Names have been changed due to sensitivity of the opinions expressed
Standing up to sexual abuse/ harassment at the workplace against somebody in power can have serious consequences, right? All the same, it can have none! I voice my opinions in this piece out of personal experiences, although my confidence remains undaunted. Thankfully my #MeToo account doesn’t involve direct physical abuse, but was harassing and slimy enough to lead up to it.
Two years ago, I was working on contract in a renowned multi-national networking company. It was a 4-member corporate communications team and I was the only woman in the team. My boss, Satish R, a middle-aged, outwardly respectable, married man played mentor figure to all in the team and commanded respect for the same. He was also highly placed within the company as he reported to the Head of the department. In the initial months he would advise me not to be overly friendly with other male colleagues as most of them were rather presumptuous. I’m generally very chatty with people and make unbiased conversations, but I decided to pay heed as I valued his guidance.
Almost a year passed, my contract was up for expiry and it was time for Satish to discuss my conversion to a Full Time Employee (FTW). He kept dodging the discussion, until finally he set up a meeting in a secluded meeting room. The discussion started on a pleasant note with me presenting the body of work I had done in one year by virtue of which I sought to justify my conversion. He was quick to shirk off the performance review documentation I presented, instead he blatantly asked me how far I was willing to go to be converted to an FTE.
Given my high regard for him, I didn’t exactly understand what he was hinting at. I innocently said, “Sir, that decision is left to you”, and I meant in terms of working hard and taking on additional projects to acquire that much required conversion. But to my surprise he said, “You are a smart young woman who is coming across as ‘dumb’ to the top order bosses as you don’t hobnob with them. If I were you I would be conversing a lot more with the head of the department, Sudhir Kumar”.
Being a stranger to such situations, I refreshed his memory to a time when he himself had asked me “to put a price on myself” and not talk to too many people on the floor. He feigned ignorance and asked me to think over it and return the next week to resume discussion. Later that day, I narrated the discussion to an experienced female colleague, Tina, who had been working in the company for 10 years. She was head of the ‘Employee Harassment Committee’, and was cognizant of Satish’s past interactions with women who reported to him. Apparently he was a repeat offender, hand-in-glove with HoD Sudhir Kumar, who would make insinuations and obscene propositions to unsuspecting women employees. She simply said to me, ‘Why do you think there are no women in his team?”
After much consideration, I decided not to prod Satish about my conversion in the follow-up discussion. In pursuit of a pleasant exit from the company, I said I was considering relocation, to which Satish replied, “If you were a guy, I would hold you by the collar, give you a reality check and tell you, you b******d do you think it is so easy to find a new job, fend for yourself in this big bad corporate world in another city? It’s not like I am asking you to flash ‘cleavage’ in my face. I would recommend you think about talking to Sudhir and come back to me, meanwhile I will try to see what I can do about your conversion.” His choice of words and absurd outburst left me rather amused at first. But further examination of what had just transpired infuriated me and I decided to escalate the matter to the Head of the India office — Vikram Prasad — with whom I had often interacted over work-related matters. Vikram was initially taken aback when he heard about the ordeal.
He repeatedly asked me if there was a chance I was reading in between the lines, and if in fact Satish didn’t mean to insinuate anything sexually offensive. I stood my ground as I was convinced Satish meant exactly what I heard and understood. On seeing my conviction and realizing that if I were to in fact file a sexual harassment case against Satish it would go against the prestigious image of the company, Vikram mellowed down and gave me a piece of advise which, in retrospect, is applicable to the entire realm of professional choices. He advised me, that if I choose to go the whole nine yards, I could escalate it to Human Resources and be prepared to put Satish’s career on the line as it would be a black mark in his professional record. But he also asked me how I was planning to prove that the distasteful incident had in fact occurred, given that I had no witnesses.
At that point I began to understand my limitations. Vikram then urged me to consider the more calculated option. He said, “In any given arena of life we come across all kinds of idiots and unpleasant people looking to stunt our growth or take advantage of our vulnerability. However, the choice is ours, how much we allow an external source to control our reactions and our future.” He asked me to try and associate as far as possible with positive people who are a value addition to my professional growth rather than react adversely to the careless statements of an imbecile. Indirectly, he was asking me to peacefully exit the company without conflict.
That’s when it dawned on me that my case was weak and a repeat offender would walk free thanks to the loopholes in the system and reputations on the line. I was fortunate enough to find another job around the same time and I too decided to walk away from the imbroglio.
When well-known Hollywood actresses go on record and accuse a powerful director of sexual abuse, the whole world takes notice — ‘Twitterati’ go on a round-the clock silent protest by suspending their accounts and people wake up and smell the coffee– in this case extremely bitter. Yes, it took a Allyssa Milano, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Rose McGowen and even the likes of Brad Pitt to come forward and expose prominent American producer Harvey Weinstein in the dark hall of shame. It took all of 80 actresses’ (and counting) to come forward with their stories before rest of the world mustered courage to resonate on social media.
No sooner had #MeToo seen light of day on Twitter, even my personal Facebook page was inundated with the hashtag catch phrase with several friends of mine supporting the movement. Though the #MeToo campaign went viral only since October 2017 after well-known actress Allyssa Milano called it out on her Twitter page asking followers to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault using the phrase ‘Me too’, the term was first coined by social activist Tarana Burke in 2007 much before hashtags even existed. Burke created the ‘Me Too’ campaign as a grass-roots movement to reach sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities. She stated, “It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow, but rather as a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”
While it is commendable that this movement has now picked up speed, thanks to high profile involvements, ground reality is that ‘sexual abuse’ at the workplace is a common phenomena for thousands working in different spheres– women and men alike. But it often goes unmentioned because of fear of humiliation, loss of job, lack of action, and unwillingness to fight a bureaucratic system.
After my time at the networking company, I was told by former colleagues that my ex-boss Satish R, had been given a stern warning about his conduct and I had managed to somehow derail Satish’s perverse disposition. Colleagues applauded me for being bold enough to escalate the matter to the right authorities, which apparently made all the difference. However, the harsh truth is that predators like Satish exist in every system. Sexual harassment prevails in every profession in its own capacity and not everyone is fortunate enough to seize the opportunity to raise their voice against it. What’s worse? Even if you raise your voice against it, it may only be heard to a certain intensity and soon be forgotten.
I sincerely hope that the #MeToo movement doesn’t just die out as a viral campaign given high-profile involvements and the advent of hashtags.
Have you faced sexual harassment in your workplace by someone in a position of power? Have you raised an alarm against those people and what were the consequences? Is the current environment of rage against sexual offenders sustainable and strong enough to effect the desired change? Or do you think this will also be a rage only until the next big scoop is exposed?
Tell us in the comments section.
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