She Speaks is an original Shenomics’ series of dialogues between leading women from various disciplines on relevant issues pertaining to professional women in India. Disclaimer: All views contained in this article represent the individual’s personal views, and not those of any organization with which they might be affiliated.
The world today is a fascinating arena for women – the Census of 2011 shows us that there were 116% more women graduating in India, as compared to men, but a report published by the World Bank in 2017 showed that only 27% of women were a part of the labour force in India, the lowest among BRICS nations. While there is a long way to go for women at work, there are a few women choosing to tread unconventional paths.
Scuba diving instructor, Madhumathy Chandrasekaran, 22, and Shatbhi Basu, 57, a mixologist and beverage consultant, talk about their experiences as women who chose atypical careers in the face of stereotypes defined by society, in a candid chat moderated by Shonali Advani.
How did you decide to get into your respective professions?
Madhumathy Chandrasekaran: I’ve never been academically inclined even though I got good grades. I was an outdoors-y person. When I was 17.5 years old I got into scuba diving through my tennis coach. I attended college for three months studying biotechnology but that didn’t work out. I quit and pursued a Bachelor’s degree in English through correspondence so I could work. My first job was in Cooke Island in Fiji when I was 19, and it’s been amazing since.
Shatbhi Basu: I started out wanting to be a veterinary doctor and got into a college too but my family doctor advised my parents against it as I was prone to many allergies. They introduced me to hotel management. After a year of F&B in the kitchen I moved to restaurants and the manager there pushed me into making cocktails. I gave it a shot and it scared the hell out of me so I realised I better start studying it. The more I experimented the better I got, and fell in love with mixing. I could see people’s expressions as they drank and I could correct those drinks- something I couldn’t do in the kitchen. I also opened Stir Academy of Bartending in 1999, to give back to the fraternity.
What were the first reactions from family when you chose your profession?
Madhumathy: Well my parents weren’t happy, because it meant dropping out of college. However they also knew I’m a stubborn child and I would do it with or without their support. Their only request to me was that I do some sort of graduation so I don’t regret it later. I have been working since I was 18 years old. My parents have been guiding me through various ups and downs. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without their support either.
Shatbhi: I’ve been lucky because I come from a family that’s travelled extensively so I didn’t have to convince them that I was on the right path. My friends and family in fact were my guinea pigs. I could make mistakes with them. So were my in-laws. They figured I wasn’t the average bahu they were expecting.
How did people in the society react to your job?
Shatbhi: When I was standing behind the bar, women were just so happy. They’d come up to me and say, “We can come up and talk to you and you can help us figure out what we want to drink.” Younger guys would stay away thinking they didn’t want to give me extra attention as a woman, while older men had the comfort of talking to someone like me. Funnily, after two drinks even younger men would talk to me! Also, I always ask what is society? We are also society. If we have the courage and passion to do different things, people have to accept it, because we are part of the same society. If we evolve, society evolves with us.
Madhumathy you started out in a more liberated society – what’s your experience here?
Madhumathy: Where can I even begin with the discrimination – it’s been extremely hard. I was very young when I started and this is a highly male dominated industry. If you don’t establish your power you get treated badly. But I loved the industry so much I didn’t want to quit. You’ve got to keep your calm. However, discrimination is something I’ve experienced only in India – abroad I’ve felt like an equal.
Any anecdotal examples?
Madhumathy: Though I’m an instructor sometimes our own staff don’t listen to me because I’m a woman. It’s not the customers. Even if we all have same instructor ratings, they become defensive towards me.
Shatbhi: Some people are just afraid. But let me tell you its only going to get easier, Madhumathy! I’ve learnt that the more confident I was about my subject matter, my body language by default showed it. Others around you back off then. They figure sometimes you have answers they don’t, even though they’ve been around longer.
Madhumathy: Yeah. I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t think any gender is superior to the other. I’ve also learnt that I shouldn’t show my authority, or show off my ratings to my dive master. I also need to be polite to people if I want that from them.
Shatbhi: I learnt a trick. When you know you’re good and there’s a guy who has been there longer, he obviously has an ego. So let them feel they’re better. Once you show respect they leave you alone.
Shabthi in your profession has discrimination been more from peers or customers?
Shatbhi: There was no discrimination as such, it was just that slight amount of discomfort. Once you actually work well and hard without asking for favors by doing the same job as your peers, they’re pretty quick to come around. In fact they are your biggest supporters. You don’t need bouncers; they are your bouncers, even if you work in a nightclub!
What has it taken each of you carve a niche for yourself and rise in your respective professions?
Madhumathy: Perseverance and determination.
Shatbhi: While passion drives you, for me the most important thing has been knowledge. It beats everything. Building expertise boosted my confidence too.
Are men and woman paid at par?
Shatbhi: Women get paid more, because they are a rarity. At any given time, there are not more than 20 serious bartenders in India.
Are more women joining the profession after you?
Madhumathy: Well I’m not seeing many women enter this field as professionals; however, I do see women wanting to try diving as a hobby. I am glad that they are at least out there doing it, willing to dive with a male instructor putting inhibitions aside.
Shatbhi: It’s a fad for many and there are those that are serious. It’s still a tiny number, and we are a long way before more women become serious about it.
What can we do to encourage women to take up unconventional careers?
Madhumathy: I think it all starts with good education. We should introduce different subjects. I never had the chance to study what I really wanted to. Our education system is too narrow-minded.
Shatbhi: Love what you do, don’t do it for the sake of being different. We need to write and talk about it. At Stir Academy we counsel people a lot when they come to study with us to figure out if they’re cut out for it, or if someone pushed them here.
Madhumathy what did it feel like when you went down under for the first time? At what point did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?
Madhumathy: I dived for the first time with my instructor. Visibility was bad, but I saw this tiny fish and it made me feel very happy. I felt like I belonged underwater, where no one judged me. I was safe. In school I never felt like I belonged. It’s not a competitive sport and that’s what I liked too.
How have your respective professions helped you grow as a person?
Madhumathy: I’ve become more open-minded, accepting, and sociable. I’ve also learnt about my own faults through several scenarios.
Shatbhi: It’s taught me patience, people skills, and made me calmer. I learnt psychology too.
About the Authors
Shonali Advani is a trained journalist, having worked previously with leading publications such as the Economic Times and the Entrepreneur magazine. She is now a freelance writer and startup consultant. When not working, she is dreaming up her next travel destination.
Bhavna Toor is the Founder and CEO of Shenomics, a Mindful Leadership platform for aspiring women. She helps women realize their highest professional aspirations, and believes in daring greatly, leading boldly and living mindfully.