when I came here and I decided to wear “salwar kameez” in middle of 4th week, I got a comment from someone in elevator asking “if its some holiday”. Ofcourse, I did not realize then why that was asked.
    Good to see that we are now really getting global.

  10. Alex N Abraham

    hi whether we work India Or abroad Indian culture demands men to respect & treat everybody equally Now the thinking has been changed becoz of change of lifestyles at metro cities.Night life/BArs.As the world has changed India has also changed and peoples lifestyles.As peoples hav chances for making careers then that should be useful for the family not for lifestyle beyong anybodys control.

    1. angela_carson

      Hi Alex, I’m trying to understand what your comment has to do with the article about the dynamics of working with women 🙁 Please come back with more…

  11. Andy

    To my eyes, some of the western dress (especially suit) make me feel that a woman has to dress like a man to compete in career. While Caucasian women are able to carry it off well and mostly have the body structure and poise to match such dresses, Indian women often do not have similar advantages. Such western dresses look strange on Indian women and we start wondering why do our women (who otherwise look presentable in Indian dress) wear such ill fitting and odd attires to office. Many of them buy off the shelf suits which are expensive but do not fit the body well.

    Some times I wonder why a man wearing a feminine attire is a total “no no” but a woman wearing a suit or similar masculine dress is seen with appreciation. Logically, there should be the same stigma for a woman preferring masculine dress.

    May be it is still man’s world.

  12. Mohana

    Hi Angela! The perceived “gentleness” you speak of, is largely owing to your being considered an “outsider” and hence stems from them trying to make a good impression on you. For some reason I cannot quite explain, they don’t quite see you as their competitor. I have worked with some very “vicious” female colleagues in the past, and if I am honest, Indian women make terrible bosses, even if I say so myself, being an Indian woman in senior management.

    I think Indian women bosses feel as though they have to try extra hard to wipe away all pre-conceived notions and myths of gentleness and being subservient, to the point when they start over-doing it and totally lose the balance between getting the work done, and asserting themselves properly, in the process, altogether.

    And not just women. The whole assertiveness versus aggressiveness balance is a very delicate one, and very very few people in high places can pull it off indeed! 🙂 Anyway, just to say that Indian women leaders can be and most often are just as tough as their male counterparts….but having lived, worked and studied abroad, I have to say that despite popular belief in the West about India being a male-dominated society, India has the largest percentage of women CEOs and executives as compared to anywhere else in the world! That, I am truly thrilled about – that the glass ceiling in India is pretty non-existent. 🙂

    That and the fact, that the leading investment banks in India today have women head honchos. So perhaps the ability to lead with vision, but with a more people-centric approach (I wouldn’t necessarily call this “gentleness”) is what distinguishes them from their male colleagues.

  13. Ayanna Nahmias

    I really enjoyed reading your early experiences of working in India. To me it was a fascinating read and I must say I was a little jealous. Since my childhood in Africa and a few times in Europe and the UK, I haven't had the ability to travel out of the States.

    Of course there is a great reason, I am a full-time single Mom and it is the most important job of my life; but still, I stand in awe of your journey as you continue to push boundaries and break the glass ceiling along with your fellow Indian female working professionals. ~ Ayanna Nahmias

    1. AngelaCarson

      Thanks so much, Ayanna.  I read your site every day and am embarrassed I write about moth balls and party when you are doing your part to educate and help bring change to the world so … right back at cha 🙂  I’m a single mom too, and I can say that it is hard at times — much harder than if I were single or married — so I completely understand.  Thanks for the really sweet comment, made my day! xoxo

  14. Kedar

    Very interesting read. Great observations.

    I think in general in Western culture, being assertive is a more important value than being polite. In Indian, or overall Asian culture, it’s opposite.

    That’s why you will find in West people voice their opinions strongly, even if it means being seen as a “difficult” or vicious. And in India people don’t voice their opinions even if it’s right thing to do, just because they make an error on the side of being polite. And for women it matters even more because being polite is a strong cultural stereotype for women.

    Also sometimes makes me wonder our religions preaching of non violence almost makes us conflict-avoiding people.

    1. Angela Carson

      Hey Kedar, thanks for your comment, however I have to disagree a bit. I’ve never seen so many people yell at each other as in India. Many people raise their voice to people who work in lower jobs or in shops just to try to assert their superiority, it was truly shocking for me to witness (I blogged about it after being outraged by a woman yelling at an Airtel worker).

      Also, outside India I have never seen people come and try to beat the driver who caused a car accident but I saw that many times in India. I never saw a man beat his wife in public before I lived in India, or saw managers at work yell at their staff so much, etc. In India, people will stay quiet when it’s wrong at times and speak out loudly when they shouldn’t. I find the extremes much greater in Indian than any other country I ever lived in to be honest.

      Now, with that said, I was surrounded by wonderfully caring and gentle people. The people in my life were polite. But I saw enough of it on the street, something I had never experienced before, to know that the extreme contrasts are just as common sadly 🙁

      Hope that makes sense… Have a great night – Angela

  15. Kedar

    Hello Angela,

    Point noted. You are right. May be I need to make a distinction. We are still figuring out the whole “all humans are equal” thing. So a lot of yelling happens by people who think they are “above” the person in front of them. That is abuse. What you witnessed with the man beating a woman etc. is abuse. Plain and simple.

    What I was talking about was when the relative places are unsure or more peer to peer communication. People will rather maintain the goodwill than to speak up.

    Where I live in Mumbai, there are nice sidewalks, but occupied by hawkers. People will walk on road and risk being hit by a car than try to challenge a hawker. Similarly when one person is more assertive, rest of the people will just move over and make room for the obnoxious guy rather than challenge him. A lot of it is because there is lack of trust in cops and the system to protect them.

    Talking about culture and values, if you get a chance, please take a look at my article in WSJ blog some time back.

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