11 February 2021
Saumya Pandey // Pooja George
What would we do if we experienced harassment in our workplace, but others didn’t see it happening? We know from history that this happens. We also know about it because as women at some point it has happened to us. By asking nine early-career women from different walks of life, including ourselves, we examine what abuse in the workplace is like, particularly when it is too subtle to be noticed, deeply gendered, and socially embedded as normal in the work culture.
*This essay uses pseudonyms for several people to protect them.
The Skeleton Staff
Last year, I worked for a leading English daily in Kolkata. I had to interact with senior editors who were usually in a bad mood and had no scruples about losing their temper on the junior employees. Trainee journalists in my department were expected to familiarise themselves with this sort of work environment. I was encouraged to do the same. It was voluntary, of course, none of it was imposed. But it’s difficult to tell the difference when you’re new to work and continuously reminded that job opportunities are scarce.
Most of my co-workers were women. They took a lot of pride in it. Yet it never occurred to anyone to question why there was just one male figure who determined the kind of work atmosphere we would have in the department; who set the norm that newcomers should be scolded and not spoken to softly, a reminder unfailingly flagged during the departmental meetings; and who was entitled to scream at fellow workers, if the technology and the software were screwing up.
On occasions that I raised concern about this hostility with my immediate seniors — twice, I had broken down in tears — I received varied responses: this is how things function here; I should feel lucky that I have a job; stop crying; questioning seniors for the way they treated us was a mark of ‘insubordination’ on my part; and they had it worse when they were trainees. This was all part of ‘professional conduct.’ I was asked not to take it ‘personally.’
Translation: suck it up.
This is where the cycle of workplace abuse gained moral credibility in my office, through mild threats, conformity to aggressive behaviour, and the inducement of a pathological fear about the precarious job market. Coercion in the workplace seeps into our veins by evoking livelihood uncertainty. It ceaselessly penetrates our words, daily conduct, behaviour, and conversations with employees. It starts setting terms of how employees are then treated as replaceable by their employer.
It isn’t difficult to imagine that my seniors in fact had it worse when they were trainees. The cycle of abuse doesn’t spare anyone. In the past, the department had produced figures such as M.J. Akbar and Arnab Goswami. Akbar stands accused of professional misconduct by his former employees from the media companies where he worked, including formal complaints of sexual harassment by women workers — “Akbar was like a terror,” according to one of the employees. (Goswami runs a news platform with instances where his employees left because of the lack of ethical standards bordering on toxic competition.)
Even then, people are shocked when they hear that progressive workspaces which apparently speak truth to power can be abusive. The employees too are trained to believe that violence and abuse take place in the outside world, somewhere else. In fact, the frequently spoken about toxicity in the workplace towards junior female employees wanting to hold onto their precarious jobs, the expectation that they not turn the lens inwards to question hostile authority, privilege and power while being trained to do precisely that, is a direct extension of this banal thought process.
What happens in field stays in field
June* is hired for her ability to conduct interviews as a researcher. Any mishap in the field would be interpreted as personal incompetence. She works as an ethnographic researcher at a prominent human rights and social justice organisation in New Delhi. On one occasion, she had to interact with a man who openly shared his past record of molesting women with her. June was unable to voice this in her office. She was still in her probation period.
Women of a higher caste and class in June’s organisation did not have similar struggles. Her colleague who is an upper-caste woman once faced harassment in the field but didn’t tolerate that sort of abuse. Instead, she just said that she wouldn’t come to the field the next day. June explains that she would never have done something like that: it meant so much for her to have the job.
It is different when employees openly practice caste-based discrimination against those from Dalit (oppressed) backgrounds. Off late, some attention has been given to how upper-caste employees harass Dalit employees by seeking to know their caste, and questioning their credentials to be a product of India’s affirmative actions —academic reservations. Social Anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian, in her book The Caste of Merit (2019), writes about it: “As with the spectral targets of moral panics, the ferocity of the backlash against reservation thus obscures how favourable the conditions actually are for the upper-caste accumulation of wealth.” (p. 320) Yashica Dutta (2019), highlights the caste supremacy that pervades the American tech industry where upper-caste employees continue to uphold their misplaced sense of entitlement.
There are times, however, when not acknowledging caste hierarchy becomes a mark of not discriminating. Social organisations that spend hours dwelling over caste oppression, ‘intellectualising’ the problem, rooting it in the precolonial history of India, and providing policy recommendations to end discrimination somehow never extend this analysis to internal office matters.
A public image of high social and moral judgment gives some sort of impunity in internal workplace practices. What anchors the upper-caste culture deeper into these jobs then is the belief that work is neutral: employees are evaluated based on their ability — not caste. But the cost of excluding discussions about caste is that workers from non-elite backgrounds don’t feel confident to complain about harassment.
