Sometime back, I joined a multinational company as a fresher. Our group consisted of several men and relatively fewer women. In spite of the skewed male to female ratio, from the very beginning, I overheard a slew of remarks about how the women had been selected only on the basis of their looks.
I would like to focus on two women in our group, let’s call them X and Y.
Y wore traditionally masculine clothes, kept her hair unkempt and was upfront and outspoken in her attitude. Defying gender conventions like this was, of course, unacceptable. According to the men in our group, women were supposed to like the colour pink and be docile and quiet. Thus in jovial tones they informed her that she wasn’t really a woman. Women, after all, weren’t supposed to be as ‘wild’ as she was.
X was conventionally beautiful and fashion-savvy. She was also exceptionally great at her job, consistently coming first in group rankings. This was too much of a transgression to tolerate and soon rumours began to circulate that she was ‘too close’ to the team leader. As freshers, all of us were permitted to get in touch with the team leader as per our requirement. But in the eyes of my male peers, any attempt by X specifically to seek advice from the team leader was tantamount to the poor unsuspecting man falling prey to her wily feminine ways, which she supposedly used to secure top rankings. What began as hushed murmurs soon spread like wildfire and in time, everyone on our floor was talking about it. Henceforth, X would be far less forthcoming in reaching out to the team leader.
Under the juridical authority of patriarchy, women are pronounced guilty either way. If they defy conventional notions of beauty and gender roles, they are accused of being ‘ugly’ or lacking the essence of ‘womanhood’. If they fit these very same conventions, they are accused of being frivolous and vain, and their very work ethic is brought into question.
Some months later, our group was invited to a party at a colleague’s house. It grew late, and a senior male employee offered to drop off X and two others in his car. The very next day, X described to us what had happened. The senior employee quickly dropped off the two men at their respective locations. After finding X alone in the car, the senior employee (already engaged to be married) asked her whether she was still single. Reasonably taken aback by this question, X felt exceedingly uncomfortable having to share space with this man throughout the rest of the journey.
However, once X had finished describing her experience, instead of reassuring her, most men immediately started defending the man’s behaviour. A narrative was thus created: X was making up this incredible story to defame and ruin the senior employee’s reputation. She was presumed to be guilty because the senior male employee was someone they had known to be a nice guy who couldn’t possibly engage in this sort of act.
“We’ve known him for years, he’s not that kind of a guy!” and “Think of the poor man’s career,” argued the voices in his defence. Ultimately, because word had spread around the floor, the matter was escalated to our manager. Our group, with the exception of X herself, was summoned to furnish details as to what had taken place. While a few of us spoke up for X, most within the group were silent, feigning ignorance. Regardless, our manager’s primary concerns lay with how such rumours may harm the senior employee’s career prospects rather than X’s well-being. In the end, it was decided that X should have been more careful before making such allegations and the matter was quietly suppressed.
The power dynamic between a new female employee and a senior experienced male employee is heavily skewed in favour of the latter. However, it’s not the power differential alone that allows such people to walk away scot free. The fact that most people within the group, when questioned on the matter, decided to remain silent speaks volumes.
It is this silence, which encapsulates our collective guilt. No matter how much we shout ‘not all men’, when we choose to play the role of mute spectator – a choice only available to us because of male privilege – we are indirectly complicit in acts that shame and silence women. Not only did X’s performance decline after the incident but she also became far more cautious in her interactions and eventually ended up, first, switching departments and eventually leaving the company. Other women, too, would be far less forthcoming in their complaints.
A work environment where gender bias is rampant has women practising constant vigilance, having to police their own behaviour lest they be told they are overreacting or making too much of a fuss. It not only keeps women from asserting themselves but has long term effects on their mental well-being, contributing to significant stress, anxiety, and low morale, as well as affecting their career prospects and chances of promotion.
According to a survey done in 2010, 88% of the women working in the IT sector in India faced some form of harassment. Behind the glitzy decor of the modern office, its liberal facade and lack of dress codes, lurks the same old patriarchal mindset that seeks to police women’s behaviour and punish them for overstepping boundaries.
Merely declaring harassment a crime is not enough. What good is a law if most women are not allowed to speak out, fearing repercussions? There needs to be a change in work ethic and working culture to hold male employees, no matter how highly ranked, accountable. There has to be greater focus on allowing women to have their grievances heard without the fear of their careers getting knifed. For male allies, it is twice as important they do not dismiss women’s complaints off-hand and instead listen to them and be ready to stand by them. Lastly, harassment committees must be readily accessible to all women employees and be able to take swift action against claims of harassment.
With the number of working women steadily on the rise, there is no excuse as to why the workplace has to be an environment where women feel vulnerable or threatened.