Grey Matters – Conversations with Women Leaders Defying Ageism in the Pandemic

Aug 12, 2020


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Arundhati Nag, Geetha Narayanan, Nirupama Menon Rao, and Rekha Menon on defying agism in the pandemic. In this session on BIC Streams: Grey Matters, these iconic Bengaluru women, now in their 60’s or more address issues of ageism, sexism, and the uncharted future. As leaders in their respective fields, the conversation is a thought provoking look at their personal journeys during these challenging times.

In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic started, it often feels like time has frozen. And yet the societal permafrost seems to be melting and all kinds of strange things are emerging from it. We’re seeing neighbours suspecting neighbours, and people treating older people very differently than they used to, thinking of them as more fragile and vulnerable. It’s created a kind of dissonance for older people who perhaps do not see themselves in the way that society does now.

However, this time has also allowed us a period of deep reflection and a sense of gratitude. It’s given us a chance to pause and renew ourselves. It’s difficult to imagine that we’d be in the position that we are, even in December last year, but now that it’s happening, I think we’re actually discovering a lot of resilience – in ourselves and hopefully in our professions as well. The future will look very different, certainly, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be for the worst. With Nirupama Rao, former ambassador to the US and China; Arundhati Nag, who single-handedly has helped to keep local arts and culture in Bengaluru thriving through Ranga Shankara; Geetha Narayanan, co-founder of Aditi Mallya School and Srishti Institute; and Rekha Menon, Chairman of Accenture India, we have a cross-section of women’s leadership in Bengaluru.

Lockdown Experiences

When the nation-wide lockdown was announced in March, Geetha Narayanan felt disbelief that something like this could be taking place. It also meant a frantic search for where she and her husband had kept their wills, passwords, and documents in case the worst happened. She remembers how they experienced a chaotic dissonance which showed both their vulnerability and lack of preparedness for personal isolation and coping independently. She felt a sense of denial, anger, and loss for what this pandemic has robbed from us.

Nirupama Menon Rao had a slightly different reaction when she came back to Bengaluru after recording her music album in Sri Lanka. The four hour notice to adjust to the new normal took her by surprise, however she says she’s always engaged with solitude and found solace by concentrating on her music. But when the Galwan Valley incident took place, she was inundated with requests for interviews and webinars, showing how you can’t really escape the world thanks to technology and innovation.

For Rekha Menon, it’s been a dichotomous experience, filled with uncertainty and pain and what was happening in the world and gratitude for what she had. Her work was frenetic, ensuring that her staff was safe and making quick decisions so that they could continue to meet client commitments while adhering to the rapidly evolving government guidelines which were different in every state. She had to stay agile and responsive, while also making sure that her staff felt motivated and engaged while working in a very different virtual environment.

Simultaneously, she was working on collaborations with the government, building AI-based chatbots to help with information dissemination and had taken on the vice-chair role at NASSCOM to support the policy regulatory changes that were needed for remote working and the economic consequences of the pandemic and lockdown. On the personal front, she hit the pause button, prioritising her family’s safety over holidays and weddings. Over these last few months, Rekha has learnt three key things – to focus on the essentials, letting go of everything else; the need and importance of community; and the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit.

Arundhati Nag finds that she can’t separate herself from her industry because so much of what she does defines who she is. From the age of 16, she has dreamt of working in theatre and her biggest dream was to be able to build a theatre and hand it over to the community. She thought she had seen almost everything that theatre had to offer, but the pandemic changed everything. Arundhati argues that the very basic premise of the art has been challenged by this pandemic, i.e. interacting with another person. All you need is one person in the audience to have a performance, and now we’ve been deprived of that. So it took her some time to come to terms with this new reality, where Ranga Shankara is closed for months. For her, the lockdown has brought her face-to-face with many absences, presences, and strengths. It’s been a time to reckon with the past, and consider how to move forward and how to harness art to do so. This is going to be a challenging time for many young people in theatre and the performing arts in India because it almost seems like they cannot dream. So it becomes our responsibility to give them back their dreams, says Arundhati.

Redesigning for the Digital Revolution

Geetha argues that just like art, education is going through tremendous trauma right now. She argues that we are seeing a simplistic, one-dimensional solution for what is a monumental problem. She describes a photo of her 7-year-old grandson with his head down on the keyboard because he has six hours of Zoom classes a day. The sector is trying to fill the space with something that comes from another era, another technology, another knowledge system, cutting and pasting onto this, just to survive as institutions. It’s not something that is going to be solved easily, unless people start introspecting on what exactly we want to do in education, especially in this year of a pandemic. Most people are hoping that this will be a short-term problem. But Geetha thinks the changes in all our lives might be more permanent and that things are not going to return to business as usual. We are now in this space of re-imagining our world, so we need to ask what the education sector should look like in the next 50 years. We need to put that kind of scale to education and understand that the current normal, just being cut and pasted with technology, is not the answer.

