From making them feel like imposters to constantly using sexist language to not giving them difficult roles, the field of political consulting is excluding women by denying them equal opportunities for growth.

It is true that more and more professionals are choosing to be a part of the political world by becoming political strategists and consultants, but where are the female faces? Why are they being pushed to take on side roles while the men occupy centre stage?

“Mera yeh prayas hai ki youth in politics ke madhyam se main ladko se milun, aur unko batau ki politics mein aana sambhav hai.”

“…there’s a greater realisation ki bhai jo kaam PK [Prashant Kishor] ne kiya ya Modi Ji ne kiya, koi bhi ladka kar sakta hai, toh mukhya se lekar pradhan mantri tak aise ladkon ko dhund rahe hain”

These are a few lines from one of the most watched interviews of India’s top political strategist, Prashant Kishor, where he goes on to refer to political consultants and political aspirants as “ladke (boys)” at least ten times.

“This is not just PK’s language, this is everybody’s language in this space,” said Sukriti, who works as the only female campaign manager for a reputed political firm.

From constantly using sexist language to not giving them difficult roles in a campaign, the field of political consulting is excluding women from one of the most booming industries of the decade by denying them equal opportunities for growth.

I joined a reputed political consulting firm last year and came face to face with the explicit sexism within the industry. After interviewing a few women who have worked with this and various other companies, and who only agreed to share their experiences on the condition of anonymity, I realised that I am not alone.

Almost all of them have been made to feel like imposters in this world of men. Either they are unable to break the male-male camaraderie that helps men rise within the organisation even when they are more experienced and qualified, or they have to work twice as hard and change their personalities.

A handful of those who are able to make the leap are mostly accused of getting promotions because of their intimate relationships with the men at higher ranks or because they pleased the male management with their “good looks”.

Reflecting upon her own experience, Sukriti shared, “They will question a woman’s capability to lead a team of 100 men, and allege that she got the promotion only because she is beautiful.”

The futile attempts to make themselves feel heard and taken seriously in this male-dominant system infuriates them. All of them, including me. They have worked with the right, centre and centre-left political parties, and they are struggling. They are struggling to make their opinions heard. They are struggling to prove that they can handle tough political situations. They are struggling to deal with the mansplaining about their job by younger and less experienced men. They are struggling to manage male teams who refuse to listen to them. They are struggling to work with party workers who speak and act inappropriately with total impunity. They are struggling with the double burden to outshine their male colleagues in order to be noticed. They are struggling to sustain themselves within the system that justifies derogatory culture and excludes them if they don’t play along. They are struggling to become a part of a system with simply no checks against sexism.

The representation issue

It’s obvious that the representation of women in leadership and managerial positions remains dismal. And those few women who do get to lead a team or two are deliberately given tasks and projects that are considered “easy” by the management.

In fact, when I reached out to a group of independent political consultants who are working for a reputed national party in large numbers, an employee informed me that barring a few local female interns, there weren’t any women in the entire campaign.

However, it wasn’t unusual to find women, especially in the firm I was working with. There were women in large numbers, mostly visible at the lower rungs in field-based roles or in the communications and media-based roles in the office.

Out of the top 50 individuals who were responsible for managing political affairs and executing campaigns on the ground, only four were women, and three of them were given the easiest and most winnable areas to handle.

Even in the recruitments for assembly-level field work, which requires extensive and in-depth political management by one person in one assembly, male candidates are given a preference. In the last campaign I worked in, there were hardly three or four women in the field at the assembly level compared to over 290 men. In some campaigns, women weren’t hired for this role at all.

One of the recruitment team members shared an experience from an old campaign: “I once interviewed a woman who had good political knowledge and was fulfilling all the criteria for the assembly level, field-based role. I selected her. However, when she came for the orientation with the other selected candidates, who were all men, I was told that female candidates would not be considered for this role. I was asked to consider her for an office-based role. Since there were no openings for that, she never joined.”

The assumption that women can’t manage “hardcore” political work runs deep.

