Speaking Up About The Sexism I Encountered At Work As A Woman Government Officer

The author speaks of the all pervading sexism in Indian government offices, that is often taken for granted as 'normal office culture', and which needs to be addressed.

The author speaks of the all pervading sexism in Indian government offices, that is often taken for granted as ‘normal office culture’, and which needs to be addressed.

Now that it has been eight years since I have become a part of the bureaucracy and I am all set to climb the ladder of my career one step higher, I take a look back to these eight years of service as an officer of the Government of West Bengal.

All books on bureaucracy by men

I am currently working as an Assistant Commissioner of Revenue, Department of Finance, Government of West Bengal. I have read a few books on bureaucracy, like Bureaucrazy Gets Crazier: IAS Unmasked by M.K. Kaw, and a few books on foreign affairs by former diplomats, and the immensely popular novels of Upamanyu Chatterjee.

But one thing that is strikingly common in these books is that they are all written by male authors and therefore, offer a male perspective to the readers. This write-up is a humble attempt to offer a female perspective on the functioning of the bureaucracy.

“Don’t you think that office needs a male officer?”

I joined in the District Office of the District of Burdwan on one hot, humid day of March. I was very jubilant and excited to finally join the coveted job. For around one and half months, I remained attached to the District Office to get a first-hand exposure to the job. After that brief period, I was ordered to take the charge of an office on deputation. That particular office was quite famous (or infamous) at that point of time, and was labelled as a ‘difficult’ office, as the people were not supposedly very ‘co-operative’.

“But sir, don’t you think that that office needs a strong male officer?” asked one of my fellow officers to the officer in charge of the entire district, who signed that order of deputation.

“What else can I do? The Public Service Commission has sent two female officers only this time.”, he replied lamely.

I was too young and too naive at that time to protest against this overtly sexist comment. Hailing from an educated, middle-class, liberal family, my parents have never let me felt that there was anything different about being a woman. I had never thought that the adjective ‘strong’ is associated with menfolk only. I had never been told that when a situation demands to be handled strongly, a woman ‘doesn’t fit the bill’.

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So I first encountered the deep-seated gender bias only after joining in the job.

When the women officers were not served tea at a meeting

I attended my first official meeting merely a month after joining in the job. Quite obviously, I was a bit nervous. I attended innumerable meetings, conferences, workshops, etc. after that first meeting.

Looking back, what made me still remember that first official meeting was the distinctly different treatment we two lady officers received. Among some more than twenty officers who attended that meeting, we two were the only female officers. I still vividly remember that the peon of the district office, while serving tea to the officers present that day, deliberately skipped us, as if we two were some invisible creatures. I was surprised at that, as I had had no such prior experience. My fellow officer, who was my batchmate too, being a few years older to me and having prior exposure to government jobs, smartly summoned the peon and ordered him to serve tea to us. But he repeated the same mistake again, while serving biscuits. He most probably failed to fathom that we were officers too, like all male officers present there.

Unwanted overtures by the Block Development Officer…

Mr. A was the first Block Development Officer whom I encountered during the course of my service. Like me, he was also a fresh recruit, serving at his first place of posting.

One afternoon, a particular meeting was scheduled to be held at his chamber and I was required to attend the meeting. It was my first trimester of pregnancy. Just waking up in the morning seemed an uphill task because of morning sickness. I retched every now and then. Still I was attending office anyhow as I was new to the job and hence didn’t have much ‘leave’ to my credit. That afternoon, I had plenty of work in office and was about to depute a staff of my office to attend the meeting when he called me.

“Madam, are you coming to attend the meeting?”

“Sorry, I can’t. I have lot of work. Besides, many people are waiting here to get their work done. I am deputing a staff to attend the meeting.”

“But the Sub-Divisional Officer himself is attending the meeting. You must come.”

Now I had no other way out. The distance between my office and the Block office was merely ten minutes walk. Those days, the only vehicles available in those rural areas were motor vans. However, on that day I failed to find any motor van and consequently, I had to walk all the way to the Block office. I was feeling tired and nauseated by the time I reached the Block office and found that the meeting had already concluded. And no, the S.D.O. had not come to attend the meeting. So I was about to leave when the B.D.O. interfered.

“Please sit,” he said and ordered the peon to bring tea for us.

After few minutes of meaningless conversation, when I finally left his office, I realized that he knew all along that the S.D.O. would not come. It was just a ruse to get acquainted with a lady officer.

During my three-and-half years tenure, he called me on innumerable trivial occasions until we both got transferred to two different districts.

…and the Treasury Officer

Mr. R, the treasury officer, was young and energetic. I met him during the course of my second posting, as my office fell under the jurisdiction of his treasury. He would find mistakes in each and every bill of my office. Moreover, he refused to pass the bills unless and until the officer met him in person.

“You have a Madam, not a Sir. Right?” he would ask the bill-clerk. “Tell her to meet me.”

This nuisance continued till he got transferred to another treasury.

I have met many wonderful male officers during the course of my service life. But these two exceptions prove that some men do not hesitate to cast lustful glances at fellow women officers, even when serving in their official capacity.

The all pervading undercurrent of sexism

There are many government offices even today lacking basic amenities like a ladies toilet. Probably when these offices were built, people never imagined that women can work in these offices too. A lady officer posted in a rural area raises many eyebrows even today. The popular perception is that women officers, by virtue of their being more compassionate and kind, are less intelligent and less efficient than their male counterparts. Women in top echelons are few and far between, further contributing to a lack of understanding of women-specific problems.

Male dominated spaces

Work participation of women in India is extremely poor, just 22.5%, which makes places of work male-dominated spaces.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), out of 131 countries for which data was available, India ranks 11th from the bottom in female labour force participation (FLLP). In fact, the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data reveals falling FLLP from over 40% in the mid-1990s, to 29% in 2004-05, to 23% in 2009-10 and 22.5% by 2011-12. (Data Courtesy: The Times of India)

But I am hopeful that with the entry of more and more women in public services, the perception towards women officers will change for the better in the days to come. We are all eagerly waiting to see that change.

Image source: a still from the movie Newton

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About the Author

Swagata Tarafdar

An engineer by education, I am a civil servant by profession. A doting mother. An avid reader. I try my hand at writing as and when ideas tussle inside my head. read more...

41 Posts | 170,585 Views

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