Trigger warning: Mention of invasive messages from boss, workplace sexism and online harassment
When my boss first complimented me on my WhatsApp display picture, I only replied with a simple, formal “Thank You.” However, soon it became a habit. I must confess here that I have never been shy in front of a camera. Like most people belonging to my generation, I have a stack of profile-picture worthy photos in my gallery at all times.
I like to upload pictures on social media. However, when my boss started telling me things, like – “Who is that supermodel in your DP?” and “Bengali women look so good in sarees!” – a grave discomfort crept into me. Initially, it did not bother me so much, except for a little itch in my fingers, to tell him that it was none of his business. But soon, the discomfort grew on me.
I stopped uploading pictures, blocked him from seeing my statuses on WhatsApp, and consciously tried to ignore any text outside work that he would send me. I looked up online to understand if I was being prey to online sexual harassment, but the definitions were far too specific and, therefore, bewildering.
None, almost none of them, would fit into the jigsaw puzzle of my discomfort, yet, here I was, sitting with the itch in my fingers growing more and more persistent with every passing comment.
The pandemic brought our work life inside our homes, and inevitably blurred the boundary between what we previously liked to differentiate as the personal and the professional. Since last year, there have been too many reports on the surge in the number of cases of online sexual harassment.
Someone asked me “How bad can it get when you are not physically present with a person?” Well, it gets as bad as feeling threatened, upset, and sexualised, among other unnerving feelings, for starters. I decided to talk about this with a fellow colleague of mine, and both of us ended up developing a sisterly bond over how uncomfortable the behaviour of our boss was making us.
The closest example I can think of to describe this feeling is that sense of ghastly recognition watching the Netflix series Sex Education, Season 2, where all the female students in detention bond over non-consensual male attention.
Since we were a small team of workers, our boss had ensured that work was no hassle. All of us, team members, made friendly exchanges within the team, both over WhatsApp and email. We worked hand and glove on weekdays; and on weekends, we sometimes caught up with each other over video calls.
It was a safe, remote workspace – except for my boss, who did not stop at complimenting my WhatsApp display pictures. Work talk, or work updates, sometimes started rolling into conversations like “What are you doing so late at night?” I particularly recall him behaving harshly, to the extent of being rude, when I chose to mention my romantic partner to wave off his advances. (I am a 21st century woman, who still has to bring in my partner into conversations so that I don’t get hounded by my boss online. How much worse can it get?)
As more and more team members started opening up in confidence, about his behaviour, I took mental notes of the number of times we tried to defend him with adjectives like whimsical, harmless, and crazy. I kept asking myself – Can these adjectives really counter the knot-around-the-throat feeling that all of us experienced around him?
In India, according to the Information Technology Act, 2000, any person sending any kind of obscene material in the form of electronic media is to be charged under Section 67 of the Act. Telling someone “You look very beautiful” too often cannot exactly be termed as obscene, even though it might cause a lot of uneasiness to the receiver, can it?
A few more weeks down, I proposed to my colleagues to speak out against his behaviour, after one of our group meetings. I realised, everyone was afraid to do it. They told me that his behaviour was not uncomfortable enough to give up on the job, or lose the goodwill. So we worked till the end of our term, silently grumbling at our boss, distancing ourselves from him as much as possible, and quit it at the earliest opportunity at hand.
I am sorry that this story has no powerful positive message to make your day. My days at work made me realise that while everyone is pitching in and championing the rights of women and their empowerment, when it comes to the workplace, sexism, misogyny, and harassment are not yet a thing of the past.
I also understood that online harassment is a murky ground, and while for legal purposes it only makes sense if the term is neatly defined, it actually covers a really broad base, with implications varying from one person to another. I was in a position to stand up to it, privileged with the knowledge that I will always have my pen to speak the truth; but what about those who cannot write or speak for themselves?
While more and more work tends to penetrate into the private space of our bedrooms, is there a renewed need to carefully define the politics of comfort and discomfort, or at least recognise the need for it on virtual media? Perhaps, there is. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable putting up a WhatsApp display picture in the future, and you should not as well, and none of us should have to compromise upon this desire just because we are afraid of our boss and their sugary compliments.
Ahendrila Goswami is a postgraduate student in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She likes to work in creative content curation and editing. When she is not busy jotting down her opinion, she can be found performing cooking experiments in the kitchen
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India