Amidst the doom and gloom of contemporary global and national politics, it is increasingly difficult to see several positive societal transformations that have happened over the last few decades, especially in Assam. It is therefore heartening to discover that one of the most significant transformations has occurred in the area of gender relations and women’s changing role in the society- whether at home or at the workplace. Recently, the Assam Power Generation Corporation Ltd (APGCL) and Assam Power Distribution Company Ltd (APDCL) appointed three women in the role of Chief General Managers (CGMs). This is an important ‘gender’ milestone for these organisations and for Assam, one made more unique by the shared personal and professional journey of these three remarkable women—Runima Rahman, Antara Baruah and Arundhati Devi. This article offers a glimpse into the life trajectories of these three women, as a way to reflect upon the change and continuity of gender relations in Assamese society.
Runima, Antara and Arundhati started their academic journey in Jorhat Government Girls School in Class IV. Assam’s most literate district Jorhat was naturally at the forefront of Assam’s changing socio-cultural ethos during the post -colonial era. Following the Nehruvian vision of modernization, education occupied a central place in the imagination of social progress in post-colonial Assam, and Jorhat in particular. Within this context, the Jorhat Government Girls School offered a stimulating social, cultural and intellectual environment to Runima, Antara and Arundhati all of whom recollect the positive influence of their peer group in their career aspirations. Runima says ‘I was not a serious student until LP school, but my peers in the Government Girls School were all such serious students that I was compelled to pay attention to my studies… And, eventually, it all became healthy competition… Some of us decided to pursue engineering together. That gave me a lot of courage’. Like the post-colonial national aspirations, these three women also found themselves and their families working towards ‘self-sufficiency’ and autonomy in their personal lives as Antara notes. Following Jorhat Government Girls School, JB College and then Jorhat and Assam Engineering Colleges welcomed Runima, Antara and Arundhati as some of their first female students. While Runima and Arundhati pursued their BE programme in JEC, Antara moved to AEC in Guwahati as a hosteller. She recalls that ‘…moving to Guwahati was an even bigger decision in those days than deciding to study engineering’.
The motivation to study engineering came from diverse sources for each of them. Arundhati recalls her first impressions about the engineering profession as a 6-year-old when she saw an uncle who drove his own jeep instead of being driven around like was the norm by a driver. The sense of adventure and autonomy appealed to a young Arundhati. For Antara, engineering as a career became choice by elimination. She says ‘there are lots of doctors in the family including my older brother, so I knew that medicine isn’t my cup of tea, nor did I care much for a general BSc, so engineering seemed like a natural choice’. In contrast, Runima was deeply inspired by her cousin Suriya Begum who graduated in engineering from AEC becoming one of the first female engineers from the State. However, she also observes that ‘in those days, girls pursuing engineering was both viewed positively and negatively by people. The positive view was that we are doing something really difficult whereas the negative view was that we are not feminine enough to have families and raise children in future’.
Gender Roles: Change and Continuity
When Runima, Antara and Arundhati were school-going girls in Assam, in the West, the Women’s Movement or the second wave of feminism was taking shape drawing attention towards issues of gender equality and women’s participation in public life and economic autonomy. This resonated in their experiences of challenging gender roles. For instance, Runima reminisces that ‘As a child, I used to be offended when people said that certain things could not be done by girls. Even though subconsciously I would accept that boys are physically stronger than girls, I would never admit it, often leading me to wrestle endlessly with my older brothers only to make a point. I applied the same logic when our ability to do certain aspects of the engineering programme were seen as difficult for women. I always took it as a challenge’. The rigid gender roles made their entry into the field of engineering both difficult and remarkable. Runima’s brothers both engineers were initially reluctant to support their sister’s career choice given the uncertainty of women’s place in the field. Arundhati also recalls a similar experience of initial opposition from her father to her choice of career. However, what the three of them share is steadfast support from their parents and siblings towards their career aspirations once they embarked upon this journey.
