Workplace issues and threshold

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The word “threshold” means brink or starting point for something or the level for a person. And generally associated with the onset of some stage.  Using this word to associate with sexual harassment at the workplace may seem a little out of place but nonetheless is very apt also.

Sexual harassment at workplace may not be very openly discussed but the thought of using threshold  to analyze our understanding of sexual harassment at workplace occurred to me after watching an episode from the legal drama series Boston Legal, where the  character  of Lori Colson nearly files a sexual harassment case against senior partner Denny Crane.  Denny had always been shown as pompous and over the top and a womanizer. Being a senior partner his behavior  was always accepted as normal and tolerated. But its not the case with Lori Colson.  But eventually Lori withdraws her complaint under pressure from another senior partner at the firm.

My analysis of reports on the  corporate world (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2013/oct/23/sexual-harassment-workplace-endemic-women)  and discussions with friends who work with women based NGOs made me realize that there are many shades and levels of harassment that we are not able to feel the existence of. We take many aspects of behaviors for granted and tolerate them just because we have been doing so. It’s not about the male gaze as such. When we don’t have specific female role models or mentors we don’t instinctively realize many things that happen to us until after many years of maturity.

Especially now when we have developed an obsession with youth and looks and achievements and women have more opportunities open to them. There is no stigma attached to women delaying marriage and children. Nonetheless, there is still a subtle yet insidious way in which the harassment continues and somehow its all the more demeaning. The old demarcations have definitely faded away but in its place we have the liberated young woman who can be approached and taken to be a willing partner in exploring more than just the job.

When one of my friends approached a senior manager from another team in her organization for a role in his team she was met with a surprising answer. She was clearly told that she wasn’t “visible” to him as she wasn’t taking pains to message, call and “whatsapp” him and clearly there were many others who did that very often. He also implied that he wasn’t sure if he could go ahead and call her on weekends if he wanted to and hence the positions were getting closed with other people. There can be two sets to female responses to this experience. One, where the woman just ignores it because no comments were passed on her, he had not approached for any sexual favors in return for the job and because he was plainly trying to be funny and friendly. But then, there could be some like Lori, which in my case my friend was,  and could see the blatant way in which he was suggesting that he needed that something to consider her for the role whereas he could have just said that she didn’t fit the bill.

But are we as women always ready to take every situation head on and deal with it? In most cases there would be no reaction but feigning of ignorance. And also acceptance of the same “ sexual harassment is endemic” and we cant do much about it response.. The point to understand is that harassment has always been about exercising your power over the other and its mostly gender based (male over female) but the outcomes should not be allowed to pass. With IT companies being so gender sensitive nowadays, sexual harassment should never be tolerated and nor should there be accepted patterns of behavior which are blatantly sexual and vicious in nature but tolerated or normalized. Many of us as women unconsciously adopt the female pattern of growth in our organizations- accept the motherhood and  gender (inferior) effect consciously or unconsciously and hence don’t question our situation and corresponding growth prospects. The way out is to speak up and fight against the stereotypes that are bound to come our way. It should never be a case of- why didn’t she protest when it was happening with her”? Or as my friend quipped-“ it should never be a case of – she never told me that she didn’t want it””. So lets not let that excuse make people in positions of power get away. If just protesting or rather speaking out our feelings helps then so be it. We will start from there.  That may be my threshold of a complaint.

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Quiver full of arrows

Sometimes a very negative experience turns out to be the most rewarding in the long run. It opens up amazing inroads and shows us the great possibilities that we had in life and never knew how to recognize.  The challenges that women continue to face in the workplace similarly make them all the more adept at handling their multiple challenges and the day is not far off when women will be appreciated solely for their work without attention being stolen by their appearance.  My friend recently faced a very tough and cruel experience at her place of work. Being pregnant she was not keen on travelling as much she had been for the organization.  This made her appear as unproductive to her boss who kept finding fault with her performance throughout her term and finally submitted a formal memo to her. This memo came just before her 4 month paid maternity leave. Meant as a blow to make her resign, it instead made her take her organization to court. From being someone who had unquestioningly put in more hours than all her colleagues, she had taken on the entire senior management. So she had become a liability as she was in the process of taking up the most important assignment of her life as a woman.

The observation of the career path of women does present hiccups and meanderings a little more than their male counterparts. Though many of us who work in software MNCs would vouch for the complete equality we have in our professional space, there does remain the fact that women do face more challenges and are not considered competent enough for leadership roles. Being the deal maker, smarter, faster and better than their competitors is still not appreciated in women. They get labelled as “aggressive” go getters.

My work on researching reasons for women’s attrition in my previous organization made me explore the discourse about the evils of women careerists over homemakers. Professionally qualified women still gave it all up to relocate with their spouses. And I also learnt that we had very few women in leadership positions. Women specifically face challenges related to the stage of their personal life cycle, assertiveness/ aggressiveness and incredulous as it may sound to you, age. Often enough many of the work domains are dominated by men and hence women are given the short shrift even if they have proved themselves to be careerists. But most times these particular experiences turn out to be preparation for the women for their more senior and plum posts.. A probation of sorts. Its akin to a quiver full of arrows in terms of the skills and attitude each of these experiences develops in them and the various ways they arm themselves to face the roles they need to play successfully. It did develop a new skill and strength in my friend.

In some cases identity crises sets in for women who tend to prove to be “not just men in skirts”. Communication channels generally get blocked or disturbed and their contributions are less fully valued.

But nonetheless, all these challenges shape you. Someone as high profile as Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) was not spared and called “robotic and stuck up”, “gender blind” and they clearly show the gender bias at work here in labelling her as such. But it didn’t stop her from taking many tough decisions as CEO. In fact, it helps to have these professional“jolts”early on as it makes one strong enough to handle people and top management issues later on.

Are there any specific mantras or experiences that churn out the best in people? We need to develop our own set of skills and strengths and not shy away from challenges or our specific weaknesses. We also need to maintain our originality as best we can and not forget that there is no fixed traditional pathway to the top. As more and more women join the professionals population there will be evolution in the way they are perceived. We need to decide what arrows we need in our case and how we can replenish the quiver as per the times.