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The Disturbing Reason Women Continue To Tolerate Workplace Harassment

Editor’s note: This story is in response to Youth Ki Awaaz’s topic for this week – #WomensDay to start conversations on how we can achieve a gender equal society. If you have faced gender-based violence, sexism or misogyny, would like to propose policy reforms or write about what families, friends, workspaces and partners can do to ensure gender parity around them, write to us here.

Earlier this week, a former employee of Uber penned an article that generated a great deal of conversation both online and offline. Susan J. Fowler worked as an engineer for Uber and, less than two months after leaving, published an article on her site titled – “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber“.

The article detailed the struggles she had faced with “sexism within the organisation”, primarily focusing on her tangles with HR for calling out and reporting sexual harassment and discrimination she faced. But it also touched on the subtle variations on this theme including when she “asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers”. Yes, it’s 2017 and women are still being held to unfair standards that men are simply not.

The support flooded in on social media, with resurrections of the #DeleteUber hashtag and calls for the company to respond and act. The CNN reported that “[Uber CEO Travis] Kalanick said he had not known of Fowler’s claims. He said he has instructed the company’s chief human resources officer “to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.” Notable investor Jason Calacanis tweeted that the situation described by Fowler was “not acceptable” and Arianna Huffington (who joined Uber’s board of directors recently), also tweeted out her commitment to investigate the allegations.

This whole conversation at first made me sad and angry. Sad because even when you look at the amazing strides the women and gender movements have made in the last decade or so, the fact remains that very fundamentals are still lacking in our day to day navigations of life. Angry because far too many other women (in fact, arguably all) who have been a part of the workforce have faced this sexism in varying forms. It is subtle, sometimes overt, called out and often, ignored and stomached as an occupational hazard of being a woman – but it is there.

Like the response one Facebook status gave to the hashtag #NotAllMen: “Even though not all men hurt women, all women have been molested, raped or at the very least made uncomfortable by lewd behaviour and catcalling by at least one man.” Hands up if you have faced this in one of your workplaces!

Examples that have been shared with me include – if you were up for an increment/promotion don’t tell your boss you are pregnant or it will vanish, a general understanding that the women were expected to flirt a little if they wanted something done, superiors cornering you to try and kiss you, a qualified candidate being rejected for a position on the grounds that as a newlywed she was more likely to have kids and become a more of a liability than an asset. One person told me about official memos that were sent by management telling women to wear short skirts and makeup, sexual harassment from older MD’s that resulted in mental breakdowns and career slumps, and withholding of salary increments when they rejected superiors who propositioned them for sexual favours. This is just a small fraction of the responses I received in less than an hour of placing the request on my social media page, the total ran into pages and flooded in for days.

People tend to ask: “How and why do women seem to accept this misbehaviour?” The answer is years and generations of conditioning to accept harassment, fear of your career being stilted/frozen in what is already pushing against the odds, no action taken despite the emotional stress you put yourself through to call it out and fight against it, lack of options if you are forced out of the job (not everyone has a fall back or can afford to be unemployed) and being blacklisted as a ‘troublemaker’ within your industry.

We can ask women and people not to accept it, but the systems must be supporting of people doing so. Hundreds and thousands of women put up with this in workplaces daily, and they have no other choice. They need their jobs, and they need their mental sanity.

As for the how – the same way women are almost desensitised to the daily harassment in our lives. The same way women have existed for centuries. All the incidents shared with me that I touched on previously are ones that went unreported and unchallenged. When I asked why – all or some of the reasons mentioned above were cited. Nearly all of them also repeatedly asked me not to share their names despite my initial reassurance that I would not be sharing any identifying characteristics. This is clearly not a scientific argument – but it does show clearly that this is a problem. A large and reaching problem.

Now, why does all this matter? Why should we care about individual’s personal issues at work? Firstly, this is not, despite arguments to the contrary, an ‘individual’s’ issue’. This sits in a larger conversation about sexism; we can repeatedly see that the reporting of issues faced by people in the workplace compromise of a disproportionate number of sexual harassment/sexism claims by women. This indicates clearly how large or widespread the issue is.

Secondly, this is not good. It is not great. In fact, it is appalling that because of someone’s gender they are more likely to face this kind of discrimination at their job, and suffer all the consequences that go along with it. It is the radical notion that women are people, and we should treat them fairly because it is the right thing to do.
If this isn’t enough to convince, don’t worry I’ll give you a more quantifiable reason.

Fowler writes in her article: “When I joined Uber, the organisation I was part of was over 25% women. By the time, I was trying to transfer to another eng organisation, this number had dropped down to less than 6%.” Companies who become noted by women for being sexist and having unfriendly environments are alienating potential employees, thus, limiting the potential talent that will work for them making them grow. This also affects the workforce of a country as a whole; fewer women will be likely to become economically active which is a development issue for the country in its entirety. This is, of course, very simplified and is far more nuanced, but the point remains valid.

This is not an issue that is new or even recent; it has been going on for as long as women have been a part of the labour force.

Unfortunately, what will happen next is predictable – Fowler’s story will be ‘investigated’ and acknowledged as an issue as long as it remains a ‘hot topic’ and then as the heat fades so will the interest in fixing things for the long run. Women who continue to suffer all over the world will see this, see the hate that Fowler is being subject to along with the lauding and weigh up the worth of speaking and calling out what happens to them every day. Those who may have considered sharing their stories and create waves of their own will decide that it is simply not worth it as nothing changes until someone finally is brave enough to do so again.

And then we begin the cycle all over again. This, however, doesn’t have to be the story – it can and will change. What it depends on is individuals from all levels of society – CEO’s, managers, employees and co-workers and the small steps they take. After all, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.