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Rashmi was aware that the path ahead would be formidable; but she was determined to #breakthebias against herself as a working mom.
The whirl of laptop keys punctuated the silence at the office. The room was more spacious than the numerous rows of open-seating workstations made it appear. Eight people sat stuffed together in each row of work desks meant for six. In the hustle of making a living, people often went about their work not knowing or noticing the person sitting beside them.
On this otherwise typical day, Rashmi sat like a statue in her seat, disbelieving her eyes. She went through the list a third time, but the outcome was no different. Her name was indeed missing from the company’s annual promotion list.
Congratulatory shouts rang in the air as people greeted other people who had made the cut. She ignored them and walked across the aisle to her manager’s larger workstation.
“Why is my name missing from the promotion list, Shreyas?” she asked without any preamble.
“Rashmi, hi. Only employees who had worked for the entire twelve months of the year were considered eligible for a promotion. Since you were on leave for three months of the year, your name was not considered.”
Rashmi blinked. She recalled the late nights, the simultaneous multitasking between two demanding projects and several proposals, resuming work without availing her accumulated annual leaves, and the frequent accusations of working too hard by her husband.
“I have received glowing feedback on the projects I have worked on, both before and after my leave. Why should I be penalised for availing of three months of maternity leave? I was under the impression that performance is the sole criteria for merit-based promotions. Give me one performance-based reason for the exclusion.”
“Had we promoted you this year, it would have been unfair to the other employees who were available full-time; they would have complained. There’s no point in inviting employee dissent and disengagement.”
“And you see the point in compromising my career at the altar of perceived dissent because I took the mandated leave after giving birth to my child! Am I not an employee? Don’t my motivation and engagement matter?”
“Calm down, Rashmi,” Shreyas said nonchalantly. “You are making a mountain out of a mole-hill. It is just a matter of one year. You will get a promotion next year, if you are still here, that is. Honestly, I didn’t expect you to want a promotion, now that you have a child and have more responsibilities.”
Rashmi was flabbergasted. It was tough to be a working woman in the male-dominated corporate world. Now she was discovering that being a working mother was much tougher.
She walked out of Shreyas’ cubicle and went to the washroom, took a deep breath and splashed cold water over her face. She looked at the woman staring back at her from the mirror.
Cracking the entrance exam and interview process for the most prestigious MBA institute in the country six years ago was the easy part. The real struggle was fitting in as one of the only five women in the batch of two hundred. She had fought the perception in male-dominated groups of the inability of females to handle challenging quant and economics projects. Then as one of the few women entry hires in one of the most prominent consulting companies in the country, she had contended with the prejudice of being reluctant to travel at distant places and assigned demanding projects because she was a woman. She recalled her conversations with several project managers three months after sitting on the bench until one of them had staffed her on his project. She received excellent feedback and hadn’t looked back.
Two years after joining the company, Rashmi had taken only a week’s leave for her marriage to not disrupt the delivery of the projects she was staffed on. At least, that was what she told others. In reality, she didn’t want to risk being back on the bench and again stalking the managers’ bay to search for a suitable project.
She was a Senior Consultant after four years with the company. Others who had joined with her had all become managers in the current promotion cycle. She was the only one left behind, apparently for her choice of embracing motherhood this year.
After four years of working with the company, she thought that she had proved her capabilities and overcome the prejudices against a working woman, only for the stereotypes and biases to rear their ugly head again now that she was a working mother.
“No. I can’t sweep this incident under the carpet,” Rashmi said aloud to the image on the mirror. She hadn’t obtained a coveted management degree, secured employment in a Fortune 500 company, emerged as a consistent top performer in her tenure to be browbeaten by prevalent gender biases. She would call out the microaggressions encountered at work.
If not me, then who.
Rashmi came out of the washroom, but instead of taking steps to her workstation, she headed to the HR head’s cabin and knocked at the door.
“I am sorry, Shikha, to come like this. I am Rashmi from the consulting department, and there is something important that I have to tell you. Can we talk now if you are free? Else let me know a good time, please.”
“I recognise you, Rashmi,” Shikha smiled. “For an HR, it’s not difficult to remember the names and faces of the few women employees in the company. Have a seat, please. I have a meeting in fifteen minutes. We can talk till then.”
“No worries. Tell me what brings you here.”
