By Shambhavi Saxena:
“As I was ready to blow out the candles on my cake, my male colleague commented, ‘Blow, Sonam, we know you’re good at it!'”
Writer and activist Sonam Mittal was shocked to hear this while celebrating her birthday at work, but it wasn’t the only time this sort of incident had happened at the globally-renowned non-profit she once worked at. She said, “When I put on weight, my colleagues used to whisper ‘Looks like she’s pregnant! Of course, she wouldn’t even know whose child it is!'”
Mittal, who went on to co-found The Spoilt Modern Indian Woman, has been fighting the issue of workplace harassment and sexism since 2014. The management at her former workplace had refused to file her complaints, and shamed her for taking so long to break her silence. And her harassers? Well, they walked around the office freely.
These and other such similar incidences are what plague the Indian workplace. For Delhi-based public relations (PR) professional Deepti*, sexism took the form of preferential treatment. “There was a lot of gender bias,” she says. “There were two guys who were favoured a lot, whereas when I was working very hard, I got no credit and no incentive, and it used to piss me off!” She also talked about ‘commonplace’ things like sexist remarks about her body being passed at work.
No matter what form it takes, sexism is not confined to the four walls of a physical office but such kind of harassment also occurs via SMS, email, social media, and during field work.
Meera*, a young researcher shares her story of working with an NGO in Uttarakhand: “I was very careful about not smoking in front of any other person, since it was not allowed where I was staying. However, a male colleague made this into an issue, and it is so because the younger co-workers would only invite me over for lunch and not him.”
Her colleague would often say things like “You drink and smoke. I know what kind of a family you come from,” and “Your liberal nature is not needed here.”
With more and more women coming into workplaces, the power dynamics between men and women are really being tested. Meera observes that it was her colleague’s insecurities that caused it all: “Me being a young girl and an outsider – doing better than he probably ever will – hurt his male ego and he used every possible opportunity to make up stories and snitch to my seniors. My going on a bike with a boy to the market was discussed casually when I came back to office.”
As the only woman among a team of 14 men, false accusations levied against her started to take a toll. “No one spoke to me once I came back to office. But I instinctively knew that everyone had heard something about me through him.”
A 2014 survey found that this kind of toxicity (characterised by ‘jokes’ like the ones above) has resulted in 47% of Indian women to feel extremely insecure at their workplace. And this has very real consequences.
“You may think yourself to be a strong-headed woman,” says Meera, “but a sexist environment makes a woman more conscious of everything she does – even though she may not want that to happen.”
For Meera, maintaining a strong attitude really did help, but some situations are worse than others. Mittal, for instance, found that she could no longer continue working at her office because such hostile conditions were causing her mental agony. And it’s not just her.
“I had an emotional breakdown,” says Deepti, who quit her PR job and had to go on a three-month sabbatical to recover from her experience.
Slightly similar to this is what Jaya*, a 20-something journalist from Delhi, went through when she was touched inappropriately by a senior colleague at an office party. “It left me feeling disgusted. I felt that the only reason I probably got this job and did well in it was because this guy wanted to make a pass at me eventually. I lost confidence in my capabilities, and it sent me down a path of acute depression.”
Shouldn’t there be some sort of mechanism to check this? Well, take heart, there is. In the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (2013) it requires workplaces to constitute an internal complaints committee to address issues of sexual harassment. Human Resources departments are also present to handle these situations of casual to extreme sexism. But this mechanism often seems to have failed than it having helped a complainant.
At Jaya’s workplace, prior reports of misbehaviour had been written off by heads of departments or Human Resources, which set a gloomy precedent. “My manager’s response sort of cemented my fears. That nothing will be done. He didn’t exactly ask me not to file a complaint, but casually said that he’s untouchable right now. So, I just chickened out,” she recalls.
Deepti also talks about why she didn’t take any action: “I felt that if I reached out to higher authorities, I would be shown the door. So, I kept mum.“
While this trend is discouraging, there is also another factor that prevents women from filing complaints, and for companies to be proactive in their response. It is a matter of realising that such hostile situations exist in the first place. “I used to think ‘shit happens’ without even realising that that was sexism,” explains Jaya. “Only after a few incidents scarred me that I started noticing the patterns of discrimination, stereotypes and objectification.”
Meera also did not file an official complaint but that was for different reasons: “I’m an outsider to this community, so I’m not trying to ruin any of the work being done here.” And luckily for her she has had a woman supervisor who was sympathetic. “She told me it was my personal life and I didn’t have to deal with this guy at all.”
Having even one person who is supportive towards you can make a huge difference. However, workplaces simply have to get smarter and more vigilant about handling such situations. The Bombay High Court has urged companies to actively create safer work environments for women and this includes holding trainings and sensitisation programmes.
Both Deepti and Jaya say there haven’t been any training programmes or workshop at their office, yet. According to Jaya, even the systems that are in place need an overhaul: “We need to ensure that any organisation’s Vishakha Committee is completely unbiased and that it does not have someone who can be perceived as a conflict of interest.”
While this is one way of ensuring a system of fairness there are other options too that working women exercise. For instance, Mittal decided to take things into their own hands. She set up a feminist NGO, named ‘Azaadi’, in order to address the institutional gap. The organisation will create toolkits to help employees address sexism and sexual harassment. So, while it is up to companies to have a complaints committee and a strong policy on sexual harassment, not everything can be left to the “processes”.
Jaya offers some sound advice, “First, don’t let anyone get away with sexism. Ever. Second, keep reading and watching stuff on gender equality. Third, don’t be scared to reach out for help. Four, if anyone advises you to ‘let it go, yaar!’ just NEVER take advice from that person again.” While it is true that women need to take tougher stance about sexism at their workplaces, our systems too must empower women to do just that. And that is a commitment we desperately need from our workplaces.
*Names changed to protect identity.
Image Source: YouTube
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