It also highlights our lack of investment in the sector despite the work that so many people across the country have been doing. We haven’t been able to solve issues of inequity, Geetha argues. People are now trying to sell their gold jewelry so they can buy a smartphone, in order for their children to have access to classes. It shows that we have not even begun to address what the sectoral issues are in education. But she does think that the human imagination will rise up to the occasion and people will start looking at small success models around the world and around India, to make education more locally relevant and accessible. We need to ensure that the future for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren is one that is equitable and fair. In her own experience, including design education, Geetha suggests that we look for models that are timeless and will endure. The Henry Ford conveyor belt kind of educational model was sparked by the industrial revolution. Now the digital revolution is here, and so we need to reengineer how we learn. With design education, we have to start understanding it as co-created and collaborative, not just serving industries.

The pandemic is more than a health and economic crisis, it’s also a societal crisis, according to Rekha. We have no roadmaps anymore, so many businesses have to re-imagine social contracts because the same digital technology that is creating innovative opportunities will also leave people behind. We need to be using innovative technologies to democratise the reach to the underserved with new models, so there’s a big opportunity there. In terms of her own sector, IT, they had already gone digital well ahead of the curve. So business resilience and growth happened for the sector because they were already there. However, Rekha feels that the pandemic has changed how we see the future of the workplace and we will be looking at a very different model, based on health and social distancing or the community needs of people. But she is hopeful for the opportunities it provides as well, like the ability to tap into talent anywhere in the country rather than just the metros. Women can have the option of flexibility to work from home, which may even bring more women into the workforce. Meanwhile, we must focus on skilling, Rekha suggests, because the kinds of jobs are changing and with it, we need a continuous skill-building of our workforce to ensure resilience. We can’t afford to work isolatedly now, and organisations will need to collaborate with society, the government, and policymakers, to figure out new, innovative solutions.

Diplomacy During the Pandemic

The world of diplomacy has also gone through some turbulence, even before the pandemic. Diplomacy has become even trickier, with the potential of vaccines being manufactured in different countries. For Nirupama, who saw the height of the Cold War, China’s rise and contention with the US seems familiar. The US allowed China the space and opportunity to develop and integrate themselves at least economically with the rest of the world, on the presumption that China would democratise. But the Chinese political system has not evolved that way, which has evoked a great deal of antagonism in the US. So people now talk of a new Cold War and we must consider how diplomacy will be defined by this, especially for a country like India.

India is a rising power in this part of the world, and we have aspirations to become a global leading power, says Nirupama. Our economy is already a front-ranking economy in terms of purchasing power. And it was well on its way to being so in actual terms, at least until two years ago. Now the pandemic has created this topsy-turvy world that is especially troubling because of the uncertainty. Even in times of war or a natural cataclysm, the crisis is finite. But today, the uncertainty that confronts us is causing a great deal of disruption. So what is going to happen to diplomacy after the pandemic? India has had a very difficult relationship with China, now compounded by the situation in Ladakh. This is going to create a lot of commitments and assumptions as far as India is concerned.

Diplomacy is about creating middle ground in whatever we do – an alternative to war and conflict. There are so many reports of the Chinese taking away our territory, and clearly a change in the status quo. But at the same time, we do not want open conflict with China because of the impact it will have on our economy and the huge business relationship we’ve built up with China. We live in a networked world today, so we cannot completely disrupt all these connections made in the past few decades. So this is the dilemma that is facing all of us, in India and the world at large. Coming out of this crisis, we are going to have a bipolar situation where the US and China are confronting themselves in a situation of multi-polarity because there are so many poles of influence. And that’s not bad for countries like us because it gives us room to maneuver and align our interests case by case. There is scope for us to promote not only the internal balancing that we need but also the external balancing that we need.

The Need for More Women Leaders

Diplomacy is not a field where machismo is beneficial, rather you need pragmatism, consistency, and precision and these are the qualities that we see in our women leaders, says Nirupama. Today we have many more women diplomats in the field and India has also increased the quotient of women in the Foreign Service. In terms of diplomacy, strategic communication is so important, change is in the air, and we cannot follow the traditional bureaucratic approach of going by precedent. We need to now be able to deal with the unfamiliar and the uncertain.

Rekha agrees, stating that we need more women leaders. We don’t have enough of them in the corporate sector, and that’s not a reflection on whether they’re better or worse but because of inequality. Right now, leaders have been called upon to rise to the challenge and display perhaps more feminine qualities like compassion and caring. We need to lead with humility and take feedback into consideration. As Geetha mentions, we’ve seen great leadership in education and design. Sometimes we associate masculinity in leadership with efficiency and not effectiveness. The softer parts of management or the softer parts of administration are decried as being too soft or feminine and we end up with a language of managerialism, where the efficient administrator is valued. Geetha argues that things are actually not quite as quantifiable in that way. We have it in all of us to be leaders, we just need to dare.

Indian society, post-independence, placed a lot of pressure on making the male child the bureaucrat, the successful engineer, the professional, or in short, the doctor, says Arundhati. All these courses and jobs were what the male child aspired to become and could become because of the way matrimony was designed. But because of this, there was a very large liberal arts area which was left free for women to enter into. And we reaped the benefit of that 20 years later. At one point of time, if you looked at the art sector in India, every important post was occupied by a woman, whether it was the head of the National School of Drama, Prithvi Theater, Ranga Shankara, etc. Importantly, when these women came into leadership, they did not exclude the men.