Quickly, Rashmi summarised her conversation with Shreyas. Shikha raised an eyebrow as she ended her narrative.
“Shreyas should not have made that personal remark about your having more responsibilities after having a child. That is unacceptable. I will have a word with him.”
“A mere unacceptable personal remark, Shikha? I mean, look at the mindset here — there is so much bias and presumption in the mind of a senior person in the company. And I am sure he is not an isolated case. I practically had to beg all the managers to assign me a project after returning from my maternity leave. It was as if my last four years were forgotten because of my three-month absence.”
“But you got a project in the end, right?”
“That is not the point, Shikha. I should not have encountered this situation in the first place. It is the organisation’s responsibility to ensure that no woman employee does. And, I was penalised for a leave which I am entitled to by regulation. I would like to lodge a formal complaint about missing out on my promotion for this reason, despite being on the right side of experience and performance curve,” Rashmi insisted.
“I suggest you reconsider your action, Rashmi. Promotions and ratings are relative yardsticks for which our organisation follows the bell curve. Your name automatically came at the lower end of the curve because of the three-month absence. Your missing out on the promotion was entirely an objective decision. Shreyas was right in that way. As far as the regulation is concerned, you were paid your full salary during the maternity leave. Your increment percentage for next year will also not be proportionately reduced,” Shikha said.
Rashmi looked at Shikha with eyes wide and mouth open. She could not believe that a woman would so blatantly not support another woman. Was this behaviour pervasive in the organisation or limited to certain people?
Well, I will find out.
“Just because a flawed process is existing from the past does not mean that it should continue to be carried forward into the future. I am more surprised to see a senior woman leader not standing up for a fellow woman in the company. It is because of this attitude on the part of the senior leaders that working women end up making a choice between family and career despite all the enabling policy support and regulations,” Rashmi said.
“You have taken this instance too much to heart, Rashmi.”
“Why shouldn’t I, Shikha? It is a matter of my career.”
“How does one year matter in a long career? This was a good year for you on the personal front.”
“What difference does it make at work if I am in a comfortable personal space or not? You are stating what Shreyas said, in a subtler manner. Anyway, I am clear in my mind about raising a formal complaint about my missed promotion, and the words used by my manager in his reply. You can expect an email from me, with a copy marked to the company’s ethics and grievance committee and other senior leaders. I am interested to know their point of view of the situation.”
“Wait a minute, you are taking this too far….”
“Further,” Rashmi interrupted her, “I am not comfortable to be aligned to a manager with such a blatant gender bias. Would be putting a written request to change my performance manager.”
The gurgling noise of the AC was the only sound in the room for some time.
“Your choice. Be sure to make an informed one.” Shikha was the first one to break the silence.
“I know, and I have,” Rashmi said. “Thank you for your time.”
Rashmi exited the cabin and walked briskly towards Shreyas’ bay for the second time in the day. She wanted to apprise him about her decision requesting a change of Performance Manager, along with the reasons for the same, before sending out a formal mail.
Rashmi was aware that the path ahead would be formidable; her complaint may have adverse repercussions for her progression with the company. But she hadn’t laboured for her education and prestigious employment only to compromise on her self-respect one day.
I will start looking out and leave the company the moment a suitable opportunity comes my way. Until then, I will fight this unfair and inequitable mindset against women at work. It is time to change the perception of women being the weaker sex.
“Excuse me, Shreyas. I want to have a minute,” she said to her manager in a determined manner.
The story is partly based on an actual incident that occurred before the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 came into force. The mandatory maternity leave period was three months before the passage of the act, as against the six months in force today.
The protagonist in the story faced microaggression- the subtle and covert stereotypes, prejudices and biases that women encounter at the workplace. A 2019 report by McKinsey & Co and Leanin.org containing a survey carried out among 68,000 working women globally revealed that 64% of women experienced microaggressions in their place of work, making them feel less included and three times more likely to quit their jobs. The same report also highlighted that for every 100 male junior team members promoted to a senior position, only 72 women are promoted.
50% of women in India drop out of the corporate employment pipeline between junior and middle levels. Contrary to the perception of women quitting the workforce voluntarily due to family reasons, the real reason for this ‘flip’ in organisation structures is the microaggressive behaviour that women encounter at the workplace. The glass ceiling widens as one climbs up the corporate ladder.
Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...
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