I went to Los Angeles recently on a business visit. During a meeting with the head of a program with another governmental agency, I got hounded with questions. Why was our agency undertaking a certain program? What was the logic behind it? Who had initiated the particular approach, my superiors or I? Etc, etc, etc. Of course the questions were legitimate; but there was a subtext to the entire conversation. The tone and language of the queries made it clear that my situation as a third world woman in charge of a traditionally male dominated program was irksome to my counterparts.

Still, I tried to answer the questions with as much calm as I could muster. But when my inquisitor posed yet another question and I started answering with “well, the way traditionally our agency has handled these proceedings … ” he rudely interrupted me with, “Well, let me tell you how it has been done before,” I lost my patience. I told him to stop interrupting me and to let me finish my sentences. I also told him that if he behaved like this in our official workshops, I would cut him off, and that if he wanted to see the program to take a certain direction, the proper way to achieve that goal was to go through official channels, and not to attack me.

The entire group sat in stunned silence at my outburst. I was myself speechless. The only other woman in the group intervened after a pause and commenced a damage control routine. My counterpart apologized. I, too, expressed regret for my vehemence. I followed up with E-mails to all concerned the next day and by all indications, it seems that my male colleagues at the agency and I might end up as good friends as a result of our argument. Or so I hope.

But the incident made me ponder the age-old question once again. When is it appropriate for a female professional to fight back, and when is it necessary to be conciliatory? These days, in such situations, I hear a voice inside me telling me not to take the s— any more. “You are not a young girl, you are a woman, and one who has taken care of herself all her life. So what gives these people the right to belittle you and humiliate you?” the voice says. Yet I wonder sometimes if I should listen to that voice. Or should I always be conciliatory and cooperative? This dilemma has been pondered by many successful women, I am sure, from Hilary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher to Indira Gandhi. But being an Indian immigrant woman professional in a white world makes my situation doubly complex, I think.
And yet this is not a new quandary for me. In one fashion or another, ever since I was a young woman, I have inhabited a professional world in which men were the rulers. In the Physics Department at Nagpur University, as a Ph.D. student at IIT Kanpur, and later as the only female in a group of energy professionals at the California Energy Commission, I have had to find the delicate balance between assertiveness and cooperation, liberation and femininity, sexiness and strength, humility and pride, and, well, humanity, and super-humanity. I wonder sometimes if the struggle involved in swimming against the current has taken its toll on other women too, successful women like—who? I can’t think of any particular role models that I have seen in action.

So who could young women today use as examples, as they, too, face discrimination, sexism, male chauvinism, or just the old boy network? Have women like HP CEO Fiorina experienced such struggles and come out ahead, or are they simply sweeping the issue under the rug?

In my profession, I find women who either act like barking dogs or guardian angels. There seems to be little middle ground between the two attitudes. And as someone who is not particularly fierce-looking, someone who always has an engaging smile on her face, I find that men invariably mistake my cheerfulness for weakness.

So after nearly twenty-five years in the professional world, I woke up the other day realizing that surviving as a strong, independent, self-supporting, independent, intelligent, and opinionated woman remains for me an experience akin to a walk on the razor’s edge. And therein lies the thrill of my existence as well, I suppose.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.

Sarita Sarvate has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and many national publications. Check www.saritasarvate.com