For the first few years of my career as a journalist, I kept saying “no J-school ever prepares you for the real deal,” when, my J-school did actually prepare me for real life encounters at work.
There were times my class would see our Dean flirt with his ‘favorite’ ladies from our batch. These women were also seen babysitting his kid at college get-togethers. Inevitably, they were cute, slim, buxom. He had a type. And, everyone knew these girls would get the best placements, even though each of us was working hard to survive the competition. Sure, some of us were better skilled than them, and some of us weren’t, but it didn’t matter – the bar was already skewed.
When we think of workplace sexism, we think of harassment, of women being shut down before they can even pitch an idea. But, this — the use of a woman’s sexuality against her — is one of the most common forms of sexism we encounter at workplaces. A woman’s career graph does, often, depend not on her skills, but the preferred gender of her boss, or, worse, the fact that her appearance caters to the boss’s fetishes.
My first job right out of J-school was a roller-coaster experience. I have a decent career graph thanks to many opportunities that working in a big media company opened up for me. But, it left me with jarring memories of how comfortable corporates are with exploiting women.
My immediate boss was so obviously biased towards a female teammate that people from other departments noticed. But, that wasn’t such a problem because my boss’s crush didn’t crush our ideas and pitches. (Glass half full, right?).
Besides, it wasn’t the worst part.
On two separate occasions to my knowledge, women employees of the organization complained to top bosses that male team leaders were misbehaving with them. No action was ever taken against those men.
Not doing anything when a woman reports sexual harassment is against the law, in actuality. The Indian Supreme Court ruled in the 90s that sexual harassment must be reported to an in-house committee that every employer must set up. This group is supposed to check the veracity of the allegations and decide a way ahead. In both cases, the Head of Department (HoD) and Human Resources (HR) hushed things up.
Ah, the HoD. A friend and former teammate of mine once described herself as his “flavor of the month.” That, in a nutshell, is how he treated women.
When I joined, my team was just beginning to get out of a rut, and I was fresh blood. Things were exciting, and it was my turn to be the favorite. That was a great year, to be honest. The HoD or Mr. Super-boss, as we called him, liked all my ideas, and approved every story pitched by me. It was bliss.
But, in general, Mr. Superboss was famous for making shockingly sexist remarks. Once, reacting to early reports of Tehelka-founder and rape accused Tarun Tejpal’s arrest, my boss said with a booming voice and a wide grin: ‘No one understands the pain of a middle-aged man.’
He sat at my table and, as two colleagues watched, the man who was directly responsible for my well-being at work touched my thighs and knees. He even held my hand. I felt paralyzed; my mind stopped working, and it felt like I would throw up on his face.
A couple of years later, at an office party, I encountered a very plastered Mr Superboss in the smoking room. He commented on my “good looks” and repeatedly asked whether I was drunk. Even as I inched away, he moved closer to me. To top it all off, he slurred out, “why aren’t you dancing with ME tonight?” Nauseated, I told I never danced, put out my half-smoked cigarette, and left the room.
Later that night, at dinner, he sat at my table and as two colleagues watched, the man who was directly responsible for my well-being at work touched my thighs and knees. He even held my hand. “Why have you become so restless and such a rebel,” he asked as if concerned.
But you know what? After that first touch, his words were just mumblings to me. I felt paralyzed; my mind stopped working, and it felt like I would throw up on his face.
The next morning, I told a senior editor in my department everything. Only to be advised that I could file a sexual harassment report, but no one in the organization was willing to stand up to Mr. Superboss. ‘Vishakha Committee ki maa ki, aise kuch nahin hoga,’ the editor said to me.
I know it will remain my lifelong regret that I never tried to pursue a complaint against him. Instead, I quit my job.
At my second placement, the sexism is apparent to the point of being painful. Regardless of gender, many of my colleagues have felt its ugly repercussions. There have been times I’ve wondered if my position in office would improve if I started doing some “harmless” flirting with my boss, because, clearly, it didn’t matter if I knew my shit.
There is such stark pay parity in office that women with two years’ experience are earning half of a new male joinee’s starting pay package. When time comes for appraisals, every single woman in the team got between three to four percent increments. Meanwhile, some men — and never a woman — got mid-term pay hikes. These rises are not a coincidence, and they have nothing to do with the nature or the quality of work of both sexes.
Many women in my office are fiercer and more persistent journalists than the men. Still, I regularly see my editors shoot down original story ideas from women, only to pass them on to a man. Why? You’ll have to ask them.
I’ve had my own battles with the boss man. Hired with the promise of a particular work portfolio, I was mysteriously assigned to a trite job profile when I joined. Why did he think I’d be okay with this? Again, you’d have to ask him. But, it was like they hired me to help make a robotic hand for science fair and then put me in charge of adding baking soda to a makeshift volcano. I often wonder if the organization would have treated a man in the same manner.
Eventually, I decided to get out of here too and start working freelance. But, my next tussle had only just begun. Again, for some mysterious reason, my boss assumed that I would give in to pressure and choose one of the two posts he needed to fill. Neither of the positions was anywhere near the job description for which I signed up.
When I finally quit my second job, my boss stared at me for a minute. Our conversation went like this:
Bossman: “Look, I’m giving you two solid options here, are you sure you want to leave?”
Me: “Yes, but none of them are what we talked about right? These are all the openings I specifically told you I wasn’t interested in during our first interview.”
Bossman: “Yes, you are right. I don’t know why we hired you.”
At that point, I wondered the same thing. The Bossman had seemed annoyed with me even during my initial interview. He shared a bunch of incorrect information about a field we’re both supposed to know well. At first, I thought it was a test and started correcting him. I stopped when he started tch-ing after every 20 seconds.
The third fight came during my notice period. As I reconciled my attendance, here’s what Bossman told HR: “I can vouch for others when they take leaves, but I can’t say anything for her. I’ve never seen her at work.”
I could’ve lost a lot of pay. It was his word against mine. Only, it wasn’t. I proved him wrong using e-mails and text messages I sent to him. J-school did prepare me for life like I said, and I wasn’t going to whimper out of a fight again. I’m proud to say I did not lose a single penny of pay.
On my last day, the HR chief, who once sold me the organization as a writer’s heaven, “requested” me to write about the sexism in the team in my relieving forms. “The men who are sitting and running this place have no respect for us. I’m sick and tired,” she said.
Reacting to early reports of Tehelka-founder and rape accused Tarun Tejpal’s arrest, my boss said with a booming voice and a wide grin, ‘No one understands the pain of a middle-aged man.’
Once, many years ago, at a party, one of India’s most passionate, successful and admired female journalists was sitting next to me.
“How do you do it, ma’am?” I asked her. “How do you manage to trump a male-dominated industry?”
She gave me an important nugget of advice. “Just do what you want and don’t listen to anybody. Fuck ’em,” she responded smiling. She encouraged me to hold up my middle finger like she had.
I’m trying ma’am. I’m really, really trying.
This blog was republsihed from wayback archive