After her promotion to the position of General Manager, Sonia Mahtab thought her career had taken a turn for the better in the public bank where she had worked for more than twenty years.
However, her happiness was short-lived, because while running her team, she felt she was not being heard enough. The same things, when told by the male supervisor, was accepted with more ease. Things got more uncomfortable when some co-workers began to say that she was promoted because she was a woman.
Leadership does not call for gender discrimination, but women in leading positions in Bangladesh always do not have it as easy as their male counterparts. For many women, success in professional life has been accompanied with slander from some colleagues about how they reached their positions, every day struggle against patriarchal attitudes from colleagues and subordinates, and a struggle to balance family life and work, or work-related social life.
However, despite the barriers, each year more women are entering the job market and holding higher positions.
According to public administration ministry's data from 2017, the total number of female job holders in the government sector was 3,75,787 which is 29 percent of all government jobs. There are 13,402 women in the police – a jump from 2,520 women in 2008. Some 489 out of 2000 judges in the country are women. While there are no reliable figures on the participation of women in the private sector, it is safe to say the numbers have grown proportionate to the public sector, if not more.
Marina Yasmin, former press chief of the US Embassy in Dhaka, told The Business Standard, "While leading the team at my former workplace, as a woman leader, it was particularly difficult to deal with one or two male members, perhaps because they grew up with a gender stereotypical mentality. But I knew getting angry or upset was never the solution, so I communicated through my work."
She added, "My position required me to talk to a lot of people, and being a friendly person, I liked doing it. But there was a time when one of my colleagues had stated that people liked to work with me because I was a woman. That had made me quite upset."
It is not just Marina, but many other like her, who hold high positions, yet have to struggle to communicate with their male subordinates and put in extra effort in doing so. Sometimes a woman has to work harder than a man to prove herself and her efficiency.
Taslima Miji, founder, designer, and managing director of Gootipa, an online shop by Leatherina Pvt Ltd, shared her opinion on this issue. She said, "Currently there are two men on my team, one is easy to work with, but the other is slightly difficult. He struggled at first, but eventually came to terms with me being the boss. I think that by nature, women are nurturing and caring. However, that should not be confused with being submissive."
Sometimes, success does not come easily for women because promotions are met with adverse repercussions such as "being a woman, or a pretty woman, she has been able make her way up."
In this regard, Barrister Miti Sanjana, partner, Legal Counsel, and advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh said, "I am not against positive discrimination at the workplace. If people talk about why some women reach high positions, it is not always a bad thing. In some cases, it is perhaps better to ignore it and just focus on work."
On the other hand, Farzana Chowdhury, managing director and chief executive officer of Green Delta Insurance Company Ltd, believes that criticism makes her perform better. "Criticism inspires me to do better. I like things that throw challenges at me, things which are not conventional."
We tried to explore the importance of women having a work-related social life, or whether women get to socialise after work. Men tend to socialise at smoking zones, hangout at local tea shops after work, whereas for many women, it is mostly about reaching home within a certain time and getting down to household chores.
Taslima Miji shared her views on the importance of women enhancing their professional as well as personal networks through socialising. "When I hang out with like-minded people during weekends through my socio-political networks, it makes me feel wonderful. These experiences are essential in evaluating one's self-worth."
She thinks social media is also a tool that has made communications easier for women. Because now whenever something happens, women can voice their thoughts or feelings through social media platforms.
Sometimes, the social backdrop of spouses, in-laws, and parents makes things easier for these working women. For instance, Marina Yasmin felt grateful for her mother's support. "Till my daughter was ten, we lived with my parents, and my mother helped me in raising her. I also had all the support from my husband and my father."
Workplace harassment is one of the most widespread things that working women face in the country. There are legal guidelines against it, but they are yet to be implemented in every private and public organisation. Barrister Miti said, "The legal guidelines in the country for dealing with workplace harassment do not need any amendment, I believe, but what needs to be done is ensuring that these guidelines are practiced."
"When I came to Bangladesh and began my career as a barrister, I faced some discrimination from peers. But with time, when I learned quickly and was working independently, things got better. Now, when I hear an inappropriate comment from someone, I take a firm stand, have clear communication, and tell that person to immediately stop. But if things become worse, you definitely have to take stricter measures."
As a female owner, Taslima Miji ensures that her organisation has a zero tolerance policy on gender discrimination. "Gootipa has a conscious, ethical gender policy where we have zero tolerance of discrimination. I have taken action against male workers who were not being cooperative, and will do so again in the future if needed." She also thinks that when a woman files a complaint, victim blaming is sometimes the initial reaction, but the complaint should be made regardless of who says what.
Marina Yasmin, too believes that women should not remain quiet about being harassed at work. "I would tell every woman who has faced it to not remain quiet about it, speak up, and try to make their message reach the highest authority. Someone will listen, and someone will take action."
Despite the negative aspects, the fact that more and more women are entering the corporate workforce is a positive development for the country. Hopefully, it will go a long way to counter the negative mentality that many men still have here.