By Sushmita Pai
Six years ago, I joined an English language news magazine based in south India. It was my first job in journalism and I thought it was an amazing opportunity to start work at a national magazine, to be able to travel across the country and write long form stories including features and investigative reports. Within a few months of joining, I got the chance to write a cover story which later won me awards and I was extremely grateful to be working in an organisation that gave even newcomers such freedom.
During all my time there I thought that, mostly, good stories got their due. This, despite the patronising attitudes of senior editors because of which our story ideas could be dismissed very simply when one of the senior editors (most of whom were older than 55 years and all men) disagreed without much debate. But when I look back at my time there, what I remember, and remember with anger, is the organisation’s refusal to deal with sexual harassment.
A senior photographer in our Mumbai bureau often used to pass inappropriate remarks about women. During my first outdoor assignment, he asked me if I would like to be photographed. I wasn’t comfortable so I said no. Later, as we were sitting at the district collector’s office, waiting for the collector, he took my photo without consent. I noticed it and told him to stop and he laughed and stopped. I don’t think he showed me the photo but it was unsettling for me to have to deal with his behaviour while at work. There were instances where he made other inappropriate remarks like which colleagues “looked hot”, often in front of other colleagues and yet everything was treated as a joke. While none of us complained, the seniors never warned him or told him off. On some occasions he had said inappropriate things to people we featured in our articles. They were mostly non-celebrities who we featured because of their work. He told them things like, “You are so good looking, you should be a model.” These comments were often discussed by other colleagues in the office, not in front of him and not as inappropriate behaviour but merely as gossip. Even the bureau chief talked about it but the photographer never received a serious warning.
On another occasion, a colleague, a sub-editor, in a south Indian office replied with a, “That’s my gal,” when I had told him I would send him inputs on that day. We were peers and barely knew each other. I didn’t see why he should address me in this manner. This wasn’t harassment but the patronising tone from someone my age, on the grounds of his gender, annoyed me.
Then there was the office assistant who would sit in the reception after our receptionist’s shift ended. He stared unflinchingly at women in the office and most women in the office talked about how uncomfortable this made them feel. However, since he had been with the organisation for a long time and was otherwise friendly, none of us thought of complaining.
None of the incidents above may seem like much or like anything at all compared to the stories of violence and all-round creepiness at the workplace that we read every day; stories that media organisations like mine cover all the time. But what happened next convinced me that my office would not have been able to deal with any incident of sexual harassment, big or small, mild or violent.
In February 2016, almost four-and-a-half years into the job, I was a senior correspondent. I shared a good rapport with my bureau chief who often mentored me and encouraged my ideas. I thought I was in a position where I could be honest with my seniors and make a difference. I thought I should discuss my concerns with my bureau chief and I told him that we needed a sexual harassment cell and a gender sensitisation workshop in the organisation.
His reaction? Shock! He asked me what had triggered such a request. I told him while there had not been one single instance, I felt there had been various occasions where I was made uncomfortable and I thought a workshop could help men get a clear understanding of what sort of behaviour is uncomfortable for women.
Every organisation – private, non-profit and even government – was legally required by the 2013 law to have an “internal complaints committee” to deal with sexual harassment complaints. Despite being an organisation that was over a hundred years old, they didn’t have an internal complaints committee in 2016.
What my boss wanted to know was what I was up to. What incidents was I referring to? I told him these stories. I explained that these incidents were triggers and I’d prefer a platform to talk about them rather than treat these as complaints. He immediately called our news editor. The news editor’s response, I was told, was that he would “speak to” the sub-editor from the south Indian office, who didn’t mean any harm (he spoke to my bureau chief and not me directly but this is what I was told) and also the senior photographer I mentioned. My bureau chief on his part said he would speak to the office assistant and also argued that my colleague’s WhatsApp comment was not made to make me feel uncomfortable.
I could see that my bureau chief felt he had dealt with the problem successfully. In a day or two, I realised that nothing would come out of this meeting and my intention of having a grievance redressal cell was going nowhere. It made me feel frustrated and angry.
A few days later, I escalated the issue. I wrote a mail to the senior assistant editor of the magazine, who was a son of the managing editor and was from the family that owned the media group. I explained that “it is difficult for the reporting head to know how to tackle the issue [complaints of sexual harassment] and what is the right way to go about it. Also it is very difficult for employees to speak to their direct seniors about these sensitive topics. It is at times like these that female employees feel the need to have a harassment redressal or women’s grievance cell which should ideally be set up in a company with over 10 women employees according to law.”
I wrote that rather than a specific complaint, I wanted the office to form a harassment cell and a gender sensitisation workshop.
Next came, I heard, a flurry of calls from editors speculating about why I had written the email. My bureau chief called me to his desk to tell me that he felt betrayed that I had written directly to “the editors” without informing him. Once more, there was pressure to tell him who had “harassed me.” If I could not be produced as a ‘wronged woman’ what was I going around creating confusion about?
My boss’ first step was to call the office assistant. He was warned, told that there was a complaint against him and told not to sit at the reception any more. As far as I know the photographer was never warned or reprimanded. The only strict action by means of warning, was taken against the office assistant, who was at the lowest end of the hierarchy and was working on a contract.
