We spoke to Urvashi Singh, a hotelier and Editor-In Chief of Rajputana Collective, about what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated profession and how she understood gender and works towards breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ every day. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
1. When was the first time in your personal life that you discovered gender inequality and how did you navigate that?
I have one real brother and two first cousins, and the four of us grew up as one single unit of siblings. As children, we would reunite every time there was a long summer or winter vacation from school, and while our parents were equally indulgent in each one of us, I would observe my paternal grandfather being outrightly partial to my brothers, while my paternal grandmother practiced the same favoritism in return by over-pampering me and my sister. We would collect in their room every evening and my grandfather would distribute animal-shaped chocolates, of which the boys always got an extra share. On the other hand, my grandmother would pamper us girls by getting us cute stationery, toys and dolls, whether to compensate for her husband’s partiality or to justify her own through it, I will never be too sure.
Things changed for my grandfather when I was announced as the Head Girl of my school back in 2008. This achievement of mine caused me his newly-earned respect, for no other family member had occupied a student office of this stature. Even though he was in his last year and extremely feeble due to his illness, he would make an effort to stand up and salute me as a greeting, “hello Captain!” everytime I came home for a break. This would appeal to my reticence even more because of its sharp contrast with the partial apathy that I would receive from him when I was younger.
As I have matured, I realised that girls were required to go that extra mile to prove their credibility whereas boys were assumed to have it as an inborn trait, on the simple basis of their gender. I also understand now that neither of the favouritisms proved to be healthy for our psychologies that came to be inherently divided on the basis of gender. One began to internalize the virtue of entitlement as being a male prerogative while benevolent compensation was what the lesser fortunate gender received, and this is just a more sophisticated example of the myriad ways in which gender discrimination is practiced amongst lesser privileged families as well. Be it in terms of education, nutrition, endowments, opportunities or confidence, the girl child is likely to be at the less favoured end due to deep rooted socio-cultural sensibilities, even in post-modern societies.
Navigating through such subtle yet powerful biases has usually caused me to defy stereotypes by the virtue of my credibility, and that too stands dubious in terms of what virtues our society finds credible. A certain amount of ambition and excellence is considered to be a positive virtue, but too much of it is deemed as threatening, for it questions the validity of the merits accorded to one gender versus the other in a patriarchal fabric.
2. What are the subtle ways in which you have personally witnessed/ faced gender-based bias/ discrimination?
I am born to a liberal set of parents who have always provided the best for both their children. However, my brother was granted access to the educational opportunities that he received despite being a mediocre student who was least interested in academia. I, on the other hand had justified the very same access by proving my merit time after time, and consistently so. And even then, my academic choices were respected more as a “shauk” than a possible link to a successful career. Interestingly, I pursued a masters in Gender studies, which, till date is considered to be a leftist discourse that families should be wary of lest it rocks too many apple carts. When considering a suitor for me, my mother would often voice her concern of whether he and his family would “let” me work and be who I am. This would baffle any one who has recently graduated having studied the tenets of female agency. It was all the more disturbing and jarring for me to hear, but I did understand that our parents came from a different generation and a different way of thinking altogether. And despite my father being the modernist that he is with me, my sister in law and my nieces, I find it difficult to imagine most men of our times be as empowered in their understanding of gender-neutral opportunities. I am indeed fortunate have received his upbringing as well as my mother’s, who is a liberal in her own ways but has societal norms ingrained too deep in her to tread into more radical avenues of feminist thought. Rather than questioning disparity, she would remain perplexed by it and hint at me to be wary of the same. The spirit of questioning, deliberating and progressive debate is continued to be seen as insolence by much of the respected populace, for the sake of the status quo and the due sanctity that is attached to it. Feminism itself is a dangerous word for many, and girls who are too educated, capable or qualified are considered to be a threat to the society, rather than an asset. This is the case in several well to do and educated families as well.
3. In a professional setting do you think being a woman made it more difficult for you to access/ begin new ventures, step into new avenues?
Maybe not objectively but subjectively for sure. Despite our equalizing to favor men and women alike in an increasing number of avenues, I find that the inherent attitude towards female entrepreneurs has a long way to go. Even if a female entrepreneur is accepted, her views are often taken less seriously or with lesser credibility than her male counterpart. If not, it is accepted with a patronizing undertone. I don’t mean to state this as a generalization, but based on my personal experience as a young entrepreneur who began working at the age of 22, I have often known what it takes to shatter certain glass ceilings, and despite having done so, women can expect to steer past blatant sexists, or apologists thereof for the better part of their career. What is often more saddening is that women remain disunited as a single body that is combatting the same demons in different forms. Instead of serving as one another’s competitors, an important way to beat the system of gender discrimination at work is to stand up for one another, not against men per se but against sexism, and to defend the rights of men as well as gender-neutral individuals against the very system that defeats the tenets of individual liberty, justice and dignity.
