Sexual harassment at workplace, a lot of times, is hidden in the subtlest forms that are normalized under the tags of ‘work culture’ which includes ‘liberal views’, and ‘modern attitude’. Sexual harassment at workplace manifests itself in the form of mental and emotional provocation arising out of uncomfortable and sexually abusive incidents or acts. Patriarchal gender relations are tied to everyday workplace interactions and men possess the power to sexually evaluate women at every stage. Women, for taking offence, on the other hand are often met with surprise, disbelief, and utter disregard for their experiences. Most importantly, sexual harassment at workplace comes in many forms and it is definitely not limited to physical or sexual abuse only.

How I Experienced Harassment

In 2012, I started working as a copywriter with an advertising agency. From what I recall, most of my days at the agency were unproductive and I failed miserably at keeping deadlines, generating creative results, crafting good tag lines and interesting story lines a lot of times. I quit the job in a few months, but it took me almost two years, to realize what affected me to the extent that everything went downhill and my entire self-confidence was wiped out.

It began with the interview.

I entered my boss’ cabin and found myself amidst a very creatively done office room. I was guided to sit on the sofa instead of the chair, and then asked if I was nervous. He insisted that I smile to prove that I am not nervous. I wasn’t nervous until he said that, because I did not want to smile.

But I did, because I thought it was okay. Have we not always taught girls to smile when someone asks them to?

As the interview proceeded, I was asked to talk about my favourite advertisement. Legit, I thought, as I had applied for a copywriter’s job. After I finished describing, the unthinkable happened! He looked a little dissatisfied and said, “Can you dance and show me how she came running on the ground?” (Referring to a scene in the ad).

I was surprised as to how quickly I could calculate in my mind at that very moment the possible consequences of this demand – “Will I lose this job if I say no?” “Will I be considered ‘uncool’ and ‘unfit’ if I do not comply?” “May be this is how ad agencies work?” “Will I appear rude if I stop smiling right now and reject his demand?” “And how on earth do I start talking again without letting him realise that I have been thinking of all this right now?”

I responded with an anxious “Yeah sure, I can try” – delivered with a big broad smile, as if it was the best interview of my life.

I was offered the job on the spot but I remember coming out of the office feeling cold in my bones. What the hell did just happen? I admit I wasn’t sad but very confused. The realization of what had happened to me inside that room dawned upon me much later. But disturbing thoughts kept lingering for a long time.

I joined the office with this image of the ad agency world – that all this is okay.

I remember there were days when I did not smile on entering the office and did not produce any satisfactory results. On a few occasions, I was called inside and asked, “Are you tensed? What’s keeping you worried? Can you smile and relax?”

What’s keeping me worried? ‘THIS, Sir. This constant demand that I smile and look happy’, I wanted to shout; but instead I ended up giving a reluctant smile. Every time.

Knowing that my professional relationship with my boss was operating under strict power structures, asking me to smile meant that my autonomy existed only up to the point where I kept pleasing his virile penchants. It felt like he was the owner of my body, dictating me to show how I should be conducting myself in my workplace.

What I did not know then was that telling a woman to smile when she doesn’t want to – is harassment. It made me feel out of control and at times in danger. The pressures of male gaze on my body got etched on my self-image in destructive ways. My value at my workplace depended on my ability to adhere to culturally imposed standards of beauty and body language, which basically gave him the autonomy to treat me with disrespect and exert power on my conduct.

More followed.

One day, when I was perhaps at my unproductive best, he called me inside his cabin and inquired, “Are you upset? Worried about something? Don’t be so reserved, open up, talk to me, smile,”

I wanted to run. May be cry. But I sat there, letting his words fall on my ears and strain my mind.

And then he uttered this. “Leave your hair open, can you?”

I looked at him with utter disbelief, but felt scared to show how much I was burning inside. As I felt my stomach churn, all I could muster was an interrogative “Sorry?”

“No, just leave your hair open. You should look good, feel good to let creative thoughts enter your mind.”

I remember taking off the band from my bun-tied hair, and not meeting eyes with him at all. I quickly brushed my fingers through my hair to calm myself down and pull myself together. I was shivering, but I did not move.

“See? You look so good. Much better now. You can go, don’t tie it again,” he said.

