I can always tell you when I’m outnumbered. That’s why when I arrived in India and dove into a sea of male eyes, my first question was: “where all all the women?” While women are an essential and vibrant part of Indian society, in the streets as in the CEO offices, we are a minority. Sometimes that minority status makes me feel invisible. And sometimes I only wish I was.
My business trip to Bombay perfectly encapsulates my feelings of alienation, and what I am terming as the “double-edged sword of the male gaze.”
It was my first trip up to Maharashtra’s capital, the prospect of which somewhat mitigated my painful 5:00am departure time (only somewhat…). On the 2 hour drive up, my boss suggested that I make the business pitches by myself. At first I waffled, saying that I didn’t feel prepared. And then I remembered an Atlantic article statistic: women apply for promotions only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men apply when they met 50 percent.
I told my boss I’d do the pitch, and I’d do it well.
So you can understand my dismay when in my first big pitch of the day, the businessman interrupted me after a single sentence. To talk about his next marathon…
Then, he responded to our gender equality program with this gem: “Yes, I totally agree. There are some things only a woman can do. Only a woman can turn a house into a home.”
This was a fair indicator of the meeting’s trajectory, so my pride was only partially wounded when he directed every question and comment towards my boss, and did not look at me once. A woman in a man’s realm does not warrant much attention.
Sadly, this is not my first time to be slighted in such a way–American men are just as skilled at dismissiveness as Indians. But to feel so wholly invisible made my blood boil. As I clenched a single fist and smiled compliantly, I made a resolution to someday be in a position that could not be ignored. One day, when I speak, you will want to listen. One day, when you have a question, you will have to look to me.
The rest of the day my proposals went seamlessly, and I finally felt like my worth was being recognized. But on my first-ever Indian train experience back to Pune, visibility was the last thing I craved and the last thing I could avoid. Walking in my conservative Western business suit, I was gawked at in every direction. The sea of eyes are always watching.
Exhausted from the day, all I wanted to do was rest in peace, but I ended up having to combat the alternative to dismissiveness: intrusive violation. While pretending to talk on the phone a man walked up to me and began taking pictures. He stood there for 5 minutes, staring at me and holding his camera at his waist. Even when I noticed and started glaring, his eyes would dart away for a second, and then they would be back, raking over ever inch of my body.
I walked out of that train station frustrated, triggered, and confused. How is it possible that women can be so completely disregarded in the workplace, and so violently consumed in public space? And then I realized it is the double-edged sword of the same issue. Male gaze is a powerful force, indeed. Inferior decision makers in a CEO’s office don’t necessitate a second glance, yet an inferior object walking on the sidewalk can be stared at mercilessly with impunity. Violence and workplace discrimination stem from the same rooted beliefs in female subservience. Invisibility and hyper-visibilty: perhaps this is why women are so absent in both spaces.
It’s why there are separate train cars for women. It’s why I had to switch seats on my ride to Mysore to avoid the salacious stares of my neighbor. It’s why there is one “women’s” line at the Bangalore airport and four lines for men.
“Where are all the women,” I ask again. They are being systematically shut out of a man’s world by men’s eyes.
“Where are all the women,” I ask a third time. They are knocking at the glass ceiling of your Fortune 500.
“WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN,” I will ask time and time again until our presence is recognized.