While these women have challenged gender norms at work, have they been able to do so at home which traditionally has remained rigidly divided along gender roles? In fact, they observe that in the 1980s when all of them were young professionals and new mothers, the limited maternity leave allowances meant that they all started work when their children were only a few months old and had to depend heavily on family and domestic helpers. This is a marked change from the previous generation when women were expected to be sole caregivers of children. Yet our social norms that places a premium on motherhood meant that they all experienced maternal guilt of constantly having to balance career and family. In that respect, Arundhati recounts a lovely story that illustrates both changing and continuing gender norms and ideals that these women navigated in their lives ‘I feel lucky as we do not have rigid division of labour at home. My partner frequently cooked, cleaned and looked after our daughter when I had to be away. Yet there was one thing he struggled to do- braid our daughter’s hair every morning. So before leaving for work early in the morning whilst she was still asleep, I used to sit her up and braid her hair and put her back to sleep’.
Women Leaders in the Public Sector
Engineering has traditionally been viewed as a masculine field given the significance of practical work and travel to far flung areas. This was particularly true in the early 1980s when these women entered employment in what was then the Assam State Electricity Board. Runima notes ‘In the early days there was little expectation from the female engineers, but a handful of superiors were instrumental in inspiring and training us’. Overall, she views the entry of women into the field as a ‘shock to the system’ – ‘our generation absorbed this shock such that the future generation of female engineers were seen as equal participants in the work place. Arundhati in contrast recollects that on her first day in a new role, a superior commented on her appointment as being a waste. However, the ascent of these women and others before them to leadership positions has normalized female leadership and female visibility in public sector organizations paving the way for more women in leadership roles in the future. However, the experiences of overcoming gender bias these women share are remarkable. Arundhati recalls, ‘In my first field posting as Sub-Divisional Officer(SDO), once an old lineman told me to sit in the office while they (the men) will take care of the work’. She also notes ‘People often murmured: why should a respectable woman come to the control room late at night. They did not see it as a part of my professional duty’. Antara also feels that in the early days there was a reluctance to give women ‘field’ postings on account of their family commitments even when the women were willing to take up those roles- something she feels limits the range of experiences that female engineers can have in the organization. She also focuses on the disproportionate pressure that female engineers experience to constantly perform well so that ‘people don’t point fingers’.
These experiences of consistently overcoming implicit and explicit gender bias has shaped the leadership styles of these women. In fact, even though none of them say this explicitly from talking to them I sense that there is a distinct feminine leadership style that focuses on approachability, decisiveness and pre-planning. Antara says ‘My policy is to be friendly to each member of my staff. I go to each table and work with them as well as to track progress on the various tasks’. She also notes that ‘for us (women), it is important to do work in advance so that if tomorrow there is an unforeseeable family emergency, we still deliver our responsibilities’. Arundhati adds the importance of ‘taking responsibility’
of the staff in the wider organization even when they have committed a mistake. She views this as a way of reassuring juniors that they are protected and that they will have the space in the organization to learn from mistakes and to grow, while fostering their accountability to her as their leader. Runima additionally talks about the solidarity among the staff and the need for a humane approach in relating to members of staff especially female members whose day-to-day challenges are reminiscent of her own.
Words of Wisdom
When asked about advice to the future generation of women engineers and leaders, Runima focused on the need to ‘make the most of every opportunity of career progression that comes your way’. Echoing the sentiment, Arundhati emphasizes the need to break the mold and to introduce new ways of being and doing whilst consistently focusing on quality of work. Antara highlights the age old family vs career dilemma and urges young women to find the balance between the two.
In following these three remarkable personal and professional journeys, I have found that these women share one personal attribute: a can-do attitude. Throughout my conversation with them they frequently used the word ‘challenge’ to describe the various hurdles they have experienced in their lives beginning from the early audacity to pursue a ‘masculine’ career, fulfilling their socially sanctioned roles as mothers and wives to challenging these roles and finally in reaching the pinnacle of success in their chosen field.