Have you ever been given a bit of unsolicited advice about what you should be doing at work? And alternately, received some shiny pearls of wisdom that genuinely helped you navigate tough situations in your career?
We know a literature student who was once told to “write like a man.” When she confronted her teacher about this at the end of her course, she backtracked on the double and said what she meant was, “Write confidently, take on the questions like you’re going to battle.” Needless to say, the student got a lot of good eye-roll practice in that class, and she certainly flouted her prof’s advice at every chance she got.
We decided to ask women around the country, from a range of different professions, what they thought was the most memorable professional advice they’ve ever received.
Here’s what they had to say.
How to Juggle at Work
Anjanamma, Garment Factory Worker
I was told by another woman who works in the factory to finish my work and leave as soon as I did. She said to try not to let things drag on, and to just stay clear of everyone who wasn’t a woman working like me.
Rathi, Creche Worker
Day care is a full time job. Someone told me before I set out that one thing you should always keep in mind is that you should never take your eyes off of them for a second. Not for a single second, not even, or especially, when they’re sleeping. Also, don’t sit the kids down in front of a television and make them watch cartoons all day!
Mary Tabitha, Bookshop Assistant
I don’t know how to remember where all the books are, and that made me nervous when I first joined some years ago. But the best advice I got was to just use the computer.
Indira Ravi, Isthri Lady
My sister told me not to get confused by all the clothes we got, but to just stick to ironing them in batches. Batches always help.
Sticking It Out, or, Why You Should Value Your Work
Ashol Mamoni, Neuroscientist
If you love science, don’t do a PhD. and if you must do one, remember that all you need for a successful PhD is a sizeable degree of passion, tons of coffee, wine, sadomasochism, and a generous helping of PhD comic jokes.
Shaila R, Full-Time Domestic Worker
It started off being really strange to stay full-time in somebody else’s house. I missed home, and would tell my mother about it every time I called her, but she would only tell me to stick it out. I think this is the best advice. Don’t leave before you’ve given something enough of a chance.
Poojitha Vandana, Cosmetics Store Assistant
I got some advice from my old manager when I joined. She said the customer is always king. Even if you are hungry, tired or irritated, you should always answer the customer’s questions and sometimes you should answer their questions before they even ask. She said it is my job to help the customer in every way in the shop.
Pooja Vijay, Flight Attendant
I got a piece of advice that I thought was really weird, but after some time it made sense to me. They told me don’t leave the profession unless you’re sure YOU really want to. A lot of girls leave their jobs in this industry because of pressure from boyfriends and families, and then regret it. This is something I’d like to tell other women in the business too.
Christina Dhanaraj, Business Analyst
I wish someone had told me that there’s only so much of beating yourself up that one needs to do. I’ve been working for nine years now, and have three years of research experience. And I feel like there’s so much weightage given to an individual woman and how she needs to change the way she is, alter her approach, talk to the right kind of people, smile in a certain way. There’s a lot to be learnt within the work space, but women get way too much gender-specific advice. Women who come from marginalised communities, and Indian women in general, have to deal with various insecurities, and emphasis being given to how individual women need to change isn’t helpful — changes need to happen at a structural and community level, and will happen much more impact. I wish someone had told me that — the change needs to happen elsewhere.
Johanna R, Epidemiologist & Public Health Researcher
Having my first child has been an eye-opener. It’s reinforced how heavily our society has been shaped by men often in the interest of money – so much works against women and children and in fact, against men themselves. The devaluing of women’s roles, women’s ‘work,’ in the pursuit of all things ‘male,’ has created societies which look down on care, compassion, nurture, and love. The best advice I received was “value women’s work”.
Ramona Sen, Cultural Researcher
The only advice I got early on in my first job was my co-ordinator telling me to address big-shot people as “Dear …” in emails and not “Hi…”. But the advice I have for people taking up my job is to be servile and do what they ask you to do, till you walk out and never look back.
How to Put on a Fierce Face at Work
Neha Rao, PT teacher
I recently joined work. I used to run a lot when I was younger, and so when I became a PT teacher, I started making all my students run a lot. They’re always complaining, but it’s such fun to run. I wish I had been made to run when I was in school. But the best advice I got was from my sister, who told me not to be scared of school children. Even though each batch is a big batch, they can’t do anything to me. Plus I can make them run.
Meena Seshu, Sex Worker Rights’ Activist
Sex workers told me that I am too anti-men and need to understand how to trivialise the phallus to beat patriarchy, because male sexual power is a big sham!
Adila Devanathan, Sound Engineer
Never press mute! Not in your work, and not in life! Especially if you’re a woman (and there aren’t many female sound engineers), always make sure your voice is heard. Don’t let people speak over you, cut you out, interrupt. Make lots of noise and make your voice heard.
Pachajamma D, Domestic Worker and former DMK Women’s Wing Activist
I was the treasurer of one of DMK’s Self Help Group that Stalin had started in 2010 as part of his initiatives for the upliftment of women. We used to approach banks and encourage them to give loans to women who really needed it — for businesses, building houses, etc. But it was shut down after two-three years. We had some money left in the group (not the loan money, mind you) which we decided to distribute amongst ourselves. The leader of the group, another woman, gave it to everyone but me. I was supposed to get Rs 5,000, which may seem like a small amount, but it isn’t.
