Monday, November 13, 2017

Weaving an inclusive Web

Aparna Vedapuri Singh, the founder and CEO of Women’s Web, channeled a passion to create an
 inclusive space for women from all walks of life through her platform. Here is her story.

The journey into writing
I always loved working with words. I think I have been very, very lucky to grow up in a home where books were not seen as taking you away from your studies or being seen as pointless. I think I was lucky to have been born in a household as a loved child who was understood for her love for words. I was always encouraged to read and write. As long as I can remember, even when I was eight, if you asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t have much of an idea of what it entailed. I had a natural inclination to working in a creative space.
Having said that, my career actually did not begin in this place. While my graduation is in literature and journalism, I went into the marketing research and communications space. My corporate career has spanned across B2B Marketing, business development and market research – and for almost ten years, spanned across large corporate and then in an individual capacity, related to this capacity. Throughout, I have been writing as an individual blogger. I was interested in poetry and short fiction. I have always been very interested in writing – although unfortunately I’m not writing as much as I would like to now.

Starting off
I started my own individual blog in 2003-2004. I was one of the early bloggers in the country when blogging had begun to take cyber space by storm. It also helped me get in touch with other feminist bloggers. I realized that we were not these oddballs, angry feminists or any of those stereotypes. There are as many different kinds of feminists as there are women. Some of us express ourselves with anger, some of us express ourselves with humour, some through fiction – and all of these are perfectly valid ways of engaging with the world.

And if there are things women are angry about, why do we fear anger so much? Why do we especially fear women’s anger so much?  Because there is the underlying belief that women must be seen and not heard, and that women are beautiful objects to be enjoyed but must have no negative emotions like anger or fear. As long as women are seen as self-sacrificing, they are seen as strong. Like the single woman who gives up everything for her children, or a rags-to-riches story – these are important stories and are certainly respectable, but we appreciate only a kind of sacrificial strength in women. Things like anger are seen as a selfish sort of strength. A righteous anger in the cause of your children, for instance, is always appreciated.

The birth of Women’s Web
The internet opened me up to the world of feminist blogging. Not just feminist blogging, but to the fact that there is incredible diversity among women, and women are so much more than what the world gives them credit for. I was still in the corporate world in that space, and began writing. I had a blog, had readers and people who came to engage with my work. I guess that evolved into the next step – if women are so diverse and have diverse interests with the need to talk about different things, why should women’s media and media for women be so uni-dimensional? Personally, I like fashion, but that’s not the only thing about me, or about women in general. A woman interested in fashion can love technology and animals. Another woman may have interests outside of fashion and may not be interested in fashion at all. When it comes to women, there was and is a constant stereotype that women love dressing up and want to spend their husbands’ money. Women’s Web emerged from the need to embrace that diversity. In the early years, it was not a business, but now it has evolved as a media business.

We are an all-women team. There is an assumption that everything that women do is just either a hobby or a not-so-serious passion, or not for profit. Of course there is a space for non-profits but it is not for everyone. There is no need to assume that women’s initiatives must be altruistic alone. We see the space for something to work with a business model, while challenging the notion of frivolity and the superficial understanding of women’s initiatives.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling
As a woman in business, I have found fewer challenges than as a woman in the corporate world, and that’s also partly because the corporate world is changing and there is more conversation today. When I was in the corporate world, from 2000 to 2010, I had an exciting career, I travelled a lot and had a challenging career – hard targets, leading a product line and such. I enjoyed doing all those things. I didn’t face any major crisis. I was probably not at a stage where I was pushing up against the glass ceiling. I was still in the middle managerial level – where until that point, women don’t face as much of a pushback. Women are very good in doing the hard work that is involved in junior and middle managerial levels. We are doing a lot of the grunt work – women are hard workers, and the space at that stage was for performance rather than positioning.

Having said that, I have come across my fair share of sleazy bosses. Even ten years ago, in none of the companies I worked with, did I hear the term “workplace sexual harassment” being uttered, leave alone having a policy. While I have not faced anything significant, we all knew it existed. For instance, new joinees would be subtly told to steer clear of a guy or to avoid being alone with so-and-so if they were staying late. The conversation was never about what the organization was doing about this. That was the industry I was working in, and that was the atmosphere – there was no awareness that it was the organization’s responsibility to create a safe space for their women and not for the women themselves to identify the creeps and steer clear of them.  Women faced it then, and a decade later, women face it now – but there is at least some conversation. There is room for women to speak up and not take it sitting down. I do hear plenty of horror stories from industries where HR managers turn around and ask women what they did to contribute to it. It is not hunky dory, but that women can and do speak up about it is improvement over what it was.

Somewhere, there is a perception that a female-founded team is a hobby, or a charity. Even when one is a profitable business for instance, there is this perception that an all-women team is not a serious business. I must say I have not come across explicit prejudice. Prejudice is rarely that explicit – or at least people have wizened up about how not to express their prejudice. While I haven’t personally faced too much of it yet, I’ve heard enough to understand that the subtle bias of a female-founded or all-women team does exist. Somewhere, this can impact how people look at you, whether they want to work with you and invest in you or not.

In the early days when I networked at events, if I met women, we would introduce ourselves and we would each ask each other about us. But when I met men – most of the men I met fell in this category – enough of them never asked me what I did. They would offer a long narrative, but never return the favour and ask about me. Now, my networking technique has changed. I make sure I have my speech ready and tell them what I do, regardless of whether I am asked or not. It’s not that they are ‘bad people’ – we get defensive when we point things out – it’s just that there is an unconscious bias and they internalize the notion that people doing important things are by default men. So I put a foot in the door, with my elevator speech ready. Otherwise, it’s just about you listening to another, when you have your own amazing story to share! Why should we be ashamed or hide behind a curtain when we do important things?

Lessons from the past and dreams for a future
I know that I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive family – my husband and both my in-laws and my parents. My nuclear family comprises my husband and me. They don’t think of my work or me as a second priority. I must say that I appreciate this about my parents and in-laws – they have always considered me an important person and I have been led to internalize that. That doesn’t happen for a lot of women – I don’t think I realized how unusual it was at first, but speaking to more women has opened me to that. When I say supportive, it is not that I am delegating to my husband. I refuse to be a household manager – everything is shared work and we have an egalitarian partnership.
I hope to take Women’s Web to more places in India. We are currently in English, and are in one way limited to urban centers – and within that, certain kinds. Plans are in the offing to make it more broad-based, encourage regional readership and writer-ship. We want to bring in more diverse voices, and find ways to encourage more writing in different languages, to tell more diverse stories and cover as many different kinds of women as possible. We are also hoping to expand using technology to ensure that access is made easier.

Women’s Web is not only for professional writers and we’ve always been clear about that – the idea is to have some basic capacity to write so that readers can understand. We would like to be open and have non-writers with valuable stories to tell to get on board while balancing the needs of our readers as well. A lot of women have common challenges – be it sexual harassment at work or domestic violence – but if they are so common, why do women feel so isolated? The reason of course is the imposed culture of silence. We want to break that and tell more stories, and make it easier for more people to contribute.