Sarah Ahmed notes that complaints teach us so much about how power—and its complete absence—operate. Sakshi*, a social worker doing fieldwork in the villages of Odisha, did not want to be judged by her co-workers for creating an impression that she was making a huge issue out of something that is very common, or looking for excuses to not work in a remote area. So, she did not complain when she saw a young man masturbating right outside her room. He was the son of the house owner. She didn’t tell her team members about it. It was important for her to demonstrate that she was the right fit for the job.
Taking up a job in a remote area and doing “hardcore” fieldwork on social issues is an inevitable choice for social workers, ethnographic researchers, and anthropologists. Early on in their careers, students of social work are taught in prestigious academic institutes such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences that grassroot-level work is expected from young professionals who are “serious” about driving social change.
In the case of anthropology too, write the authors in the opening paragraph of the Ethnographic Common’s latest series on Trial by Fire:
“Fieldwork remains the cornerstone of anthropology’s disciplinary identity. It is the essential ritual of initiation that allows for the conferral of the title of an anthropologist on an individual. Even as fieldwork is centered and endowed with almost magical properties, there remains a deep and, oftentimes, dark unknowingness at the very heart of it. We are told it cannot be really taught but rather just, somehow, happens; the discipline is full of anthropologists who boast of their splendid isolation and heroic travels in exotic lands away from everything and everyone familiar; the lack of individual mentorship and institutional support during fieldwork is considered a given by most; it is commonly described/ experienced as a ‘trial by fire’ ” (Rachel Douglas-Jones, 2020, p. 92).
What largely remains overlooked in support of meaningful engagement with the participants is the gendered nature of the field.
While avenues and professions have pushed for laws and policies that seek to protect women from sexual abuse at the workplace such as the Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, it is not clear how this can help the person employed as a fieldworker; the “field”, after all, is not seen as an extension of the workspace.
International organisations such as bodies of the United Nations also make the fieldwork component compulsory in their job descriptions during social work recruitment. In interviews for these jobs, and during work, female applicants and workers are asked by social organisations about the precautions that they’ll take to maintain a “low profile” in the field.
Ex-journalist Bidisha Ghosal, author of The Rape Trial, realised early on in her career that she had to be cautious with her body language. On particular assignments, she noted that she was being watched for ‘signals’. On occasion, she had to fend off direct overtures from the men she was interviewing. When her refusal wasn’t taken to kindly, she would have to manage anger coming at her, silent, bristling accusations of ‘how dare she refuse’. On a particular assignment, she also noted that the men she interviewed would rather speak to the male photographer, even though she was the one asking all the questions. Denying equal levels of professional comfort with male colleagues, she felt, became a hindrance to the job.
There is also an assumption that the researcher’s life isn’t as hard as the interviewees, Shannon*, a researcher at a prominent not-for-profit in Delhi, says, and so they should not bring their personal life and experiences to the table. Often, the nature of fieldwork itself is violent and exhausting. When the work requires the researcher to speak to people about their personal histories of sexual abuse, the researcher can also be triggered by these conversations.
There are no conversations that are initiated or interventions that are set in place around the emotional, mental and physical well-being of the employee working on abuse, which implies that such concerns fall outside the domain or scope of the workplace. Shannon finds it tiring to do research. And with no recourse to better working conditions, she feels that the only possible option or way to move forward is to push through.
Patriarchal Entitlement & Courtroom Negotiations
For Aisha*, a practising lawyer, there is a certain niche stereotype that you have to fit into to be taken seriously in this profession. Instances of sexual harassment are open secrets in courtrooms and lobbies, passed around through whisper networks.
Aisha explains that if she has to go to a senior advocate’s house to brief on a matter she can’t even begin to narrate the number of times she’s been told, “yeh aadmi theek nahi hai (this man is not right), don’t go alone”. Uncomfortable touching, accidental brushes, being surrounded by men and unsolicited eye contact have all become regular parts of the profession. She believes it happens to every woman.
I understand what Aisha must have to go through as a lawyer. I visited a courtroom to attend the hearing of a sexual assault case for my research. When I made my way to the crowded entrance of the criminal courtroom, all I could see was a sea of men; from the policemen guarding the entrance, to the criminals waiting to be summoned, and the lawyers in black robes chatting outside. I had dressed carefully that morning, keeping note of the fact that I did not want to attract untoward attention towards myself. And I was aware of my own positionality within the courtroom: both as an outsider and as one of the few women present in the male dominated space.
I wondered how much agency the complainant had when she was made to take the stand and recount her brutal experience in a room full of (male) strangers. The multiple forms of oppression and power relations played out within that space laid bare the masculine nature of the state and its institutions. Perceiving the courtroom as a site for patriarchy also complicated my understanding of justice.
As I left the room and stepped out, I was approached by a male lawyer who wanted to know who I was, where I was from and the purpose of my visit. I moved aside, only to feel the gaze of a man standing nearby follow me. It was difficult for me to come to terms with the sense of male entitlement and domination at an institution that had the authority to decide the course of justice. And while I had the choice to walk away since this wasn’t my permanent workplace, I wondered what female lawyers must face on a daily basis.
