By Nidhi Taparia:
It was always a nightmare to meet my retail head. Not because he was difficult or that he asked me tough questions. It was simply because he would look at my chest every time that we spoke. He was a hot-shot manager at a reputed firm and it happened less than a decade ago. Nothing deterred him. High neck kurtas, dupattas wrapped around, loose shirts – every single meeting he would make me terribly uncomfortable by staring at my chest. I found his conduct offensive and upsetting.
I then found a quick fix. Every time I met him – I would hold up a file, or some papers or even my laptop. It seemed to work. He stopped looking at my chest and started looking at me. Even better, we crossed each other’s paths less, and he would no longer invite me to his room or stop me to ask random questions.
A few months later, I heard he was moved to a different role and I heaved a sigh of relief. My interactions with him had made me nervous and uncomfortable. While I knew we had a sexual harassment policy, I didn’t know how I would prove that I was being harassed. Most importantly, I didn’t know if it was something I should make a noise about. I considered speaking with some of my female colleagues about my experience but then couldn’t muster up the courage and rise above my sense of shame. I chose to stay silent…
On another occasion, I was asked to go to Gurgaon to meet a well-known confectionery manufacturer’s marketing team. When I did my sales pitch, I could hardly focus as I saw the marketing head staring at me, if you know what I mean. I was quite furious and it took a lot of self-control to not walk out of the room. I didn’t share the episode with my CEO, as I didn’t want him to stop me from going for sales calls or worse, replace me with a male colleague.
The incidents are not unusual. Yet, I classify it as the pink elephant in the room. Despite India Inc’s best intentions on a good gender balance and bringing progressive policies – dealing with sexual harassment has at best remained a lip service. There is also a more implicit way that sexism is showing up – which is only now beginning to get some attention. The reason I am writing this is not merely to highlight the gaps and corporates’ casual approach. I am saying this aloud because I want to tell the female millennial on how they must be prepped to handle sexual harassment, and not just brush it under the carpet.
Here are some of the coping strategies I swear by when faced with harassment at work:
When you join any place read the sexual harassment policy completely. And speak up — no matter how trivial it may seem to you, don’t let things carry on. Forget about anybody else standing up for you –you have to do it for yourself. Remember, what you do today also means having an impact on many other women who will join the workforce.
Had I only made an effort to talk to some of my female colleagues about these incidents, in the months when I was new to my organisation, I would have realised that there are many others who have faced similar experiences! It would have made complaining to the ombudsman far easier. As men make time for networking and create bonds over cigarette breaks or drinks post work, get your sisterhood pacts going.
Dates, incidents, details. Jot them down. It comes in handy when you feel like it is all a blur. Gathering evidence is key. You will feel confident when you are articulating your complaint to the ombudsman or a panel appointed by the organisation which oddly has more men sitting on it than women!
For every bad apple, there are also as many good apples. My view is to find progressive and empathetic male colleagues who can help you deal with this with ease. An office grapevine does more harm than good to your reputation and it is wise to find friends who will speak up for you.
Nidhi Taparia is the founder of Kacima Digital. Having spent over 16 years in the corporate space, she has found her calling as an entrepreneur and frequently documents her views on India Inc.