In that moment of embarrassment, I felt extreme discomfort, coupled with anxiety about my job and my career in the industry. I walked out of the cabin, immediately tying my hair again, hoping in my head that no one saw me coming out of the cabin with my hair all open. This episode was the final straw, and every day I worked there after this day only furthered my frustration and anger. And yet for days after that, even months after I quit the job, I kept asking myself if I was overplaying all of it in my mind. Every day I felt increasingly confused because of my mounting anxiety.

But if anything, all those moments of anxiety made one thing clear to me – I had no idea what constituted harassment. I did not understand that my acceptance of a role that was fit for the whims of my boss came at the cost of my bodily autonomy. I did not realise that my performance, satisfactory or not, did not give him the right to intimidate me or scrutinize my body at any cost. But the fact that he called me inside the office and attributed my physical appearance and body language to my performance at work, and subtly coerced me into letting him control how I do my hair, how I feel about my body, how I walk and when I choose to smile – was all harassment. His concern for my performance did not entitle him to look at me and tell me to look a certain way. It did not entitle him to ask me to smile.

But he did the worst thing – He coerced me into internalizing and adopting that image of mine. And that affected everything – from how I felt about myself to how I felt about the world around me.

What We Must Remember While Tackling Harassment

Every form of harassment is extreme, unacceptable, and no less valid than the other – even if it is labelled ‘not as bad’ in comparison to other forms of harassment. Harassment in its elusive forms can be more triggering because the very recognition of the act as harassment comes with the baggage of proving thus to the world. It often involves convincing people that you are affected by the act – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Which means that people need to see it to believe it, failing to which, there are high chances you will be pushed aside with gems like ‘this is normal’, ‘don’t make a big deal out of it’, ‘It will make things worse for you’, ‘don’t overreact.’

No, it is not normal. It is a big deal. It is not an overreaction.

Calling it normal means disqualifying real, valid, disturbing, and triggering experiences of harassment and in turn gaslighting the survivor/victim about the harassment they have suffered. This is not merely about inappropriate behaviour by a boss with his employees, it is not just crossing of lines, and it is definitely not just a friendly advance to churn out productive results at the workplace. It is an act constituting clear abuse of power and dominance.

Many a times the victim/survivor ends up feeling uncomfortable with someone’s behaviour or action, but do not feel confident that it is a problem big enough for them to speak up. Harassment often begins with small unrecognizable acts – cracking sexist jokes and making suggestive comments in the presence of more men and lesser females, for example. These actions can escalate quickly and by the time someone realizes it is inappropriate, the reprimand time is already lost.

When I realized how humiliating it was for me to actually do a dance and get the job, to leave my hair open to show that I am still interested in the job; I also realized the uncertainty of the very moment in which I agreed to do it. It only becomes more difficult to comprehend because in the larger framework of work ethics and modern day cultures, this kind of harassment is still difficult to name. It causes women to fear for their bodily integrity and safety. Unfortunately, most of such experiences fade out because the victim/survivor has probably ‘survived’ the incident, and they are benefiting money-wise by being in the same space – so the bad experiences are rendered a thing of the past and lose importance over time. In other words, harassment gets disqualified.

Understanding the Complexities of ‘Work Culture’

What basically constitutes a ‘work culture’ is the organisational working culture, and this ‘culture’ largely shapes the definition of harassment in that particular workplace. Some places perpetuate the idea that certain kinds of sexual advances and behaviours are indeed desirable. A lot of women who are harassed are coerced into believing that their experiences of harassment are actually NOT harassment and that they are probably overthinking about what could be a friendly gesture completely acceptable within the ‘work culture’ of that particular workplace.

Speaking specifically of advertising agencies – it is a downright male dominated world. The pressures of working in such cultures for women means that they have to constantly feel the need to tolerate the  harassment prone environment to prove themselves fit for this ‘work culture’. It rejects the idea of consent, perpetuates sexist stereotypes, and blurs the line between being nice and harassing. It’s a space where ‘write drunk edit sober’ is the accepted norm, not to mention the potential scope for harassment it produces just by the act of coercing those not comfortable, into it – leaving them no other choice.

The culture is also highly masculine, filled with guy talks and bro codes. In this context, it is important to understand concepts like ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and ‘homosociality’. Hegemonic masculinity is a notion that privileges a single hetero-normative ideal of male behaviour over all other behaviours from all other genders. Men, and some women too, are seen mobilizing and activating masculinities which leads to the exclusion of other women and some men too. Hegemonic masculinities encourage exchanges of guy talks and bro codes between men. This is a homosocial continuum that is built around spaces like the ad agency cultures.

