This week is the closest I have come to skipping this newsletter since I started writing it. In my defence, I have a pretty good excuse. I am moving my house tomorrow.
A week spent juggling lease agreements, flat handovers, RWA formalities, and uninstallation/reinstallation of every device and amenity that modern life is encumbered with - is not a very creatively conducive week.
That said, this week I had more in-person interactions with my fellow human beings than the last three years combined (I made a baby and went into lockdown almost a year before the the rest of the world).
This week alone, I have met the broker, the old landlord, the new landlord, the RO guy, the AC guy, the WiFi guy, the cable guy, the gas guy, old furniture buyers, new furniture sellers, the deep cleaning guys, and various other sundry service providers. And in less than 12 hours, some half a dozen movers and packers will be knocking on my door. May the delta lords have mercy.
So while my house turns upside down around me, I am stealing some time to pen this relatively short piece. I thought I would write about the one thing I have noticed most this week: Male service providers don't like dealing with a woman.
I have been running point on almost every task involved in this move. It started with the house hunt itself. For over a month, I have been lining up houses for the family to see - both through and sans brokers. At one point, we liked a house a lot and told the broker as much.
He conveyed our interest to the landlord and told me, "Okay, now send me your husband's number for the landlord to call."
I gave him my number.
He asked me again, "Is this your husband's number?"
I told him it was mine and I will be the one to talk to the landlord, if that's all right with him.
Of course, he thought, now that the little woman had done her little rough work, it was time for the men to take over and give it their manly seal of approval. Everybody knows negotiating rent is a manly job. The little woman could perhaps serve the men tea while they did it.
Surprise, Surprise: That deal didn't go through. The landlord lived abroad and the broker advised him against leasing the house to us. I am sure there was a monetary incentive involved for the broker in making this suggestion. But I can't help but wonder if the fact that he disapproved of my pesky denial of my place in society played a role too.
As I supervised the work of various disapproving men over this last week, I spoke to some women to double-check if this is a commonly experienced phenomenon, or if it was just my personal brand of post-pandemic paranoia.
Here are some of the real stories these women shared with me:
The Ghost-Project Manager
My brother and sister-in-law were building a house. Well, my sister-in-law was the one actually project managing it while my brother was almost not involved at all. Once a week, however, my sister-in-law would make a list of everything that needed attention or intervention - something to be said to the plumber, something changes needed in the electrical work, the contractor running behind schedule on something else, etc.
When she would visit the site, all the men working there would simply ignore her. Then, she would come home with a list, sit with her husband, and make him call all these people while she dictated to him what to say to each one of them. They would not listen to her - the person actually running the show - but quickly took instructions from her husband and work as "he" directed them to.
I was traveling by train with a (male) junior from my college. A chaiwala came along and we both ordered tea. In our college there was a culture of seniors footing the bill whenever we shared a meal or a beverage with juniors. As I was taking out my purse, the chaiwala started demanding money from my junior. He blushed as I told the chaiwala that I will pay. The chaiwala persisted, "Sir 20 rupaye ke liye madam ko kyu pareshan kar rahe ho? Aap de do na." I firmly told my junior to stay out of it and paid the chaiwala, who made a face while accepting the note, as if he was being forced to accept money from someone beneath him.
The Doctor in need of an Education
A few years ago, we had moved into a rented apartment. Our landlord was an MD - a doctor who had years of experience working abroad. The house needed some repairs so I reached out to him on WhatsApp with our requests. The owner simply did not respond to my repeated messages. Finally, I asked my husband to send him the same texts. He immediately responded and got the repairs done. This happened several times and my husband told me many men feel that their ego would get hurt if they accepted "instructions" from a woman. I was quite surprised to see a doctor having this kind of a discriminatory mindset.
Chopping Carrots Talking Tokyo
We were once at a retreat in Kerala, where we attended a meditation class. To give the example of mental stress we have in our everyday life, the trainer spoke to my husband about how fund managing can be stressful. Then he dismissively turned to me, and painted a picture of how I might be thinking about picking up the kids from school while cutting carrots in the kitchen. Needless to say, I never went back to that class again.
