At work, I’m the only woman at my level. It’s turned me into a terrible person.
By Shivani Kapoor
I have to admit that when I proposed this piece, this wasn’t quite the headline I had in mind. This one came to me in a moment of inspired confusion – that wretched moment when you know in your heart and your bones that you’re not wrong; but there’s a sea of silent accusing faces, making you wonder, despite yourself, if you’re really making a bigger deal of things than you should. Or need to.
When I told The Ladies Finger I wanted to write this, I was in the early stages of an explosive rage…As I write it, I’m feeling the inevitable numbness one feels after Round 2,43,788 of a battle that refuses to be won. You know, the kind of rage that builds momentum as the week progresses and ultimately results in one of those showdowns that you just know will come up during appraisal week. “Ahem, there’s one more matter to discuss,” He will say quietly. “I’d like to know what happened that time…”
I say ‘He’ with such certainty because, statistically, if you’re employed in India, there’s an 86 percent chance that your boss is a man. One moment’s silence to let that disturbing statistic sink in.
But, back to the point. Here’s what happened that time:
“Get the fuck out of my face, you talentless piece of shit,” I yelled at him. “Chutiya samjha hai kya? Ghar pe jaake apni gaand mein danda daal itni khujli machi hai toh. Samajh mein aayi baat?”
I see him go pale, flinch and recoil. I can see the wheels of his brain churning, weighing the pros and cons of back-answering. He decides against it. It’s a lot safer to just make some lewd comments to his friends at lunch tomorrow about my neckline or hemline or midriff or thighs or…oh, it doesn’t even matter, I’m sure he’ll find something. They will all guffaw like cretins and return to work, ego restored to all its pre-insult glory. Rinse. Repeat.
I’m not going to get into the nuances of the exact sequence of events that led to the expletives. They’re not important. Did he deserve it? No, obviously not. No one deserves to be spoken to like that by their seniors or bosses. I was completely out of line, I know. And yet, I’m hard pressed to feel even a smidgen of guilt. I’m also fully aware that if the roles were reversed, and it was a male boss abusing his female colleague like this, it would be an unmitigated HR and PR disaster for the company. So did I abuse my “position” and “power”? I did reflect on that when I had calmed down (somewhat). What purpose did those profanities really serve? Because I know myself well enough to know that they don’t come to me naturally. Even today, after all these years of existing in a culture where disturbing swearwords are used to express anger and endearment, equal parts, I still have to pause, frame a sentence, insert choice gaalis in it and only then vocalise them. It is a cumbersome process and yet I find myself doing it oftener and oftener as I inch up the ladder. So why do I do it? Because often, especially for women, courteousness is considered a weakness. A tell that she doesn’t have the guts to ‘man up’ and do whatever it takes to get something done. A few coarse words filled with homophobic bias that put all my rainbow-coloured Facebook DPs to shame can achieve that. How fucked up is that?
(Still not feeling any guilt, btw.)
Before I answer that question, let me explain the dynamics of the aforementioned position and power.
I work in an advertising agency. A pretty important one. We win awards. We push the envelope. We innovate. We inspire, apparently.
We have two major offices with about a hundred employees. And we have a staggering total of four women, both offices combined, in senior positions. By ‘senior’, I don’t mean CD, VP or GM-level, of course. That’s a boys-only club, and dogs and women are not permitted. That’s not to say that we don’t have women in our workforce, but they’re all, you guessed it right, on the client servicing side. You need pretty faces to sweeten the deal when you’re billing a client for obscene sums of money, you know? These aren’t my words, mind you. This was said in jest (of course) by one of the top guys at a party. And his audience dutifully chortled and proceeded to get even more drunk. That’s just how advertising works, is the lesson that’s been drilled into us for as long as any of us can remember. I’m the only senior woman in ‘Creative’. By itself, that fact is not very surprising.
