Burning Out, Giving In, and What it Means to Be a Woman Professional

It is that time of the year when we celebrate women around the world, as International Women’s Day comes around and it is also Women’s History Month in the US. A week ago, I shared a video that I made for International Women’s Day, as this year, it coincides with India’s festival of colours, Holi, and of course, it’s Spring. While one may question the need to commemorate any single day as Women’s Day, when the rest of the year it is business as usual, I think it is necessary if only to drive home the message of women’s advancement year after year. Or the entire month of March, if you prefer. Since it’s also that time of the year when performance appraisals are due in the corporate world and organisations too need to be reminded of their responsibilities towards women employees. And there are some of us who like to drive home the message every opportunity we get, irrespective of day, month or year.

A few months ago, toward the end of 2022, I came across a post by Arianna Huffington on LinkedIn about women leaving work in significant numbers in the US because of “burn out”. It referred to a study done by Leanin.org (of the eponymous book fame, by Sheryl Sandberg) in association with McKinsey. I was surprised to discover that there is now an organization of sorts called Lean In, and I wondered if they grow out of books! On visiting the website and reading a little more, though I haven’t had a chance to look at the survey itself, I found the findings were based on flimsy research. And most important, perhaps we are calling the phenomenon of women opting out, by the wrong name.

Burn out is not a term used casually or lightly in the corporate world, as it signals extreme distress at work. It suggests a person burning a candle at both ends, and prematurely exhausting or extinguishing his or her own career. There are other terrible associations around it as well, as it is a symptom of an oppressive environment at the workplace, a tyrannical boss who is himself or herself a workaholic and taskmaster, impossible targets being set by the organization top management, and several others. A person suffering burn out could often veer towards the extreme of a nervous breakdown, affecting more than just the person’s work life.

It is for this reason that good organisations and good leaders take it seriously. They try to spot early signs of it, and offer help to nip it in the bud. It affects men and women, and since men are considered to be more ambitious than women, perhaps more men suffer from it. Women are always seen to be the ones with many exit options, you see. Can’t handle the pressure? Opt out, while you can. And so it goes that we women are the ones taking time out to raise a family, taking a sabbatical, opting out of an active career, and cashing out if you’re a businesswoman or an entrepreneur.

The LeanIn-McKinsey study is probably dubious and so might be the line of questioning. That said, the careless and callous attitude it reflects, is all around us. Such terms are reserved for women, it appears. Burning out, opting out, cashing out, work-life balance, etc. Recently, we had two women political leaders quit office in New Zealand and Scotland, and on both occasions, media reporting focused on how honest these women leaders were, in knowing when it is time to quit. Both Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon said it was time to move on – Ardern said she had “no more in the tank” and Sturgeon said that “it was the right thing to do for the party and the country.”. While the former is an admission of complete resignation, I doubt one can call it burn out. And while it is true that both women were honest enough to say it was time to opt out, I am not sure that that is the only aspect that makes them good leaders worth admiring. And why isn’t the media’s focus on what these women leaders achieved in their time in office, rather than on their admission of time’s up.

As someone who has worked for over 20 years in the Indian advertising and brand communications industry – not counting the almost 16-year hiatus I have had – and whose career was brought to an end by machinating bosses in unprofessional organisations, I know better than to accept such attitudes at work. My career in writing and directing creative work as well as in contributing to brand strategy was extinguished by pompous and unprofessional male bosses, who have neither the professional skills and capabilities to match mine, nor the knowledge and understanding of the business that I have. And I don’t mean it in any bragging sense, I am simply stating the facts as they obtain, realizing that my professional skills and capabilities are varied, wide and deep and not too many people in my industry possess them in equal measure. I also say this from the kinds of discussions that I have had with these bosses of organisations, and how pointless and anodyne they were.

If anyone dare suggest after all these years that I suffered a burn-out, I shall explode! My problem is the opposite, in fact. I have been quietly putting down my thoughts, ideas and strategies for brands, a lot of which I have been sharing on my blog. Exploring deeper relationships that product brands have with corporate brands and so much more that I would like to take forward and execute someday. My problem is that these same unprofessional idiot bosses won’t leave me alone even now, and dare to even hijack my work and career, after taking a wrecking ball to it. Which is when I sometimes wonder if I ought to be penalized for work strengths that I have; then, almost immediately, I tell myself that self-doubt is not a virtue in these circumstances. Especially not when there are enough of these incompetent and unprofessional men trying to trip you up on the first opportunity they get, or meddle and constantly interfere in your work and life.