The Electrician with a Short Fuse
We were a group of boys and girls renting a large flat together. The house needed some electrical repairs and the landlord sent an electrician. After he had inspected the issue, I asked what had gone wrong with a certain fixture. He bristled in response. The more questions I asked, the more I could sense his temper rising. He either just ignored me when I asked him questions, or gave short irritable grunts in response.
After some time, my male flatmate walked in. He asked the same questions and the electrician gave calm, clear answers to him. The male flatmate had actually moved in one year after three of us women had been living there, so I actually knew more about the house than he did. However, the idea that women can understand technical stuff or even dare to instruct men about their jobs really riles some of them up.
Another time we called a guy for deep-cleaning our kitchen. He kept addressing me as 'tum' (colloquial 'you' used for juniors and peers in Hindi) and my male flatmate as 'aap' (respectful 'you' used for seniors in Hindi). He could not have made it clearer who he considered more worthy of his respect.
I've had such experiences innumerable times in cabs. Cab drivers usually ignore anything I say to them when I am traveling with my husband. My husband used to not believe me. One day, I told the driver to make a turn and he ignored me. I told my husband to repeat what I had just said in the EXACT same words. The cabbie immediately said 'jee saab' (Yes sir!) and made the turn.
I will never forget the look on husband's face that day (though I'm pretty sure my husband himself forgot it 10mins later)!
A Barbaric Service Provider
For my son's mundan (head shaving ritual), we called a barber to our home. I found him, researched him, spoke with him, hired him, coordinated dates and logistics, agreed the payment - all of this before the procedure. But on D-Day, when he came to our house, he consistently ignored me and kept speaking to my husband instead. At the end, he took the money from my hand, without making eye contact. In fact, he looked at my husband and thanked him for the payment. I said nothing, but it rankled me. The husband, of course, didn't notice anything.
It is not a huge deal, of course. There is far worse that women have to face, and I have too. I can live with it. But it is something.
Nothing reveals the position women occupy in society more than when there is a man next to you, and you see how differently you are treated compared to how he is treated.
I could go on but, you get the gist (and those cartons sitting in my hall are not going to pack themselves).
Now, why does this happen? More importantly, is it classist for highly educated urban elite women to complain about men who are socially, financially, and educationally weaker than them?
Here are my thoughts (and I would love to hear yours).
In most of the above contexts, yes - most of the men in these stories are weaker than the women they are disrespecting / ignoring. But in the context of their gender, men are undeniably bestowed the power position by society. So if a woman passenger refuses to pay a cab driver for no fault of his and threatens to file a false complaint, she is the one abusing her position of social and financial power. But if a cab driver ignores or disrespects a woman passenger for no fault of hers, he is the one abusing his power over her as a man.
There are two reasons that I can imagine for a man providing a basic utility service to disrespect/ignore the lady actually paying for his services.
One, he comes from a background where women usually do not have a voice. He is used to ordering women around, and for those women to follow his orders with silence and obedience (while sometimes incurring his wrath nonetheless). So when a woman directly addresses him with confidence and authority, his DNA does a little dance and he reacts with violence.
Best case scenario: he ignores the woman. Worst case… well, we all know how violent men treat women in the worst case.
Two, when he sees a man with the woman, he feels that directly interacting with the woman may upset the man accompanying her. The subtlest way this happens is when a man and a woman dine together and the waiter automatically places the bill with the man. I think Restaurant Feedback Forms were invented just to keep the womenfolk busy while the men handle the manly job of swiping credit cards.
The woman might be the one actually paying for the meal, but why take the chance of upsetting the man by making this assumption? Safest for men to steer clear of other men's 'property', at least in front of them.
The second is obviously a relatively kinder interpretation but has the same underlying presumption - that women are inferior to men and ignoring a woman is a mark of respect to her 'owner'.
So an appeal to our ‘owners’ then (since I don’t think my plumber reads my newsletter): Next time you see your partner / friend / lady-in-proximity being ignored or disrespected by a man who bends over backward when you as much as sneeze, say something about it.
“Madam is the one in charge of this, please listen to what she is saying” is a great one that I have heard men use. Or at least dreamt of hearing someday.
And now, I must take your leave. Six men are coming to move my house tomorrow, and I need to mentally prepare myself for a day of being summarily ignored and practice passing instructions via husband in order to be heard.
Wish me luck!
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