After a nice few weeks of vacation, back to writing the column.

The tug-of-war between ‘nice’ and ‘competent’

My grandparents had four sons and one daughter: my mother. My grandmother’s favourite son was her eldest. He had a sweet word for everyone; sent my grandmother photos from faraway England with lines of Tamil poetry as captions; and was ever-smiling. Her third son lived in the same town as she did. He was the one she called when she needed to go to the doctor, have a piece of furniture moved, or speak to her tenants about rent increases. He was her SOS and showed up when he was needed.
He was not, however, her favourite. Perhaps this was because they dealt with each other too much, but mostly it had to do with his volatile temperament. “He will do everything but with one shouted angry word, he will spoil the whole effect,” my grandmother would say.
Temperament and competence have often been framed as a dichotomy—in life and work. The nice guys aren’t competent and the screamers climb up the corporate ladder. It is a stretch, I know.
The latest display of this dichotomy is the ouster of Jill Abramson from the top job at The New York Times. Here too, the issue has been framed as a tug-of-war between competence and temperament, with overtones of gender disparity. Abramson has been described as “mercurial” and “unapproachable”. Male bosses who are this way, including her predecessors, didn’t have to take a fall as she did. This is where gender disparity comes in.
Competence is a given in most top jobs. To climb up the ranks and run a newspaper or a company requires certain characteristics: perfectionism, efficiency, vision, creativity and courage. Women in top roles must have all these qualities. What brings them down, however, is temperament, according to the many articles on the subject.
I can see the double standard. And yet I have to wonder: What is the takeaway here—for all those women who are entering college, a new career, or the 16th Lok Sabha? Do you tell them to be as good or as bad as any man; to seek equality and justice at all times during their professional career? Or do you tell them to play up the strengths that anthropologist Helen Fisher describes in her book, The First Sex: The Natural Talents Of Women And How They Are Changing The World.
According to Fisher, women have the ability to build consensus, empathize, and nurture relationships. Not all women are this way and these qualities aren’t the sole prerogative of women. Still, as stereotypes go, these ones hold water and, I might add, cause problems.
Because we expect women to cooperate, we find the ones that are pushy jarring. Because we expect empathy from women, we can’t stand the ones that are abrupt. This tautology doesn’t help the future. How do we go forward from here? Many companies—Google is one—insist that their employees undergo gender-sensitivity training. Words are flashed rapidly on a computer screen and you have to pick whether they are “male” or “female” qualities. The results are shocking. A man who asks for a raise is viewed as ambitious; a woman who does the same thing is viewed as pushy.
What’s the way forward? While I see the merit in pushing for justice and equality—hiring a lawyer and questioning a boss as to why she was paid less—I’m not sure that it has taken women far enough to break the glass ceiling. So why not approach this thorny issue tangentially? Instead of playing by the same rules, why not change the rules; change the paradigm? Why not win over the workplace through kindness and courtesy—heretical and silly as that might sound? Again, I know that these traits aren’t exclusive to women, but it is also true that men are far more comfortable being obnoxious. There is a reason we usually think of men when we use the term “jerk”.
There are two ways to win a battle. So far we women have assumed that the only way is to enter a man’s world and essentially become like them: to imitate. When I was in Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, US, the older women enrolled in the Frances Perkins programme, who returned to college in their 50s to get a degree, would get angry when I talked about how women in my family ruled the roost with an iron fist in a velvet glove. “Why should women have to pretend to be softer or to be nice?” was the typical response. But for many women, these are not pretences, but part of personality.
Younger women hopefully will have the confidence to bring in new adjectives that the world can associate with leadership: compassionate, consensus-seeking, kind, great listener, enabler, supporter, and oh yes, she’s a tough boss. You don’t have to be a jerk in order to be competent; and simply saying that men can afford to be that way doesn’t help most women.
In aikido, a martial art that I am interested in, students are taught to use the force and momentum of the attacker for self-defence. When someone punches, you draw in the punch through whirls and circles and flip it back on them. The attacker’s force is used against him. Several Asian martial arts talk about being flexible like a blade of grass rather than breaking like a twig.
Aikido masters talk about making the enemy your friend; to defend yourself without injuring your opponent. Such altruism and niceness cannot be dismissed as idealism in today’s world. In reality, it may be the most practical way forward—for both men and women.

Shoba Narayan wonders where the new government falls in the temperament-competence continuum. Write to Shobha at [email protected]

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