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#MeToo India: Why Women are Not Each Other’s ‘Natural’ Allies at the Workplace

Image for representation. (File Photo: Reuters)

Image for representation. (File Photo: Reuters)

Think twice before automatically approaching another woman with a sexual harassment complaint.

You’d coveted the corner workstation for a long time, but even you hadn’t realized how much better the view was, how much more private it was. You soak it in for a minute before powering up your nifty new office Mac. An email from the boss. The higher-ups think that you are the best woman to represent the company at an all-expenses-paid conference in Paris. You quickly type an email to say you’ll get to work on the Visa. You delete a couple of exclamation points. You cannot appear to be too triumphant, but this is the result of years of sweat. Years of tears. The way things are panning out, another promotion should be yours in a year.  A grin fights its way on to your face and you pretend to yawn. 

Then you hear her. “Please, can I speak to you in private for a moment?” She looks lost and uncertain, her department store blazer sitting not quite right on her bony shoulders. She reminds you of you 15 years ago. You greet her and usher her into a meeting room. You always make time for your juniors. You sit across her and you ask her what is bothering her. She speaks. As you listen, you want to cover your ears and scream. Instead, you nod. You let her finish. You are empathetic. You hand her tissues. “This is terrible,” you say. You mean it. You know how she feels, you really do. You feel a flash of anger at your boss. How could he do such a thing? He should be fired. And then you think of the corner workstation, the Mac, the trip to Paris, the promotion. A change in management could undo all your sacrifices, your hard work. Besides, he never acted inappropriately with you.  He always gave you a leg up. You reach out and hold her hand, woman to woman. And then you say, “Just let it go. There’s no way you can prove it.”

The women who shield male workplace harassers are getting a lot of flak. But are they so different from the survivors who do not fight back against sexual harassment immediately? In my view, both sets of women may fall along the same continuum. Both sets of women are ultimately trying to protect their economic self-sufficiency and positions at work. While it is tempting to “judge” them, it is more important to understand the dynamics at play. Here's why.

The #MeToo movement is all about the power of collective sisterhood, but women are not necessarily natural allies in the workplace. Several of the stories that have emerged before and during this wave of #MeToo have illustrated this painfully. You have Seema Mustafa taking a position of willful inaction when approached by an agitated Ghazala Wabab  at the Asian Age office.   The woman who has taken R K Pachauri to court for sexual harassment has spoken about how she hopes to name and shame the women who were “complicit in allowing the atmosphere to breed crime”. Ex-Tehelka managing editor and avowed feminist Shoma Chaudhury came under fire for shielding boss Tarun Tejpal when a colleague accused him of sexual assault.  Former Indian Idol assistant producer Danica D’Souza has described how women seniors in the production house “turned a blind eye” to Anu Malik’s harassment even as they warned young women to never meet him alone.

In a Print article titled ‘#MeToo in India should not forgive women who enable patriarchy and rape culture’, Shivam Vij says “Women in positions of power are expected to not defend men who harass and assault women.” Unfortunately, this is not true. As many cases have shown, this is exactly what we can expect many women to do.

We see women defending abusers, we see women pretending ignorance, we see women dispensing hugs, we see women offering tips for self-protection—but what they have in common is their refusal to take action even if they have the power to do so.

So, why do some women enable or even promote misogyny in the workplace? After all, many of them believe in feminist ideals, don’t they? Are they just horrible people? Answer: No. They are human beings and it’s human nature to keep your own behind covered.

First, there is cold, hard economic self-interest. When allegations about a higher-up are made, a person who is approached for help—man or woman—will necessarily make some internal calculations. She will assess how the allegations being investigated could affect her. Has her immediate boss been accused? If so, what will this mean for her standing in a company? Will there be a change in management, upsetting the delicate organisational power networks and relationships she has created? Will she somehow be punished by her immediate hierarchy for taking the side of a subordinate? Will her hard work and economic independence be dismantled or compromised? In the face of this kind of calculus, “ethics” may take a hit. It is human psychology. It has been well documented in psychological research, such as in the famous “cookie monster study” that power can warp people and make them more selfish. Women are not immune to this.

Secondly, we live in a highly patriarchal and hierarchical society. We are all about the pecking order. Women have been trained and conditioned to be deferential to superiors, more so if they are male. Even if women identify as feminists, this training is hard to undo. A study in the Australian Journal of Psychology found that many women endorse “benevolent sexism”, where men are seen as protectors and women as weaker. Many women will idolise their fathers and husbands and it is unthinkable for them to put their ideals first—examples abound in the #MeToo movement with women such as Manjula Narayan, who has defended not only her husband CP Surendran but also her friend Rajat Kapoor. Mallika Dua and Nandita Das are vociferous feminists but when their fathers (Vinod Dua and Jatin Das, respectively) were accused of harassment, they changed their stance, roughly, from “I believe her” to “Let there be hard proof first”.

Similar dynamics can play out at the workplace too, with powerful men being looked upon as mentors, guides, protectors, father figures. Indeed, in India, we have workplaces constantly referring to themselves (disturbingly, in my opinion) as a “family”. And as happens frequently in real families, there is a patriarchal setup, blurred boundaries and “mummy” or “didi” making excuses for “papa” or “bhaiya”.

Therefore, when a woman superior is told about sexual harassment faced by a colleague, she might feel a measure of empathy. But this empathy may not be translated into active help for the complainant. As for Human Resources and “internal committees” for sexual harassment, they too are not necessarily trustworthy. The most infamous example of this is the case of Susan Fowler—known as the whistleblower who eventually toppled Uber CEO Travis Kalanick—who was not only faced sexual harassment but was persecuted by HR managers when she protested. Closer home, 13 sexual harassment cases were filed at the Film and Television Institute of India since 2010, but only one accused harasser had action taken against him. It is this kind of heartbreakingly common scenario that has spurred  #MeToo where the woman has no choice but to air her grievance publicly. There are often no real allies at the workplace.

But let’s say you want to give your organisation a chance to make things right before you start legal proceedings or go on social media to name and shame. Before you act, make sure you get some advice from your friendly neighbourhood lawyer about the sexual harassment laws and the Indian Penal Code if it applies. Document the harassment to the greatest degree possible (screenshots of WhatsApp exchanges, email trails, dates and times of incidents written down)—“I believe her” is not a common reaction to complaints, no matter what you hear on Twitter.

Before you approach any person about your complaint, remember the following:

  • Gender does not matter as much as self-interest in the workplace. That’s just the way it is.
  • Get into the shoes of the person you are planning to approach: could your allegations upset their power/position in any way? The person you complain to should not be directly affected by what happens to your harasser.
  • Never appeal to a family member if the accused works in the same organization as it will likely lead to a cover-up.
  • Try to escalate higher up the chain of command. A higher up is more likely to care about the company’s reputation and culture.  They also may be less likely to start a whisper campaign against you among your peers or try to initiate hush up the matter.
  • If you have a different head office or parent company, it’s better to complain there as the chances of vested interests and cover-ups decrease.
  • Are you one of the “lucky” few to have an internal committee at work for harassment complaints? Make sure you find out who the members are and ask the same questions I’ve outlined above. You do not want to be approaching any friend—man or woman—of your harasser even if they are on the internal committee.
  • Never sign any agreements or succumb to forced “amicable” resolutions.
  • Keep your wits—good old common sense—about you to meet your objectives. Don’t quit your job or your fight. You can beat the system.

And if no one takes you seriously? Type it all out and press enter—the online sisterhood, after all, can be so much powerful than the real-life one.