Moreover, gendered disparity in entrepreneurship is more class-centric than we credit it to be. Not co-incidentially so, because one can link the historic contingencies of the bourgeoise with fewer work opportunities due to the lesser importance accorded to it in upper cast households. The working classes, on the other hand were involved in a greater struggle to make ends meet and hence, were often compelled to liberalise the mobility of their girls and women. And yet, the contribution of women, whether in monetary form or the form of caregiving, labour, skilled expertise, etc. is considered to be secondary to the primary contribution of men.
4. Industries such as hospitality are led by men more often than not. What has your experience been in navigating this space as a woman?
I was born and raised in a family of hoteliers, and hence, have stood in the position of a fortunate inheritor of the resort that I presently own and run in Manali. While my parents have served as a tremendous support system to me, and while much of the hospitality industry of today’s times is run by women in managerial as well as sub managerial roles, the number of female proprietors comprise a tiny fraction of their male counterparts. This statistic can be explained as a result of the disparate laws of inheritance, which, despite being justly stipulated on paper, continue to be violated by most hotel-owning empires. In my own experience, starting off as a 22-year-old hotelier came with its own set of challenges. I faced the double whammy of my age as well as gender with several chauvinistic salespersons and travel agents. My inputs and opinions would often be implicitly trifled. In retrospect, I am grateful to those chauvinists for causing me to grow tougher and work harder. However, I do understand my place or privilege and that gender-based discrimination is far worse for several women in the industry who have faced and dealt with misfortunes as bad as sexual harassment at work. I personally believe that it is the moral duty of every hotelier, and every human being running an institution to ensure the safety of women and an equal opportunity offered to everyone irrespective of their gender. Merit trumps gender and it is high time that we implemented that realisation.
5. How do you address discrimnation on a day to day basis, circumvent it and succeed in professional life?
I am fortunate to steer my professional ship as its captain. However, with this power comes a tremendous amount of responsibility, which used to be daunting at first and oftentimes, still is. Two entire departments at my resort are exclusively operated by women and it is my moral prerogative to ensure their utmost security and comfort at work. There are several ways I execute this, such as equal pay (on the basis of seniority regardless of gender), fortifying the safety of women staff vis-a-vis their fellow male employees as well as hotel guests, work incentives that ensure their stable employment alongside their domestic responsibilities, so on and so forth. I have favoured the employment of women secretaries so that I am able to contribute to bridging income disparities on the basis of my gender in my own small way
That said, several women, even in modern societies continue to contend with the double burden of professional work as well as their domestic responsibilities. While most men are usually absolved of the latter based on the former’s justification, women are not afforded that luxury of exception. Their domesticity is taken for granted and this often leads to women as being more susceptible to excessive pressure, expectations and several mental health disorders as well. While it is not uncommon for women with domestic responsibilities to be expected to forfeit/ suspend their jobs/ ventures, independent women, or women who have shunned the patriarchal system by either getting divorced or separated from their spouses are seen as deviant. Regardless of their professional credibilities and achievements, they are not spared of moral policing. This is again stated out of the personal experience that outperforming women are often considered to be selfish for failing to accord their duties that they ought to their families.
It took a while for me to be able to express and explain my independent as well as ambitious outlook towards life for the sake of my own passions and not that of social validation. It is a constant battle, most importantly, with oneself. But it is the uncomfortable conversations that are also the most important in order for us to evolve as individuals and as a society, and discomfort is often a marker of growth and empowerment as compared to passive compliance.
6. Are there any interesting anecdotes/ things you heard with respect to women navigating professional spaces in your experience?
The examples are infinite and out there. Look into any field and you will find them.
7. Can you share with us any incident/ time when you felt like you broke a certain glass ceiling?
Right from my childhood, when I excelled in studies, sports, extracurriculars, I found myself to be shattering a glass ceiling. Because I hoped that apart from being my personal achievements, they would serve as reminders to other families that if given the chance and opportunity to do so, their daughters too would excel in ways that their grandmothers and mothers ought to, but didn’t have the chance to. And just because that was an occurrence of the past didn’t mean that it could be justified any longer in the present of future. I also find it troubling that women empowerment is patronised as being imperative to social development. While that is true, women empowerment needs to be implemented, adhered to and appreciated for the sake of women, as an end in itself and not as a patriarchial means.
Every time I achieve a milestone at work, a glass ceiling cracks somewhere, and I dedicate it not just to my own hard work, privilege and opportunities, but also to the prospects of millions like me who are determined to do the same.