As Srimati Basu (2012) points out, the patriarchal power dynamic within the courtroom operates in an attempt to control and discipline women’s bodies in ways that automatically privilege the male members occupying the same space. Women have to dress carefully and behave in a certain manner, whereas men face no such restrictions. Surveillance then is a form of violence, where women are controlled in public spaces by expectations of a certain kind of social conduct and desexualised nature and appearance.
The ‘culture of compromise,’ (Baxi, 2010) that engulfs rape trials and the performatives in court room is an insight into the masculinist nature of the legal professions. It reminded us of what Wendy Brown argued in her classic 1992 essay, Finding the Man in the State, “the state can be masculinist without intentionally or overtly pursuing the ‘interests’ of men precisely because the multiple dimensions of socially constructed masculinity have historically shaped the multiple modes of power circulating through the domain called the state” (p. 14).
The things we do for safety
Kirthi, a lawyer and policy expert who also works with ‘survivors of gender-based violence’ agrees about the mental toll that the work takes on her.The everyday microaggressions and societal pushback that she has to deal with is emotionally draining and mentally exhausting to deal with – “You also come to realise that there’s only so much you can do and there is only so much that translates into meaningful stuff.” Very often there is a sense of loss and defeat. “It’s such a huge thing when you are up against undoing generations of gatekeeping.”
At the same time, she feels that the emotional and mental burden of the work is expected when you opt to work in this professional field. With no space to discuss and share the burden of workload and responsibilities, there is the implicit assumption that mental health is an individualistic factor arising from personal, individual experiences and no acceptance that it could also be a possible product and consequence of the workplace.
According to Spurthi, a feminist activist who runs the campaign #WomComMatters, women have to continuously keep themselves in check while fighting for rights because their safety is always under threat. She notes that there is a huge fear that tomorrow someone might arrest her for something she’s said or done. Even though she protests and campaigns, she doesn’t come from a powerful or well-to-do family and that itself is a huge fear.
Spurthi strongly believes that feminist networks play a huge role. Tomorrow if something happens to her, her family may not even have the money to fight for her but somewhere deep down, she knows that she will be safe because she has a safety net of lawyers and influential connections who will be able to help her out. It is not easy in this country to help and look into these issues, which as she argues is the major concern.
Most women we spoke to had not really faced sexual harassment in the workplace in the exact sense of the term. It is always difficult to draw attention to workplace abuse and misbehavior if it does not neatly fit into the category of sexual harassment. Yet these incidents of microaggression have implications for employees, reducing our sense of self-worth and confidence, determining the kind of agency we can exercise, the spaces we can access, and the kind of decisions we make. However, they get ignored precisely because they are “not as grave” as sexual forms of harassment, and the simple reason that they are legitimised is because they serve to perform a productive function for the workplace. Such notions reflect that while moral as well as legal outrage is limited to “sexual” violence, these forms give cultural license to other types of workplace misconduct and misbehaviour which are often gendered in nature. While it is difficult to pinpoint the physical instances of violence in many of these narratives, there is a realisation that violence undergirds women’s experiences and functions as a means to put them in their place when they have crossed the boundaries of the spaces they are permitted to be in. Not addressing or understanding both the apparent as well as subtle forms of this violence results in reproducing the very hierarchies of power that should be broken down to produce a level playing field.
 Refers to the provision in the Indian Constitution for reservation of seats for the historically oppressed communities in public-funded higher education institutions in India.
Ahmed, Sara. 2021. Apologies for Harm, Apologies as Harm. [Blog] Feminist Kill Joys, Available at: <https://feministkilljoys.com> [Accessed 1 February 2021].
Basu, Srimati. 2012. “Judges of Normality: Mediating Marriage in the Family Courts of Kolkata, India.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 37(2): 469-492.
Baxi, Pratiksha. 2010. “Justice is a secret.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 44(3): 207–233.
Brown, Wendy. 1992. “Finding the Man in the State.” Feminist Studies 18(1):7– 34.
Dutt, Yashica. 2020. “The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley” The New York Times (July 14, 2020). URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/opinion/caste-cisco-indian-americans-discrimination.html
Rachel Douglas-Jones, Nayanika Mathur, Catherine Trundle and Tarapuhi Vaeau. 2020. “Trial by Fire: Trauma, Vulnerability and Heroics of Fieldwork”. Commoning Ethnography 3(1): 91-116.
Subramanian, Ajantha. 2019. The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India. Harvard University Press.
Pooja George is a researcher currently working on issues of human rights, gender, and politics. She read Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford.
Find Pooja on Twitter @PoojaGeorge_
Saumya Pandey is a PhD candidate who divides her time between the University of Ghent in Belgium and the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway. She is also a Contributing Editor for the Society for Cultural Anthropology.
Find Saumya on Twitter @SaumyaPandey_