Arundhati thinks that what happened in the art sector is something worth emulating in others. When Amal Allana headed the National School of Drama, it did not mean that Amal brought only women into the picture. She really helped nurture a whole lot of people across the country. While Arundhati says she has benefited from that gap, there were times when she still faced sexism. “Being a woman, if I put my foot down and I said, “No, this has got to be like this,” I was called, obstinate and arrogant. Whereas, if a man says the same things, they’re called efficient,” she says. So she had to figure out ways to manipulate situations, knowing that things will be difficult because of her gender.

The arts sector is going through a particularly challenging time now, especially in India where we haven’t codified, preserved, and documented enough. India is the richest country as far as performance practices goes and all the soft skills like languages, cultural wisdom, etc. should not be lost. So we are sitting at an extremely important juncture in the history of mankind, and we need support now more than ever. Without it, the sector does not have the economic capacity to fund the kind of activity that will actually preserve this wisdom. We need the evangelists to come in and other sectors to wake up and fund excellence in our society, Arundhati argues. We’ve seen a lot of nepotism and support going into feudalistic Bollywood structures, which really doesn’t exist in theatre. So perhaps now the IITs, IIMs, and corporates can hire artisan residencies, making it a kind of corporate responsibility. We need to come up with these kinds of measures fast, otherwise many artists, weavers, craftspeople, and actors are going to become daily labourers, taking MGNREGA money.

We are, after all, a nation of storytellers, artists, and craftsmen, but we sometimes forget how important art and culture is to help us make sense of the chaos, to help us through grief and uncertainty, and to make some meaning of our lives. And we will need art now, more than ever before. Arundhati mentions the Theyyam artists in Kerala who are Harijans and are starving right now, along with the Yakshagana artists and Koodiyattam artists. These are old performance practices, some of them are 2000 years old, and we can’t afford to let these artists just fall through the cracks. It’s crucial to preserve our heritage and this pandemic is a wake up call.

The Challenges of Sexism and Ageism

We are realising how much stress the work from home policy brings for women, especially in terms of the domestic violence cases that have risen in the last five months. Women have to confront the burden of the home, family, and work. As Rekha points out, women have always had to deliver on both the work and home fronts, which puts a lot of stress on them. There are also many mental health issues that are coming to the fore in addition to domestic violence. Arundhati has been working on plans to repurpose the ground floor of Ranga Shankara and reach out to people in the immediate vicinity to attend counseling sessions by psychiatrists. The goal is for Ranga Shankara to become a space that is about well-being.

Geetha notes the additional problem of women who are working from home while also having to do domestic work and ensure their children’s school from home takes place. The online schooling system definitely needs a parent on hand because you cannot leave a child unsupervised on the internet. Schools are also expecting that kind of cooperation from parents. If you have more than one child, you may have a shortage of devices as well. So the feedback she’s hearing from working women is the increase in stress and requests for institutions to help manage things at home. At this moment, women are having an incredibly hard time.

In addition to being a woman, there is the ageism that people are facing, especially now. If we think about the idea of triage, if a young person and an old person are in a hospital and the hospital doesn’t have enough resources, age is considered a reason to save one life over the other. In a way, older people have become disposable to a certain extent. We need to confront this issue, especially in India, which will have 300 million people over the age of 65 by 2050.

Ageism is a very invisible kind of prejudice, according to Rekha, and being an older woman makes it doubly hard. On the other hand, studies have shown that younger men feel less threatened by older women bosses than older men bosses, because they find that they’re either more compassionate or caring. We need to recognise that there’s a lot of value and wisdom that older people can bring, so we need to create structures that work so that both the young and old can participate, because they both have things to bring to the table.

Geetha doesn’t feel old – at 70, she has spent 50 years as a classroom teacher and gets annoyed when people ask her when she’s going to stop working. Teaching is what she is passionate about, and so she’s still working, giving, and creating. As the number of people who are older increases, we are going to have to start thinking about ageism and the way it plays out in the workplace. Although our bodies may be failing, our minds and energy are still working fine, and we still have the passion that we brought to our work when we were young, says Geetha. Nirupama agrees, stating that the lockdown has made her feel like she’s experienced a sort of rebirth because people have been seeking her insights and opinion on foreign policy over the last few months. To her, technology has become an aid and a source of support. The isolation aspect of retirement has faded into the background now. Without the issue of travel, anybody can reach out to you from any corner of the Earth. In the midst of solitude and isolation, this new connectedness has also grown.

But these issues are ones that we cannot afford to ignore. When we look around, we realise that women who live longer than men actually don’t look after their health, because they were looking after the family’s, don’t have property of their own, and may not have been financially independent, face a double whammy as they get older. So we need to think about these issues with compassion and empathy, and give it the consideration it deserves. As we get older, we begin to think about mortality, but now the pandemic has come and forced all of us to come to terms with ours. However, we’ve also had the chance to renew ourselves, to rethink and reflect on how we’re living our lives. I think the journey forward is clear – we will have to take things in our stride and flourish despite the challenges ahead.



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