Opting out was never an option for me. I had responsibilities towards my ageing parents and grandmums. Never mind that the head of HR in Perfect Relations, Rosie Ahluwalia, actually had the nerve to tell me at the time of my joining them in their Delhi office in 2006 that I had no family responsibilities! This, from a woman HR person, who ought to have at least had the decency to enquire about my family before jumping to stupid conclusions. It wasn’t long before I realized what the Perfect Relations game plan indeed was, in cahoots with their cronies at BBDO Chennai: to make me someone else, as I have written on my blog before.

Women at work are not participants in a beauty pageant; Image: Christina Wocintechchat on Unsplash

We women have accepted whatever has been given to us, for too long. Women who are ambitious, are feisty and courageous are not accepted in the corporate world. Is this a recent development, or was it always like this? I don’t remember ever having encountered such terribly discriminatory attitudes towards women through most of my career. Therefore, I can only conclude that it is to do with certain organisations and male bosses in those organisations, those who cannot tolerate anyone questioning their decisions, or strategies or ideas, least of all a woman. It has been my experience at the last couple of places that I worked – BBDO Chennai and Perfect Relations, Delhi – that their male bosses do not approach work with a professional attitude either.

Let’s now discuss giving in. Should women always give in? I have often heard in these same unprofessional organisations how we should be more “flexible”. It is a dangerous word, because it could mean any of several things and somehow, it is always expected of women. From working extra-long hours at the office because you have an indecisive boss, to unclear creative briefs and strategies, to gender pay gaps, to remuneration terms not at par with industry, to finding safety in numbers, etc, etc. Women are expected to accept their lot, not just at home, in life, but also at the office.

I would say that organisations and male bosses who cannot value their women professionals as equal in calibre, if not often superior, are not worth working for. It goes without saying, therefore, that organisations that are not professional in their ways of working are not worth working for. To expect people to be flexible, or give in, means that you are already deviating from what would be the professional way of working. And such attitudes and ways of working when repeated often enough, become institutionalized and legitimized as the only way of working. Women have to learn the art of saying no and declining, when a situation at work demands it. Without being apologetic, without making excuses, and without feeling sorry. That said, I also know that I have often gone beyond the bounds of duty and taken up additional responsibilities at organisations, where I know that the employment contract works to its full potential, in letter and in spirit.

On the other hand, in circuses that call themselves organisations, the bosses are usually too happy to make unreasonable demands of their employees, especially the women employees for they wouldn’t dare treat men the same way. And here, one can find oneself in situations where you might have done all the work, and yet at an internal review meeting find yourself interrupted and not given a chance to speak even though you are the one making the presentation. Yes, such incidents too happen at so-called great organisations and these are not isolated incidents nor aberrations. You can also have the Finance head of the company hand you a receipt saying “cash received” when you had, in fact, given him a cheque for money to make travel arrangements to Thailand for a so-called Company offsite. Imagine having to pay for attending a company offsite in the first place, when it ought to be the company’s responsibility. On top of that, being given a wrong receipt, and upon enquiring, being told by the Finance head that you ask too many questions! Both these incidents took place at Perfect Relations, Delhi, and unprofessionalism is endemic at such circuses. They happen time and again, because that is the only way these so-called bosses know how to operate. They thrive on creating chaos and confusion and in intimidating and wearing employees down, especially women, till they give up.

Not give in, but give up. In my case, it’s been 16-18 years since I quit both circuses and it is they who will not give up. The bosses think they still have a right to meddle in my work and life, affecting all our lives, including my aged parents’. Because they are still determined on achieving their single point agenda of making me someone else. They think nothing of stealing someone’s identity and using it shamelessly for someone else, both in order to cover their own unprofessional nonsense and to hitch their wagon somehow to your work. They think they can make you anyone they like, from a maid and driver to a sanitation worker or a carpenter.  They think they can also make you one of the bosses’ wives, for example Devi Cherian, by first making you Sri Devi our maid in Goa or by making you goatie-bearded Devdarshan Chakraborty, about which I have written on my blog before. In the first instance, they are obsessed with looks and appearances, including that of Pretty Woman, a la Julia Roberts, and then trying their unprofessional nonsense.

