The perceptively brilliant world of friendships between women at work has more to it beyond body hair, menstrual cycles, Gilmore Girls, love life, mother-in-laws, cook books, and online shopping. It is personal and equal and intimate; sharing vulnerabilities and histories making them companions in hustling and dreaming, finding an emotional anchor, forming and sharing opinions, embracing their individuality, and cherishing the language of camaraderie.
The work environment created for women has deep roots in the institution of patriarchy and historic inequality of social privileges. Not many seats are occupied by women at the table in the conference room or in the annual report of the organisation or on panels, or on the policy making and decision making boards. For women, to find a solid force in their camaraderie is a stepping stone to bringing a wave of change leading to systemic changes.
For Sasmita Patnaik, researcher at a think tank, “The professional setting is an unforgivingly masculine space and the needs of women are often missing in the core design of these spaces. Friendships between women enable discussion and initiate change in perception and policies. It is a space offering comfort and solutions in times of need.”
The absence of women from the workforce is not a myth. The data from the International Labour Organisation suggests that the female participation rate declined from 34.1 per cent in 1999-2000 to 27.2 per cent in 2011-12. The gap widens at mid and senior-levels, underlining the need for a culture of open dialogue on gender sensitisation and reformed policies focusing on retention, growth, and work-life balance to make the workplace compatible for women from all stages of life.
Friendships between women at work depart from the conventional sense of friendship by creating an echo chamber where women learn to navigate the map, find empathy, and support each other through the inner workings of a workspace. Their friendships are exceptionally integral to the broader discussion on encouraging more women to join the workforce, to stay to build careers for themselves, and to reserve more spaces for women.
Sasmita adds, “Women often look for their role models in women; we relate to the experiences and know, our struggles, though different, are not devoid of the challenges emerging from conventional institutions. And that has a long-term implication on our decisions – to choose to stay in the workforce, to choose to fight for a promotion, to choose to assert for rights in everyday life. We aspire and inspire each other though at times even male friends could be encouraging but it is riveting to see it come from a woman friend just as it is rare to see a woman put up a strong fight. We support each other in learning tricks on better communication, managing expectations of colleagues and seniors, reserving seats for more women, reforming hiring practices, and learning to carve our own niche.“
In the male-dominated work culture of organisations, women are constantly seen as an ‘other’ and have to work more (than men) or double to prove their mettle. The journey tends to get daunting when there are not many like us around us. Saumyaa Naidu, design researcher, says,
“In a work setting where women are a minority, it is a slippery terrain to feel alienated. The shared experiences, challenges, and fears that women face at a workplace bring them together to form a relationship of mutual trust and empathy. I derive a sense of belongingness from my friendships with women and they have been instrumental in my growth as an individual and a professional. To simply know that you are not alone is a necessary reassurance.”
The construct of our society expects women to prioritise family and figure out where her career fits in the bigger portrait. For women, choosing a career often brings an imposed guilt of neglecting family or children whereas men often don’t have to weigh in any guilt while focusing on their career. Having women friends at work who identify with the everyday ideological struggles is a catalyst for a kind of an action.
“Perceptions are evolving – women are no longer seen as sole caretakers of the family. Our careers are finding due space and respect. It is about initiating direct, honest conversations with the partner, parents or in-laws about our choices—taking a weekend off with our girlfriends, accepting an offer of a promotion with more responsibilities=more time at work or expecting sharing of responsibilities—all of it is now being talked about and increasingly becoming acceptable,” says Isha Sharma, a film journalist.
Some studies suggest that friendships between women at work are more conflicted and dissatisfying than male friendships. For Aalia Akram, human resources professional,
“Saying so would be an exaggeration given unequal opportunities and representation of women. It is more of a mindset problem than gender factor. It is just human for both women and men to face work conflicts and competition. More visibility and more positions for women at all levels in an organisation is a potential solution to rectifying this established mindset.“
Elke Maasbommel, educator, says, “I feel there are (more) conflicts and competition between women. It comes as a consequence of the tension of having to prove oneself most of the time, the fear of burning out, or losing on the opportunities. When facing any such conflict at the workplace especially with women, I wonder if it would have been any different if one of us had been a man.”
Women are, inarguably, vulnerable to workplace conflicts due to skewed represenation, sexual harassment, hiring practices, and organisational indifference. Many women face situations of gender bias at a workplace over an opportunity to lead a project, during appraisals and promotions, and in their everydays at work. And oddly, this doesn’t seem to change for women at various hierarchies—they face biases of a different kind or from different people around them but it does exist even for those who have made it to the big league. What is needed is more women to make it to the positions of power and decision-making leading to the gradual elimination of these biases.
Prof. Jatinder Kaur, an academician believes in the two-way fluidity of the relationship of mentorship and trust between women. “However much denied, the glass ceiling still exists for women. Women supporting women in a workplace is vital as ever in the process of shattering the glass ceiling. In my career spanning 33 years, I have found immense strength in the women around me. I inherited the culture of open communication from my mentors – the idea of creating our own space of trust and empathy – where we support each other through the simple act of looking out for each other. This encourages us to make brave, little choices everyday – an act of rebellion in a world where we are taught to surrender to set boundaries. This narrative of mentorship and camaraderie subverts the conventional societal dynamics – exactly what we need.”
A lot of what makes friendships between women at work incredible is woven in their histories and struggles that are different, yet similar in many ways. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of the journey—battling patriarchy at home, gender inequality at work in some direct way or in an undercurrent. The relationship is a safe space immersed in camaraderie, empathy, and trust witnessing how women traverse through some of the milestones in life – ambition, identity, love, motherhood, grief, loneliness—and on the way, displacing masculine norms that have long stood as barriers.
Arsheen Kaur is a writer and poet based out of Delhi and Toronto. She works in the development sector. Some of her areas of interest are identity, memory, feminism, and human rights. She is an english literature and film studies graduate from AJK-Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. She aspires to be a novelist. Her work has appeared in The Wire, Cafe Dissensus, The Bombay Review, Live Wire, Hindustan Times, The Quint, The Alipore Post among others. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
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