#MeToo in India: Speaking up against non-sexual harassment should be the next logical step for the movement

My mother, one of India’s first women cops, often tells me, “You are lucky. Things were harder when we were young.”

I am not sure if I am lucky at all. At best, I find myself hanging in the middle of nowhere. My mother’s generation at least had the hope of a change. And I am supposed to be the change. But am I?

So much has changed in India since my mother stepped out to work. But two things have remained unchanged — women’s lives and empowerment, and how the men control it.

In her time, it was controlled by her male relatives. In my time, it’s controlled by random males. And we are here because, despite the fact that more and more women are stepping out to work, it is still considered a masculine, macho activity. It is a system created by and for men.

Women in India are struggling to survive in the workplace. The reason they are dropping off the workforce in such large numbers — a 2017 World Bank report had found that in over two decades preceding 2013, female labour force participation in India fell from 34.8 percent to 27 percent — is not just because of unsafe roads and hostile public spaces, but also because of unsafe and often hostile work environments. We have learnt to tackle sexual harassment, fending it off from our childhood, but workplace harassment is a new bother for many Indian women.

 #MeToo in India: Speaking up against non-sexual harassment should be the next logical step for the movement

#MeToo. Illustration courtesy Namaah K for Firstpost

“In India, there are different stereotypes. Men are allowed to be dominant, while women are expected to be deferential. Women have to ensure they are authoritative but likeable,” says Joan Williams, founding director of the US-based Center for WorkLife Law. “If she is likeable, she is incompetent. He is assertive, but she is aggressive,” she adds.

“Men are judged on potential, women are judged purely on performance,” she says, but “in conversations and meetings, men are often given credit for ideas women had offered. Ideas are often overlooked when women offer them but are considered seriously when a man repeats it.”

At workplaces across the world, women are expected to be modest, introspective. Women have to walk the tightrope between what is traditionally considered masculine and feminine behaviour. And across societies, across cultures, across countries, (most) men have perfected the art of undermining and sidelining women who challenge them, and they get away with it as the system — including other women in the management team — is designed to protect them. “Some women join the boy’s club against other women and that makes workplace politics more complicated for women,” Williams says.

Certain workplaces are so toxic that women there undercut each other consistently, and it is not because they are “some nasty queen bees,” but that “there’s often room for just one woman at the top,” according to Williams. They are pitted against each in an extension of this same gender bias and emotional bullying.

For the Indian women, it is a doubly whammy. If their lives are tough at home, their lives at work are at best uncertain.

“In India, women have forces at home that makes their lives more difficult. Women are expected to put ahead the interest of their families as they did when they did not have jobs outside. They face a difficult time at home. The idea of a worker is someone who is always available. An ideal mother and an ideal worker do not align together well,” Williams says.

The gender bias women face at work, Williams says, is pretty much uniform in India as well as in the United States. Women have to provide more evidence of their competence, it takes longer for them to get promoted, they have to come up with more ideas to get results.

This is leading to feminism fatigue, at least, in India. Women are exiting silently, unable to handle the unfair demands on them at home and the harassment at work. Women are tired of putting way more effort than the men and then walking away with a quarter of the achievements both in terms of money as well as career growth.

“If you have to be twice as good, you will only go half as far,” Williams says.

I am surrounded by my women friends who are struggling to find jobs after being victimised by male colleagues or women employers, who willingly perpetuate this patriarchy to stay on in the game. In India, this is even more pronounced. Women bail on women in India. They bail on themselves, choosing silence over speaking out against abuses, their own or a co-worker’s. Our empowerment is so fragile, that we are forever walking on eggshells to retain it. The fear of losing it all is palpable, it is a hanging shadow over our hard-won empowerment.

How many times have you said to yourself, “I don’t want to burn my bridges?” I know, I have. Many a times.

After struggling to fit in, to stay afloat in my power and purely on the basis of my capabilities for 18 years, and achieving possibly just a quarter of my potential in my career, while investing the rest of my energy to fight back patriarchy, I no longer care about burning bridges. But I know many do. And that is okay.

Women are pushed around, mistreated in workplaces globally. And it needs to stop. We need to start telling our stories and telling them fiercely, and without fear.

As we stand at the threshold of a new MeToo wave, it is time to speak up about workplace bullying based on gender bias.

The journey won’t be easy or smooth. But it will be worth it.

Burn your bridges. It’s time to build new ones.

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2019 13:15:37 IST