“Whenever I was recruited in a firm, I was automatically considered for an office-based role, even when I wanted to work on the ground. Sometimes, my ideas were selected but they were executed by men, who took higher salaries and got more perks. After taking an independent role this year, I insisted that the party let me work on the ground,” said Mona*, who works as an independent consultant with a national party in India.

She further shared instances where men were able to grab opportunities to make better connections with clients by doing late night meetings and get considered for promotions, while she was disallowed by the company to attend those meetings. “I am in this 24×7 and I give my best, then why am I being held back? There were times when I felt that I can handle the clients better, but I was denied the opportunity to deal with them,” she said.

I’ve been told that in a strict results-oriented environment, it becomes difficult to create processes that could facilitate bottom-up evaluations. Thus, in this industry, there is a greater reliance on managers for promotions, which usually works in the favour of men. “I was lucky that my manager was unbiased, and he made it possible for me to rise up the ladder. I’ve seen many women who were good at their jobs but they didn’t get the promotions that they deserved,” said Aarti*, one of only two women to be promoted as managers for handling campaign operations on the ground in one company. A few other women also said that they’ve worked with good male managers in the initial years of their career who helped them learn and grow. “My first mentor, Nitin Narang, was a blessing. I got motivated to continue in politics because of him. But it had been difficult after that,” said Sukriti.

The safety issue

During my tenure in this field, the decisions regarding women’s safety concerns were taken directly by the male management, rather than after having a conversation with women employees about what these actually entail for them.

I interviewed two women who alleged when they had shared their experience of sexual harassment by party workers to their managers, they were either told that they are incapable of handling the political nitty-gritties or just removed from their assigned assemblies, while no significant actions were taken against the accused persons. Another consultant shared that she had never even heard of any sexual harassment committee in her four-year-long career with various firms and political parties.

However, when it came to working with difficult clients and handling tough projects, a lot of women were told that it is “unsafe” for them, and I have personally experienced that. Three months before the elections, I was removed from a few assemblies without any consultation because “there were orders to remove women from a few presumably volatile assemblies as it was unsafe for them”. It was ironic as that was one of those assemblies that had a female candidate. And it was more ironic that the campaign was being done for a female chief ministerial face.

In fact, a lot of times, women were expected to deliberately put themselves in unsafe situations in order to gain more value and recognition for their work. The responsibility does not lie with the firm and its management.

A former political consultant, Ruchi*, shared how she left an organisation after a brief stint due to the apathy of her managers towards genuine concerns that many women were raising about an assigned task. “A lot of women, and even men, were writing in the team’s WhatsApp group that they were feeling unsafe in doing the task, and in also designating it to their female volunteers. However, the manager kept dismissing the concerns by asking if these volunteers wanted to become politicians in the future. Finally, I refused to voluntarily put myself in such a situation and handed in my resignation.” She recalled getting so frustrated that she shared explicit pictures in the group that she used to encounter on a daily basis to explain the gravity of the situation.

It is clear that lack of female managers create an empathy gap that prevents a lot of women’s concerns from being taken seriously.

How can it change?

It isn’t all bad, and there was a mutual consensus on this amongst all the people that I interviewed. We have men who support women, and we need more women who can support each other to grow within this entire political system that is plagued with sexism. The onus of ensuring representation and building that culture of openness and belonging lies with the political firms which are mushrooming in this country. Without proper checks and balances for sexist and discriminatory behaviour in the workplace, it is impossible to do away with the culture that puts women down and inhibits their growth.

It is absolutely necessary to ask women what they consider as a safe situation rather than taking that decision for them, and excluding them from projects that can help them grow. Simultaneously, enforce measures that ensure the delivery of results without forcing them to compromise their safety and dismissing their genuine concerns.

There is also a growing trend where independent male consultants get hired by the parties, who then end up forming a team of all the men in their circle, thus shutting women out completely. As Sukriti rightly put it, “When young politicians will start putting their faith in women strategists and hire them for their campaigns, we will see a shift in their numbers and in the importance that is placed upon them in this industry.” #livehyd #LiveHyd