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Nilima Chowdhury: Former musician turns the spotlight on workplace culture

Flagstaff Team

A different stage… Having switched from music to the academic world, Nilima Chowdhury is now recruiting organisations to be part of a culture-change project

Nilima Chowdhury once sang on German television to an audience of millions. Now a social scientist, she wants to help workplaces make positive changes. She talks to Helen Vause.

Nilima Chowdhury is a social scientist and consultant on a mission to increase gender equality in the workplace.

But the Devonport mother of one has a back story far removed from the academic path she has followed in recent years.

A few twists of fate could have seen the ivory towers swapped out for the bright lights of show business in Europe.

Chowdhury grew up in Berlin, the daughter of a Polish mother and Indian father, who met in a German language class.

She honed her skills as a singer and songwriter and after university in Berlin, where she gained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, spent several years in Canada pursuing a career as a performer and recording an EP.

Returning to Germany, undecided about whether her future lay with music or post-graduate research, she became a contestant in the hugely popular television talent show Voice of Germany, making it through to the quarter-finals, watched by an audience of millions.

Many online clips show the singer-guitarist on stage, capturing the hearts of the judges and audience.

But not long after the lights had gone down on the show, Chowdhury began to wonder again about her future career. 

Would she be a serious singer or a social scientist? Was the music world – with all its pressures shaping how women present themselves – the place she wanted to be? Was it really a sustainable way to live?

The academic path won out.

Chowdhury had by then met her Kiwi husband-to-be, artist Sam Mesler – in a classroom, just as her parents had met.

She came to New Zealand with Mesler to pursue her professional dream of helping make positive changes.

Now a clinical psychologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland, Chowdhury will be kicking off the new year with a highly challenging resolution — to make changes in workplaces and, in the process, lift the lid on life in the typical office environment.

Her mission is to work with organisations ready to change.

Our workplaces, she says, have traditionally been set up to suit working men, and they become environments that can be unhealthy for women.

“They are based on a very old model that still works for many, but it’s also a model that is hurting many others like women, or men, who for various reasons don’t fit the workings of the old models. The concept of toxic or hostile work environments and how they affect our well-being is now accepted, but change is yet to really start moving for many reasons.”

Chowdhury is a member of the well-being advisory group in the university’s Faculty of Science. She says her project ‘Turn the Tide’ is generally about getting organisations to be more flexible about how people do things at work.

“That may include encouraging men to take paternity leave, for example. Or it may be about how many hours people work in their day. Why should a willingness to work very long hours and always go the extra mile, automatically be equated with being committed to the job? What about the hard-working employee who is very committed to their job but has other demands on their time? The ones who have to leave work at a certain time? What about the women, and some men, who can’t fit into that expectation?”

Turn the Tide is a funded pilot for developing more sustainable workplace cultures.

The project follows on from her research on depression in young, professional women and her findings from talking with focus groups of women who are working in law, information technology, accounting and finance.

They candidly shared their lessons for surviving in workplaces that they largely reported were still ‘a man’s world’.

Chowdhury says they told of ongoing  sexism in the workplace, and how  motherhood remains a career barrier.

“Distress in the workplace is seen as an individual problem. It needs to be seen as a social problem.”

“While there was collective understanding of how trying to act like a man could be a coping strategy, they talked of really struggling to find the balance in showing traits considered to be too masculine or feminine. They were all too aware that if they seemed too bossy they may risk being seen to be a bitch. If they were emotional at work, or showed vulnerability, they feared that they could be been as being incompetent.

“So many women report finding themselves on the back foot with behaviour in our workplaces and feeling constantly that they have to prove their worth.”

For some young women, this struggle in their jobs can lead to distress and depression, she says.

“Distress in the workplace is seen as an individual problem. It needs to be seen as a social problem and it’s time for change.

“Cultural norms and practices often seem to us just like the tide, as things that can’t be turned around; a fact of nature and something we take for granted but do not question.

“We reproduce them just because this is how things have always been done.

“This also applies to organisations. For example, studies regularly report that women express less anger and more happiness at work than men. It’s easy to assume that this is due to the notion that women naturally feel less anger than men. But research tells us that only those higher up the ladder can afford to express anger without negative social repercussions. Anger is still considered to be unfeminine.

“We are all familiar with the business case for gender equality, and many organisations have introduced new policies and regulations to increase gender equality. Why then is change so slow?

“The ideal of what I call the ‘make-it-work-woman’ is a reaction to workplaces that are still shaped by norms, expectations and behaviours, often hidden from view that disadvantage women. It is essentially a survival strategy, a way for women to ‘cover their bases’ by always going the extra mile trying to be ‘perfect’.”

Chowdhury is recruiting organisations to be part of the pilot culture-change project, which she expects to run for around six months.

“We will look at issues such as what do we think of as professional behaviour? What is good leadership?

“We will be considering how unspoken assumptions about mother/fatherhood, work-life balance and commitment to the organisation negatively affect both women and men.

“And they’ll be asked to consider how common workplace routines like running meetings, distributing tasks and communicating between team meetings contribute to women’s distress by (inadvertently) making them feel inadequate.”

In the later stages of the exercise, the teams will be working on ways to create change, and creating what Chowdhury calls a “new normal” that could ultimately become embedded in the workplaces of the future.

This article originally appeared in the November 29 edition of the Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.