Men navigating this space celebrate camaraderie, promiscuity, consumption, and irresponsible informal behaviour. Young men resort to this world with probably no clear idea of what harassment means. In such toxic spaces, men achieve validation from their peer group for their actions and ‘talks’. Men create homosocial spaces in a hegemonic environment like the ad agency which leads to a derogatory and commoditized attitude towards women.

Women who suffer harassment realize at some point in time that their acceptance of the oppressive intimidating culture is both unfortunately necessary and absolutely self-defeating. Even after women recognize whether someone is in fact actually being nice or if their words are laden with objectifying undertones, they can’t do much about it in such an environment. With every effort towards confrontation, they are met with negative and belittling responses. But the truth is, these people do not understand the experiences of women or the fallout of those experiences.

The very tone, the setting in which it happens, the way it proceeds, the way it ends, the way scrutiny and surveillance become the norm for women – tells the woman that there is sexual power at play in this work culture. And that she is losing.

It is therefore important to understand what hostile environments mean, and how they work to perpetuate oppressive behaviour towards women. Unfriendly environments are often sexually triggering too because of a range of things – statements which are sexual in nature, comments on one’s appearance and clothing, staring and/or smiling in a suggestive and intimidating way, non-consensual and inappropriate touching anywhere anytime, physical or emotional violence, and much more.

An important point thus, for starting a discussion could be asking the following – How many women do we have in positions of power in ad agencies? And which women? Further, how many of them operate under patriarchy and act patriarchal?

The next question could be – In juxtaposition with what is said above, how much do women consume because of the influence advertisements have on their lives? Which women consume and which get excluded?

If anything, the under-representation of women in positions of power only contributes to an industry that is surviving on female stereotypes, false ideas of empowerment, and rock-solid male dominance.

It’s a cultural setting where women are coping with realities that are out of their control. The culture is filled with sexism that is far less obvious to recognize – it comes in the forms of micro aggression like getting coerced into not taking offence and laughing at a male colleague’s rather humourless and disgusting sexist joke, like having to bear with ‘sudden, unofficial, friendly meetings’ that end up happening at 12.30 am in the night with beer bottles all around – with the amount of work done being directly proportional to the number of bottles emptied, and indirectly proportional to the comfort it provides to some employees. 

Please note that I am not saying I do not recognize or acknowledge the element of fun that is involved in pursuing creative jobs and aspiring for creative team leaderships. Going to events and spending quality and fun time with colleagues can go a long way in building a trustworthy work environment. It can also be a booster, both professionally and personally. Which is precisely why I failed to reject these offers so many times. But the offers and my acceptance to it came with bolting up my emotions and anxieties to appear a part of the team. It was pure melancholy for me, and it saturated and depressed me to the extent that I started doubting myself for not being able to keep up with the environment, for not relating to their ideas of ‘fun.’

‘Not Your Shame’

Too many workplaces have zero implementation of sexual harassment cells, many do not redress complaints, and many are not operational at all. And yet I somewhere feel happy that spaces like social media have emerged where so many women, including me, have been able to speak up. The more complex stories we read or listen to, the better we understand how distorted the entire discourse around sexual harassment is – giving us a chance to work on it and making it more inclusive.

Writing this has not come easy. I read many stories of women online who have spoken about their experiences of harassment at workplace. I wondered for hours what it must be like for them to sit with a pen or in front of their screens and write it all out. I think about workplaces and the complicated relationships women share with them, and realize the importance of understanding those complications because everyone experiences the workplace differently. The only just way of understanding the workplace comes with listening to all the provocations against it.

I cannot stress enough on the fact that no survivor/victim is liable to any sort of explanation or justification for their responses or silence on the act. Every judgement passed on the survivor/victim puts their career in jeopardy, worsening the consequences they face. Whether a woman decides to speak up or not, immediately or not; her reaction to the act of harassment can never be judged, because there is no right or wrong way to immediately respond to harassment. Survivors/victims can be terrified, numb, scared, at loss of words, confused, or totally uncertain about what has happened to them.

And it’s fine.

It is fine because the shame of what has happened or what follows after it is never theirs. No one should have to walk in office everyday with this constant burden and fear. Because it is never their fault.


Featured Image Credit: Ursuline Magazine

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