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As the only ‘girl’, no one at work took me seriously. Here’s how I overcame workplace harassment, also making it easier for women who joined later.
Working women all over the world deal with a huge host of battles everyday at their work, workplace harassment that their male counterparts do not have any inkling of. This is a fact, and there’s no going around it.
I know that there are problems that men face at workplaces as well, and I do not deny these in the slightest. However, this article is about the challenges faced by women in workplaces, and does not in any way intend to demean or make light of men’s challenges. Remember, FOR women, NOT against men.
My first job after my post graduation was in a budding pharmaceutical company as an R&D scientist. For me, this was a huge accomplishment. To be a scientist and be an active participant in the development of drugs that will someday help millions of others, was an extremely fulfilling prospect for me.
For my company however, my appointment in the R&D department was primarily to, and I quote, “have a female presence in the department to encourage the male colleagues, to behave properly.” I am not even kidding; although I wish I was. Imagine my disappointment when this was one of the first things I came to know on my first day at my new job. I was not hired for my educational qualifications, technical knowledge or expertise, I was hired because I was to mother a bunch of unruly 40 year old somethings.
The second thing I came to know on my first day of the job was “R&D is not a field for girls.” There were about a 100 employees in the company at the time, and every second person felt obliged to come and inform me that I had made the wrong decision; that R&D is not for women, that I will be more suited to doing documentation and other ‘female oriented jobs’.
My enthusiasm for my newly appointed scientist self plummeted. However, I found that my resolve for owning up to this title increased. After much deliberation and self-doubt, I decided to ignore the increasing evidence of the clearly sexist workplace harassment and discrimination, and was determined to prove them wrong.
I realise now that I shouldn’t have had to prove my worth to anyone, that I should have just left and looked for another opportunity, but this was my first job, I was young and feeling cast out from something I was so looking forward to be doing, I felt frustrated, angry and cheated; and the only way forward for me at the time, was to ignore them and do my best; so that was what I did.
The equanimity with which all my male colleagues agreed that I would leave the job in a few weeks, was astonishing. Nobody, not even the people who had interviewed and hired me, expected me to stay. Perhaps it was for this reason, that the company login email id and password, which was generally allotted to newcomers within three days of joining, was allotted to me after six months, just prior to my confirmation. I saw new joiners, all men and less qualified, receive credentials, teams and projects, within weeks of their appointment; and I seethed fiercely at the obvious discrimination.
It took them six months to come to the understanding that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I was here to stay. It was such a shock for my superiors, that I was generously treated to the entire ‘this is not for women’ speech even while accepting my confirmation letter. I smiled through my consternation and teeth grinding. We will see about that, I remember thinking.
The overt sexism meant that I had to work three times as hard as anybody else on that floor, to ensure that I was being taken seriously.
In addition, surrounded by 20 male colleagues for 8 to 9 hours everyday, I had to downplay my femininity, if I wanted to be able to work in peace. I had to ignore the sleazy language my colleagues used to gossip about the other girls in the company, I had to choose to turn a blind eye to the unwanted, and grossly inappropriate behaviour of some of my colleagues towards me, and at times, I had to even cater to my superior’s egos in order to make them feel at ease with the offensive reality of my existence in their supposedly ‘men only’ workspace. I am not proud of it.
I remember pushing down my pain after lab accidents, I remember going into the bathroom and crying in silence, I remember looking into the mirror everyday, wiping off my tears, and telling myself that I would make it, that I was strong and that not one of these individuals was worthy of my tears.
I went on ahead working in R&D for 3 years. During these years I was the subject of ridiculous amounts of inappropriate workplace behaviour (which for some reason I was expected to take in good humour), a huge pay gap in comparison with equally qualified male counterparts, and outright hostility from colleagues and superiors for excelling at my work despite being a woman.
Well, I would have to say yes and no.
The upshot was that within one year, I was one of a handful of individuals, who was working on an independent drug development project.
Within one year, I had made my mark in the company as being smart, intellectually capable, hard working and extremely efficient at some much needed soft skills that others in my department did not possess. I was given additional responsibilities. I was doing the work of 3 people, alone, without supervision, and I was doing it extremely well. I came to know of compliments that were being awarded to me by higher management.
This was not surprising to me, I knew I was capable, it was their misconceptions that prevented them from seeing that. What did come as a pleasant surprise was that two years after I joined, the company hired three more girls as scientists in the same department. I was able to help them in dealing with the pressures of being surrounded by the workplace harassment dished out regularly by male counterparts, and empowering them to not allow anyone to cross any boundaries, no matter how trivial. I was able to also guide them along in their projects and to teach them the tricks of the trade. It was a feeling akin to pride when they got their email id and passwords within 3 days, and it was not a big deal at all. This was how it was supposed to be.
The downside was that no matter how hard I worked, it was never enough to quiet down the repetitive commentary of ‘because she’s a girl.’ Even my achievements were brushed under the rug, with the ridiculous assumption that I was being ‘allowed to excel because I was a girl.’ It was exhausting, physically and psychologically to have to prove my worth as a scientist; to prove that women are just as capable of being in this field as men are; some much better than others. It was this and many other seemingly insignificant (to others), abhorrent unprofessional incidents, and the continued workplace harassment that led me to leave this company behind.
I grew up in a family where education was the most important aspect of life, for my brothers and me. I grew up learning that a good education opened all sorts of doors and provided innumerable opportunities to explore. I grew up knowing that it was as important for me to earn my living, as it was for my brothers; that being a girl did not exclude me from having to live an independent, self-fulfilling life and being my own person.
Having grown up in that environment, and then being thrust into this alien world where women working in a particular field was somehow weird and strange and frowned upon, was shocking. Our education system does not teach us or even prepare us for this reality.
Even though I know now, that the work environment in my first company was extremely toxic and not at all conducive to personal growth; and that it cannot be used as a reference for all workplaces; that this is not the case in all corporations, and that there are many organisations where women do not have to face these issues; even then, I look back at those 3 years of my life as a transformative experience. My first company stands as a reference for me to know how bad things can get for women when faced with workplace harassment.
On the other hand, I know that I made a difference. My struggles led to a deeply positive change in my own life and in some of my ex-colleagues. I was, for a brief moment standing at the front of a battle and I am happy to know that in spite of everything, I gave my best and hope that I was able to help a few others along the way.
The fact remains that this workplace harassment is something that women face, all across the commonly male dominated workspaces. There are about a hundred insults and demeaning comments that women swallow and choose to ignore, just so they can do what they want to do, without being seen as troublemakers, ‘too sensitive’ or being pushed aside. And this is what needs to change. We need to support women working in male dominated workspaces, because they will open opportunities for other women. At the same time, companies need to ensure that the workspace is a free market for anyone who wishes to join it. It’s always good to have a women committee to deal with the problems women face, but that in itself, is not enough. Women in the workplace must be encouraged to speak out against harassment of any kind, to report uncomfortable incidents. Women and men need to know that there will be severe repercussions against such offenders, that their speaking out will not backfire on them and their jobs.
There is a huge scope of improvement in this area and it needs to be explored now. We cannot wait for more women to be turned away from careers dominated by men; we cannot wait for more women to suffer this ridiculously unnecessary offensive opposition and discrimination at workplaces. We cannot wait. Let us speak out, let us challenge these supposed norms and break the stereotypes. Let us empower women to work where they wish to and to be who they are.
Image source: a still from the film Aamhi Doghi
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