But here’s where things get a little more interesting: Our agency? Almost 90 percent of its business comes from selling to women. And I don’t mean products that women only make purchase decisions about, I mean products that women use. Products that only women use. Like, say, sanitary napkins. And I’m the only senior ‘creative’. On some days, when I look around the conference room while brainstorming for the next campaign and the next pitch, this fact literally makes me want to go to a corner and weep. Obviously, I’m never, ever going to actually do that. Because if I do, I’m probably on my periods and hormonal. God forbid that a workplace be inflicted with women who dare to feel strongly about anything without swiftly finding an explanation to trivialise it. If said explanation lends itself to tired, unfunny jokes, so much the better.
So I soldier on. Day in and day out, I listen to shitty and sexist crap about what encapsulates womanhood in the enlightened opinions of a bunch of men whose only aim in life is to win a Cannes Lion and measure it against their cocks. Sometimes, I fight like a raving lunatic; even when I know that I’m going to lose, I still have to try. Sometimes, I’m too tired to care.
Speaking of the Cannes Lions, I tracked the festival pretty closely this year – after all, there were a record-breaking 31.5 percent women on the jury. And I watched, with mixed feelings, what I creatively consider a moronic campaign win a Glass Lion for making a teenager touch a jar of pickle while smiling a creepy smile. Sure, I was happy that they were breaking a cultural trope; but pickles, really? Of all the things they could have tried to change, a woman’s right to “touch the pickle” was deemed the worthiest? Of course it was. Because it keeps a woman precisely where we, as a people, are comfortable seeing her – at home, in the kitchen not making trouble or changing the status quo in any discernible or substantial way. Not to mention looking ridiculously proud and abnormally self-actualised for having touched the silly pickle. The condescension is breathtaking.
And that is how advertising really works. A very senior industry-wallah, whom I formerly greatly admired, recently told me that women’s empowerment sells isliye ghussa do usko thoda thoda pitch mein. Thoda thoda. Just enough to get the Facebook likes and the Twitter hashtag trending, but not enough to start any kind of intelligent or real conversation on a forbidden subject.
Sometimes I yell because, several times a month, I have to stand in a boardroom full of men and talk about my bodily functions and fluids; this, in a country where the female genes have all but mutated to accept that we must, at all times, pretend that we never take a shit or let one rip; and more often than not, there’s not a single pair of female eyes in the room that I can look into for the understanding or empathy that can only come with shared experiences. That’s a very big ask.
And so I yell. Because if I don’t, I’m going to be swallowed by the corrosive sexism that surrounds me for 14-16 hours a day. I yell at people who don’t deserve it because I can’t understand why they Just. Don’t. Get. It.
I yell and abuse because sometimes the only way to be heard is by being ‘a man’. And that, really, is the reason why I’m so damn pissed off all the time. Here I am, a woman in an industry that desperately and urgently needs more women to halt the tidal wave of testosterone that goes hysterical over touching pickles and maa ke haath ka khaana/kapde dhona, and the only way I know to survive here is by routinely silencing all my instincts – actually listening to people instead of waiting impatiently for that second when their mouths shut so I can open mine and start gabbing; empathy; the ability to communicate displeasure without screaming out obscenities at ear-piercing decibels, and, in this context, being a boss instead of constantly feeling the need to show who’s the boss. There are moments when I catch myself with the very attitudes I detest, subscribing to the very philosophies I promised myself I wouldn’t, and drawing on the privileges that I told myself I’d try to change.
Those moments shake me up, scare me witless. Because I realise that sometimes, and increasingly so, I forget to transition back to the woman I used to be once upon a lifetime ago – assertive, but not aggressive, not abusive, and definitely not a yeller. In those moments, I have to admit I hate men simply for being men.
PS: We don’t actually advertise for any brand of sanitary napkins. Something almost as intimate, just not sanitary napkins. I’m still trying to keep my job, for some bizarre reason.
The writer’s real name has been changed at her request.