Word spread that I had written a mail about sexual harrasment and I noticed that a few of my male colleagues stopped talking to me. These colleagues who wrote about important stuff like crime and security, and photographers I had worked with for over four years, never asked me why I had written that mail.
A female colleague was angry too that I, a junior, had the temerity to do such a thing and had asked another colleague, “Who did she think she was?”
Apart from a single male colleague in the office who was supportive, everyone else slowly started shunning me. Clearly they thought I could turn anything into a harassment complaint. They also stopped talking to another female colleague, a newcomer who was my friend, even though she had nothing to do with the complaint. I felt hurt but I was learning some cold truths.
Meanwhile my infamous email never got a response. But a week later, the HR manager arrived from headquarters to Mumbai to speak to me and to convince me that this was a sign of how seriously they were taking the complaint. He later gave himself away when he said he had to be in Lonavala for a training session. He spoke separately to our bureau chief, me, my friend and my other female colleague in the office. He thought that both of us had together taken the step to complain.
At some point while talking to him, I began to cry. I asked him why I was being made to feel like an accused in all of this? The HR manager told me that the company did not perceive me as an accused and he tried to broker peace between me and my bureau chief. My bureau chief assured me that I was not being singled out or treated differently by him and that he had told no one about the complaint.
But the truth is that things had changed. Before my complaint, each of us in the bureau went to the bureau chief to discuss story ideas and give updates. After the incident, whenever I went to speak to my editor, he called the female receptionist into the cabin which seemed like he wanted a witness. I found it humiliating that my request had been interpreted in this way by my bureau chief who had been a mentor till now. He had told other colleagues that I was “rebelling” against the organisation.
Meanwhile, there was still no action against the photographer. All everyone wanted to know was if there had been an “incident.”
I wanted to tell them again that there had been no incident but what we have is a culture of misogyny and casual sexism. The editorial team of the magazine – including the editor-in-charge, news editor, deputy news editor, resident editors and even managing editor and senior assistant editor – was full of men and many of them were working past the retirement age of 60. There was not a single woman in the senior editorial team apart from the deputy bureau chiefs.
I remember multiple instances at bureau meetings when senior editors passed insensitive comments about serious issues related to women. On one occasion, I suggested a story idea about how family planning methods in India were overly focused on women using them. This story is being widely covered now as female sterilisation (36%) is the most commonly used method of contraception while male sterilisation (0.3%) remains the rarest method of contraception used, as reported in the National Family Health Survey (2015-16).
The editor’s ‘joking’ response? To tell us that he made his wife conduct a hysterectomy. The story idea was dismissed like his wife’s uterus.
On 13th March, I saw a notice on the bulletin board among notices about holidays, attendance etc, “We have formed an internal complaints committee as per the provisions of Sexual Harassment at Work Place (Protection, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013”. The notice appeared a few days after I had sent a reminder.
I had a moment of pleasure but then I looked closely. The notice did not have an email id nor the address of the committee members. The office wanted to send our complaints not anonymously but via Personnel and Administration department (The law says the woman can write to the internal committee to complain). The committee was formed as required by law but there was no move to address the issue in the true spirit of the word. No committee in all administrative offices as required but only one at the headquarter. No mail to all employees, no sticking of the notice prominently in the office. As per the Sexual Harassment Act, it is the duty of the employers to “display at any conspicuous place in the workplace, the penal consequences of sexual harassments; and the order constituting, the Internal Committee under sub-section (1) of section 4;” also “ (c) organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitising the employees with the provisions of the Act and orientation programmes for the members of the Internal Committee in the manner as may be prescribed.” The organisation failed on all these counts.
Sexual harassment is often looked at in terms of incidents and not as patterns of behaviour that make women uncomfortable, which is why I had been insisting on such a gender sensitisation workshop. There was no word on any workshop. Also, they could have dealt with the situation by taking me into confidence and making sure the company complies by the law but what was done was just a half-hearted measure without addressing the issue of sexism in the news room.
Things never returned to normal. My relations with all my colleagues remained strained, especially with my bureau chief. Though I did consider quitting at this point due to the stress, I decided that since I had done nothing wrong, I wouldn’t quit.
A full four months later, I found another job and resigned. By the end, I left the company in not good terms, disillusioned with my seniors who I respected before, discouraged by my efforts that I felt hadn’t made a difference and more cynical about the world than before. The whole incident shook me up and I felt for the first time that the veil of hypocrisy had been lifted and I could see sexism, misogyny plainly in the actions of my colleagues.
A few weeks ago, I heard the same photographer had passed lewd comments about another female colleague. Déjà vu.
This was the trigger for me to write about what happened when I was in the company. Not that I should need a trigger.
What really makes me seethe is the fact that every year the magazine does cover stories about feminism, about the strength of women but fails to acknowledge their own sexism and misogyny. I want to call out the direct and subtle sexism that exists in many old media organisations, especially in family-run ones where loyalty often beats merit and what is right.
Till media organisations start by looking at their own practices with honesty and transparency, they have no right to preach to society.
The author’s name has been changed.