Navigating a “gendered” world – role divisions, nature of work and founding a startup with a spouse

One day, I was eating lunch with a buyer and my parents. The buyer started to inquire about dad’s business. Mom chipped in between and said she also helps dad with the business. He immediately said, “Ah, you manage accounts?”

I was taken aback by the spontaneity with which he asked this question. I wasn’t exactly sure how to read this response. Are women generally considered to be good with accounts and finance management? Are women working with their spouses ‘assumed’ to manage ‘support’ functions such as accounts, operations and management in the business? 

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if these are the right questions to ask. 

When I started to play an active role in HasGeek from Nov 2011, I did not see myself as doing anything more than support functions: accounts, organizing roles and responsibilities when it came to event management, making event logistics simpler, working on ticket sales, managing vendor relations and trying to do some public relations and media. Over time, I started to manage sales. While I was good at each of these activities, I viewed them mainly as support functions. I felt that more ‘important’ functions such as steering the organization’s direction and vision, writing code and building technology, working on the content of the events, and being the spokesperson for the company were still managed by Kiran.

Partially, I put myself in a secondary position by thinking of this division between ‘important’ and ‘less important’ work. Part of this distinction also came from the fact that I still considered my PhD and intellectual labour as more important than running around to execute and finish tasks. And yet another reason for thinking of myself as performing “support” functions came from the internal and external questioning of “what am I doing in HasGeek, among geeks, in an unknown world, with my background?” I even began to doubt the credentials of my past background and whether these had any value in what I was doing at HasGeek.

I tried seeking ‘professional satisfaction’ and trying to find desperately what I could do that’d make everything seem more meaningful. I felt in charge and motivated when I first organized The Fifth Elephant 2011. I decided to run the event because I wanted to learn more about the politics and economy of big data. I derived personal satisfaction in doing sales for the event, building partnerships and networks, going to different cities and organizing activities there in an attempt to understand the nature of communities in these cities. I felt like I was steering the ship and for once, I was happy. I was making every effort to learn about the tech and startup ecosystem that I was coincidentally part of by running HasGeek.

As the event progressed, I realized I was learning less about big data and more about handling people and processes in events. This discouraged me and made me wonder what kind of future lay for me if I were to continue in the company – will I always be managing relations and people? I still ran the event with every bit of gusto and gumption I could. Despite the depression that I was beginning to experience, I continued to move forward. The event was a huge success, like none other in the brief history of HasGeek. This was one thing I could take credit for. However, when one newspaper attributed the statements in the post-event report I wrote to Kiran, I felt discouraged once again and wondered what kind of headway I’d be able to make in a world where Kiran was de facto associated with technology and therefore running HasGeek. 

Executing and operations are painful tasks and tough asks. I acknowledge this fully now. In 2011, operations and sales did not only involve dealing with vendors and organizing the final stages of the event. It also involved planning the various sub activities of an event, striking partnerships with communities and working with them, selling tickets and making event tickets sell by themselves, sourcing potential speakers, persuading potential speakers to go through the funnel / open submission process of turning in talks and review, negotiating with sponsors and working with various people in the sponsor’s company till the completion of the event, responding to ticketing inquiries, despatching receipts, writing event reports and following-up post-event with speakers, sponsors and supporters. By the time one event gets over, it is already time to buck up for the next event and perhaps even go into the fast track mode and execute quickly to make up for lost time. All this is extremely consuming and taxing on my physical and mental reserves. In addition to this, the constant questioning of what I am doing in HasGeek adds to the drain. 

After The Fifth Elephant, I was beginning to suffer from depression which stemmed from an increasing sense of hopelessness that I’d never be able to get back to research and writing and that I was getting trapped into doing operations in the company. I tried to hold on – emotionally – as much as I could, sometimes immersing myself fully into an event in the hope of emerging with an anchor at the end of it. I could not find any. I tried asking ‘research questions’ in the hope that something would spark the fuel of writing inside me and that the momentum would be enough to move away from the company and be back in the world where I belonged. 

In the process, I kept belittling my role as performing “support”, thinking that something bigger was driving the company and not me. Whereas, in reality, I was driving the company and making things happen. I could not see it then because I was blinded by my own sorrow and depression, and also isolation from everyone I knew and from every little activity that earlier gave me joy – running, writing, cooking, ethnography.

I started writing this post in the hope of being able to ask the question of division of labour, roles and functions in a business/enterprise. Here are some questions that strike me:

  1. Have these roles and functions become gendered over time owing to stereotypes? Or it is that women are just better than men in performing certain tasks such as management, operations, sales, public relations, etc?
  2. In a world whether technology is glorified as the means to scale, how do most organizations perceive the value and importance of technology?
  3. How has the introduction of technology in companies now reconfigured the work and functions of men and women?
  4. In traditional family-run businesses and enterprises, how were men’s and women’s roles organized? 
  5. Do women in general struggle with respect to agency, autonomy and power when working with spouses and the other way round?
  6. How much do spousal relations configure the way in which men and women project themselves and their respective ownership of the business? 

I have interacted with few women who ran businesses with their husbands and some who chose to stay away from the startup/enterprise. It will be valuable to hear from women running their own businesses and those running businesses with their spouses and learn from their experiences. 

[In the hope that this post sparks some interesting discussions, the rest is to be continued … … …]

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About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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