They can also go to any lengths to queer the pitch and turn women into men (even bearded ones) and men into women, as they have been doing in trying to make me my aged father all these years, based on old photographs and guessing what I was wearing. In this regard, I must mention their recent meddling in the world of cinema, besides all their meddling in book publishing and news that I have been writing about. I had heard of the Oscar-nominated films this year, and on checking what the film Tar was about since I am interested in western classical music, I was horrified to read about what I thought was an awful portrayal of a woman protagonist. For those of you who haven’t seen or heard of it, it is about an ambitious and successful woman music director of an orchestra who becomes so powerful and ruthless that she hires women musicians to have relationships with them. You can read the synopsis and watch the film trailer here. To my mind, the film storyline and the character of Lydia Tar completely reflect how PR agency bosses view women bosses. The recent piece in The Economist, about which I shared my views on LinkedIn is also reflective of their mindset regarding women. Having had Cate Blanchett play the role of Bob Dylan in a biopic many years ago, they now have her play the role of a ruthlessly powerful woman music director. I don’t think this is serendipitous, but deliberate.

Women ought to be able to speak at meetings and contribute meaningfully: Image: Christina Wocintechchat on Unsplash

In this saga that has lasted decades, they have also subverted industry norms and policies, government policies including those to do with income taxation, hijacked the media, and tried to remote-control my life. They think that by cosying up to the government (especially the Central government) they can somehow absolve themselves of all their wrongdoing and unprofessional behaviour and practices. This has gone to ridiculous extents of completely capturing the media, from The Economist, The Guardian and The New York Times and The New Yorker, to all our English newspapers and magazines and TV channels, as well as all of social media. By doing this, they are obviously trying to once again cover up their unprofessionalism, and equally importantly, shape the narrative and decide the national discourse in media, which one has to admit is abysmally low and stupid now. Not the first time I am writing about their media hijack, but it just seems to get worse with every day.

I think they have also been operating under stupid assumptions based on their own idea of what might happen to my life and career, having destroyed it. They have mucked around with all my friends and former colleagues, as well as my parents’ friends and our extended family. Though no one has bothered to have a serious grown-up conversation with me on my work, I get the sense that these unprofessional bosses have just assumed that they can take me back 25 years and more, to the Ogilvy days and the group that then worked with me. That would be absurd, as there has been no such discussion with me, nor has it ever crossed my mind. Nothing like that is “on the cards”, to use words that Piyush Pandey used in an email reply to me long ago. My work on brands now is on a slightly different plane, and even if it is in many ways related to advertising and brand communications, a large part of it is also based on new thinking along corporate strategy and brand lines.

This attitude and behaviour are reflective of how such unprofessional organisations and their male bosses think they can remote-control my work and life. They don’t think it necessary to engage in a meaningful and serious discussion on work with a woman whose work and career they are in fact, trying to hitch their wagon to – even though any discussion with these circuses is ruled out as far as I am concerned, and I know they are not capable of any – but they think they still have a right to meddle in my work and life, all the same.

Sorry, this time I decide what to do with my career, with which organization, and who I want on board my team. No burning out or opting out, and no giving in or giving up, either.

Meanwhile, spring is in the air and the promise of new work on the brands horizon beckons.

Post script: As part of all their meddling, including through government and through companies, these unprofessional organisations’ bosses have also been reading stupid meanings in numbers and meddling with them. Including mobile phone numbers, among other things.

Having guessed that my Vodafone Customer ID number from decades ago in Delhi, while I worked with Ambience D’Arcy, had a 44 in it, they have tried to make me R Sarada, an old former Ogilvy colleague whom I hired in the Ogilvy Delhi office. Then, as part of trying to make me her, they have also ensured that our maid in Goa, Sri Devi, has a mobile number with 44 in it. Incidentally, in this context, it might also be worth mentioning that it has been reported that advertising work for JLR in UK is done by an agency called Spark 44, in which Tata Motors is reported to have a stake. Too much of a coincidence? When I checked Spark 44 just this morning, I discovered that it has been acquired by Accenture and is now rebranded Accenture Song.

In a separate, but similar and possibly connected incident, they have given my aged father a Vodafone number in Goa with a 88 in it. This, having guessed that my last Vodafone mobile number in Delhi at the time of working with Perfect Relations ended with 8885. Also, my aunt Meena Neville’s flat in Delhi where I was staying from 2006 to 2008 is numbered 4388. All this to make it appear as if my father is the one who worked in Perfect Relations Delhi and is an ex-Ogilvy advertising writer and strategist, not I. Perhaps they would like to make me his assistant or secretary, but I am sorry to disappoint them as my father has nothing to do with my career in advertising and brand communications.

I am sharing this only to make readers aware of the ridiculous extents to which unprofessional idiot bosses can go. Reading stupid meanings in numbers and colours is the most toxic and pervasive new trend that I see in the corporate world, and I will be writing a piece next month on new biases and prejudices that have crept into the world of work

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