As I sit writing this, I recall when my co-workers and I were discussing my first job interview with them. My boss seemed to like and respect my confidence. She valued the fact that I did not choose to hide my innate competitive aggression (the same one that my mother has passed to me) but rather arm myself with that as my selling point.
And in retrospect, a part of the reason why she seemed to value this trait is because she herself is formidable. As formidable and strong as I would hope to be someday.
I was accepted and liked in the office space for being true to myself and not shying away from competition. But my mother’s professional experience makes me think that this is a liberty that working women of her generation could not afford to have.
As the daughter of a fierce career-oriented woman, most of my mother’s daily work anecdotes comprised of whom she had to tackle that day to get herself heard and get her work done.
‘How to never let your guard down at work 101’- The 90s mantra
Working in the ever-erratic media industry back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, my mother’s professional experience had made her the poster child for ‘How To Never Let Your Guard Down At Work 101’. Because a headstrong woman was not a particularly likeable individual back then.
Being the sole breadwinner of her family, her job was a mere necessity and not something that she was particularly fond of, where she could exalt her creativity. This necessity birthed a sense of seriousness with which the job was taken. She left no stone unturned in ensuring her work was impeccable and her ideas novel.
But this immaculate perfection brings with it an unwarranted perception. The light in which her co-workers started viewing her was that of an aggressive and unapproachable one.
And they weren’t exactly wrong.
This was the pre-digital era where the prominent power players in the media industry were the news channels. A time when they were sprawling their power and expanding themselves at an unparalleled pace by excessive departmental structuring and mass hiring from every corner of the nation.
Unlike companies today that place ample emphasis on one’s cultural background, lifestyle and the matching wavelength of wokeness; these mass hiring processes did not exactly guarantee the influx of employees that understood the concept of a single mother.
‘Why don’t you smile more often you have such a lovely face’
This was the time when routine office sexism was playful banter. And a news anchor who is good at her job, knows that she is good and is unafraid to show that she is good did not quite qualify for the likeability competition.
Far from being likeable, her acute professionalism and curt demeanour was met with accusations of being too impertinent. Her daily office conversation appetite was force fed with phrases like “why is she always so angry” or “why does she have to be so rude” and her boss’s favourite “why don’t you smile more often you have such a lovely face.”
All of these perceptions contributed to her hindered professional growth. Men in positions junior to her were promoted over her. Women who did not mind playing pretend-coy and smiling when the boss asked them to were chosen as her eventual bosses.
And these were ever-lasting impressions that branded her as the woman who was no doubt good at her job but came with a lot of angry baggage. She did eventually find her footing in the same field and gained slow but sure success. It’s been twenty years since her first media job and even now when she ventures out for new work, the most prominent impression is the hotheaded one.
Making yourself socially likable – No thanks!
Growing up listening to these stories, I always wondered if being a tad submissive and hiding your true self was the key to an easier, less painful success. But a month into my first job I realised, professional success may be a product of many things, but making yourself more socially likeable is certainly not one of them.
Recalling her own experiences, the one constant conclusion to all her anecdotes was lamenting the gap in the thought processes between her and her co-workers. If they could have comprehended the baggage that comes with being a single mother, or understood that it wasn’t arrogance but confidence that came from a place of being good at what she does and if only they were open to getting to know her; her journey would have certainly been something else.
If I had to pick out the most obvious reason why my professional experience so far has been radically different from hers it would be in the nature of our co-workers.
The importance of having positive colleagues around oneself has been stressed enough. But building on from my mother’s bad experience and the stark difference in my own – I’d say that the importance of having like-minded ones is far more important.
Your work is much more than just money in your bank account
Sure, salary benefits are an added advantage. And perhaps the only motivation to show up to work every morning. But if you’re dragging yourself out to the same place for over five days a week, meeting the same people on a daily basis; wouldn’t it be more convenient to be able to actually like those people? And nothing screams likeability more than like-mindedness.
Your co-workers constitute a major part of your work life. The work environment therefore should be as integral to your job-seeking process as the work itself. The nature of interaction one has with one’s co-workers is highly conducive to one’s productivity. Being able to engage in healthy debates, discussions, brainstorming sessions or even being able to simply have fun conversations without the work pressure should be treated not like a perk but rather a necessity.
A happier work environment implies a happier work life
The positivity around one’s work environment reflects one’s work. While work may get stressful or too much to take at times it’s your coworkers that can help make this tribulation a lot easier to get through. Having a co-worker ask if you’re feeling alright and if you need to talk or vent certainly is the highlight of my bad days.
All of my co-workers have an innate veneration for each other’s individualistic traits. I do not feel the need to shy away from competition or act coy when we speak about things like love, life and relationships. Things like these contribute heavily into feeling happy about your work life. While there are days where your work is unable to sustain your mental peace, your co-workers can certainly play a major role in your motivation and your willingness to get to work.
Mutually shared interests foster growth
Sharing a similar appetite of books, films and television shows. Having a similar outlook towards the pre-existing trend of sexism that is contestably gradually changing. Being able to share my mother’s journey and receiving the kind of responses, which if she had received would have proved to do wonders for her career. It is this like-mindedness that makes me feel enthusiastic for my work every morning.
Sure, I love my job and the fact that I have the creative freedom to write in the manner I’d want to. But what is perhaps even more fun and liberating is that I get to share this feeling with a community of strong independent women who feel the same about each other.
As a bunch of writers working together and constantly seeking ideas to write about; the germination of a lot of these eureka moments stem from these conversations itself. It is this community of like-minded people that help each other grow – both personally and professionally.
The relationships you make along the way define who you become
The relationships you build along the way can make or break your growth. As I sit with my mother over a cup of coffee she reminisces about how she’s had to physically transform every milestone in her journey so it could reap her some benefits. But she’s glad that I’ve found a set of people whom I can relate with as co-workers. She feels satisfied when she sees me glowing as I talk about my work and what I wrote about today. And she chortles as I tell her my anecdotes about the funny thing that my boss said today.
Making connections goes a long way in your professional growth. More than the formal recommendation letters, it is the personal connections you earn along the way that are the best and the most reliable form of character certificates that you can bank on.
Sure, the times have changed. And formidability in women is a lot more acknowledged today –although if still only tacitly accepted in more institutionalised settings. If I had joined a similar line of work as my mother twenty years back, I may have been subjected to similar prejudices. But I’m thankful every morning that I don’t have to.
Amidst all this, the lesson that my mother still gives me is to stay true to yourself –no matter what that self entails. She feels proud and happy of the fact that I will not have to endure the hardships that she had to face – different kind of hardships, sure. But nothing that would impede my growth.