"We proved that even though we were women, the men had to listen to us"
These women broke into male-dominated careers. Now they’re sharing their best tips with you
Call it wishful thinking, but I always imagined we’d have dismantled the picket fences around ‘female-dominated’ and ‘male-dominated’ careers before artificial intelligence would make us all redundant (Hello ChatGPT).
It’s easy to spout data points, like the World Economic Forum’s 2022 gender gap report which found an increase in female leadership positions… in women-dominated industries. The reality is that workspaces are still socially gendered, which is inconvenient for everyone.
But some women aren’t paying attention. In that, they’re determined to chase the career of their dreams, even when the road to that is pumped with testosterone and blockaded by outdated gender biases. We spoke to 9 women who broke into the boys’ club in male-dominated careers from sailing and private investigation to mechanical engineering and professional kitchens. And their hard-earned lessons are exactly the fuel we needed to take on new challenges.
Stay curious, and never shy away from asking questions
Does anxiety aunty pay you a visit too every time you have a doubt and want to ask a question to a peer or superior? I don’t blame you, years of sarcastic glares from school teachers and the fear of looking stupid in front of fellow hormonal teenagers will do that to you. As kids, we’re curious and then somewhere along the line, we stop and become obsessed with answers and forget about asking questions. But being a curious cat is exactly the kind of advice Shifali Barwa followed to make her mark as a successful engineer.
“It’s important to approach people the right way and not shut yourself in out of fear of what others will say. It was the best suggestion (I got) because I have not stopped myself from talking and interacting with anyone, from HODs to any other man working on a machine. I do not hesitate to approach them and ask my doubts,” says Barwa. It’s through questions that we learn and continue to understand the world around us.
Consistency is the mother of mastery
Robin Sharma was on to something when he said this. Aastha Senapati, 19, was given similar advice by a fellow sailor when she was the only woman at her training institute. “Be consistent, give your best and watch the rest fall into place automatically.” Senapati trained harder, spent more time sailing and getting acquainted with every aspect of the boats, and regularly read as much as she could to keep up with her more experienced colleagues. Today — still one of the few Indian women in the sport — she’s won several medals and sails one of the fastest crafts, the Nacra 17.
As much as we’d all like a fairy godmother to appear out of nowhere with her wand and swish away the tough times (I ask for this at least 5 times a day), putting in the hours with a relentless determination to reach your goal is the only way to achieve mastery. And in Aastha’s case, conquer nature. “Now, I have young girls looking up to me, just as I used to look up to my seniors, so that is pretty cool, she admits. “And my male colleagues have complimented me on my knowledge and skill. I feel proud when I hear that.”
Work hard to become a domain expert whose knowledge is beyond reproach
Whether you began your career in 1960 or 2020, computer scientist Sunita Mahajan’s advice transcends decades. The scientist was a programmer for the early generation of computers, and without her coding and data input skills, they would have remained giant dabbas. Mahajan learnt early on that the opportunity she had was a rare one, and to ensure her success in one of the most challenging male-dominated careers, she decided “it’s better to be better than men.”
“Be serious about your work, take interest and study so that you can excel in any field, but especially in a male-dominated one,” she explains, admitting that knowing your work in and out keeps troublemakers at bay. In doing so, “We proved that even though we were women, the men had to listen to us.”
Open your mind to allies in unexpected places
Every time you have a conversation about female empowerment, chances are the ‘men suck’ rant isn’t far behind. It’s like the daalchini you know is on its way but still don’t see coming until it’s crushed between your molars and destroying an otherwise delicious biryani. But contrary to popular belief, you might sometimes find cheerleaders in men, more than your female colleagues. Kind of like the taxi bhaiya who drives in silence as you ball your eyes out in the back seat.
Co-founder of Pitbull Rum, Karishma Chandy too found her support system amidst male contemporaries. Despite alcohol retail and distribution being a prime example of male-dominated careers, Chandy finds her opinions valued and respected when she’s out in the field, engaging directly with the on-ground teams. Some even tell her how she’s an inspiration for them to hand over their alcohol businesses to their daughters, rather than a male relative. “I think a lot of educated and travelled men feel like women bring a certain finesse to their work that they (men) probably cannot see,” she says.
Be ready for the long haul — success doesn’t come overnight
Success is as slippery as fresh makkhhan dancing on a steaming hot paratha. Chef Amninder Sandhu agrees that “it’s not a 100 mt sprint, it’s a marathon. Once it starts rewarding you, it’s great. But that doesn’t happen fast.”
When she first started out in the culinary space back in 2003, she was told “You’ll get nowhere, you are not good enough.” Years later, she was rejected for a job on the premise that she was a woman and wouldn’t be able to handle the busy kitchen as well as a man. Today, she’s at the helm of multiple beloved restaurants across India.
“It’s hard when you start out. Once you know you can fly rumalis and slap rotis in the tandoor at the same speed, it’s all good,” she says.
Knock the door down, then keep it down
It takes several punches and bruises to break down the door of privilege. Mehrunissa Shaukat Ali, India’s first lady bouncer, would know. After breaking through the concrete door of this male-dominated career field and proving her mettle, Ali’s efforts have been concentrated towards her own security company that employs and trains lady bouncers.
She aspires to open her own gym to train women and teach them martial arts so that those who want to be bouncers can have a safe space to train holistically, develop the skills needed to protect others and secure a job at the end of it. The process wasn’t smooth for her, but she hopes to make a difference through her company so more women have the means and access to get into the field of security. Cue Amir Khan saying “Maari chhoriyaan chorron se kam hai ke?”
Turn the criticism into fuel, your weaknesses into your USP
Delhi-based private detective Bhavna Paliwal’s story is proof that negative comments can sometimes be the best driving force for you. Having grown up in an environment where she was constantly told to behave and conduct herself ‘like a girl’, Paliwal decided early on to take the uninvited expert opinion and do exactly that — make my mark in one of the male-dominated careers — just like a girl. “I was constantly told to not act like boys and behave like a girl. So it was set in my mind that I had to work in a field that was male-dominated. Kiran Bedi was my inspiration,” says Paliwal.
Turns out, while men prove to be better resources in surveillance, women fare better when it comes to undercover operations and desk investigations making them a necessary resource in detective work. I’d say it’s giving complete Nancy Drew.
Let them know you have opinions, and aren’t afraid to voice them
It’s always the Cs that scare us. Communication, confrontation, commitment and, in my case, cats too (I write as I sit surrounded by a team of cat lovers. Big yikes). But they also enable us to voice our needs and draw boundaries.
“Be vocal about your thoughts and opinions. Being rough and tough helps a lot. It’s something my seniors have constantly encouraged me to do,” says 25-year-old cinematographer, Aarushi Bageshwar. As a female DOP in a sea of ‘cameramen’, Bageshwar has diligently followed the mantra of voicing her views to combat being judged for being a woman working in a technical field, and feeling overpowered by male colleagues.
Tap into the unique perspective that being a woman gives you
Having chosen one of the competitive male-dominated careers — wedding photography — Samantha da Cunha knows that having a woman behind the lens helps relax stressed-out brides. “They feel safer when I’m behind the lens and are confident that I will make them look their best.” But that’s not the only nuance she brings to the job. “Our background, gender experience and ethnicity all add to the diversity of our skillset.