Why didn’t I get it? Because I was outspoken and independent and could take decisions without thinking twice. My fellow women colleagues unfortunately didn’t like that. But I don’t care. I’m now part of another SHG, and I also work as a house-help. My biggest lesson learnt: Don’t care what other people say; they will always pull you down but you just have to look at your life, your goal.
Meena Mahajan, Professor
The advice that resonated most and has stayed with me was not woman-centric at all. It just was “Whatever you choose to do, do it in the best possible way.” This advice came from my father. I was in high school and had picked Science but dropped Biology. At that time, for a high-academic performer, this meant Engineering. And he said, “Well if you must do Engineering, you should go to IIT, it’s the best.” Over the years, this kind of encouraging nudge towards excellence continued. But more importantly, for me, the message that stayed was, “Don’t dream of settling for second-best. Your aim must always be for the best, whether or not you eventually make it.”
Samrita Vohra, Lawyer
The best bit of advice I got and badly needed was from a woman who was an amazing senior advocate. She said “Your client is not God. In fact, she probably doesn’t know what she wants. You’ll tell her what she wants.”
Tricks to Accelerate Your Career
Reethu Guna Leo, Dancer
This was said to me when I started out, and it really inspired me: “It takes an athlete to dance, but an artist to be a dancer.” It just opened a whole world of thought for me about my work, and I started what I do as an art, not an exercise. It made me begin to see dance in a non-mechanical way, my techniques became more open and flowed better, and made me more confident about not choosing to stick to one form, but blending many forms. I think this is something everyone can apply to their work in some way.
A fellow municipal worker told me to join the union. I did, and now people at least talk to me about the problems we face while we work.
Tejaswini Niranjana, Academic
Before my interview for a job at Hyderabad Central University, a senior professor told me not to ever say that you can’t teach a particular course. It helped, because in India, it helps not to present yourself as a specialist.
Priyanka Dubey, Journalist
Something my undergrad journalism teacher said altered my thought process: “If you want to make something of yourself, then start reading”. He meant reading outside textbooks, spending time in libraries. I came from a background with no culture in reading books, but I do think now that books can fertilise you in many ways. Reading is like a nuclear force – if you read passionately, everything else you need for your work as a journalist will fall in place like gravity.
How to Handle Relationships at Work
Vijeta Kumar, Professor
I started teaching at Joseph’s five years ago. I got two really good pieces of advice. One friend told me not to make friends at work. The other told me to leave work as soon as it’s done. The first one is easy to follow, but the second is much harder.
Shoiba Saldanha, Gynaecologist
I got admission into medical college immediately after my 12th exams. My father’s uncle, a retired senior and very respected doctor, was visiting us that day. As I bent to touch his feet, he congratulated me with deep affection. And then, raising his finger, he said: Learn well for the next five years, but don’t get involved in love or romance till you finish your studies! Whether by accident or subconsciously, I did stay clear of love and romance. And as I watched many of my classmates being stung by Cupid’s arrow, and missing classes, failing exams, and walking around with broken hearts, I blessed him!
And… Advice So Rubbish You Can Only Eye-Roll
Rasika Dugal, Actor
I am an actor. And not a star….so everybody …and I mean everybody, feels like they should advise me. I think they look at it as a benevolent act of saving my life. I can almost hear them say ‘बेचारी’ at the beginning or end of a sentence full of advice. Having lived on my own for many years, I hate advice. And when it’s as vague and weird as the list below then it infuriates me like nothing else does. These are some of the things I’ve heard, which made my eyes roll:
1. Don’t get married.
2. Don’t tell people you’re married.
3. Learn how to be a tease.
4. Drop your ‘intellectual’ vibe (they put it in quotes…I didn’t).
5. Become Edgy and Sexy.
6. Stop being so sweet to people.
7. Just hang around more.
8. Do not do small roles.
9. Change your Image. Create some spunk.
10. Attend more filmy parties.
11. Babe, you need to be seen around more.
Rekha Raj, Dalit Feminist
People used to ask me to study law… so that I can fight for the rights of women! And later, when I established as a feminist in Kerala, many people asked me to try to enter into mainstream political parties: “Eventually you could become Chief Minister of Kerala!”
Rishika Agarwal, Journalist
This is a bit of advice I received early in my career, from a man: “Don’t ever let motherhood screw up your career.” The same enthusiast also told me that three months of maternity leave was “too much”. That was a time when progressive men knew exactly what was good for women.
Meghna Nayak, Sustainable Fashion Designer
The worst professional advice I’ve had is when discussing how hard it is to earn money as an ethical business, I was told to throw sustainability and fairness to the wind, and focus purely on maximising profit, which I’ve seen ALWAYS comes at a massive human cost. In our accepted neoliberalist and capitalist regimes, human costs aren’t recognised as costs. Fuck that! Dealing with your own greed and finding a way to make a business work without exploiting people and the planet is what my work is all about.
Sumuthi P, Musician
My former producer, a mediocre fail of a musician, would paid me peanuts, and repeatedly told me to “Learn my place and never ask for too much money for a gig”. Of course he’s not my producer any more.
Image credits: Rasika Dugal Facebook page, Meghna Nayak’s image from LataSita Facebook page, Priyanka Dubey via Instagram