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These men imagined themselves to be pioneers working in the hygiene industry and acted as though they were subject-matter-experts, all the while cracking sexist jokes.
Working for a growing consumer products company was exciting. Nishi’s team was expanding, and she was hiring for the position of Assistant Marketing Manager. Once the interviews were done, she shortlisted a candidate and informed the HR manager, Kalpana.
“I would like to offer this role to Sanyukta. She has the relevant experience and has done very well in the interviews.”
“Nishi, I respect your views, but do you want to reconsider? There are male applicants too. This candidate is fairly young; she will get married and go on maternity leave in due course. Even if parenthood is far off, she will still have monthly ‘issues’,” Kalpana persisted, putting air quotes around the ‘issues’.
Nishi was shocked. “Our team is in charge of marketing menstrual hygiene products, yet I am the only woman in the department. Isn’t it time we bring in some diversity?”
“Don’t get me wrong; I am only looking out for you. Aren’t you aware of the debate around period leave and productivity? What if Sanyukta makes that an excuse? Who will do the work then?” Kalpana reasoned.
A woman dragging down a woman. The irony.
“It’s not the number of days she works for that is important; it is the quality of the work,” Nishi insisted.
Kalpana shrugged, and Nishi relieved that this conversation was over, returned to her desk. On the way, as she passed through the corridors she overheard a male colleague complain to another.
“Gosh, she was grumpy on the call. Do you think it is her time of the month?”
“Either that, or she must be PMS-ing.”
The men burst into chuckles.
These kinds of comments were quite common, more so because of the nature of the company. These men imagined themselves to be pioneers working in the hygiene industry and acted as though they were subject-matter-experts, all the while cracking sexist jokes.
There was a time when Nishi found these jibes offensive. When she raised this with a colleague, she was asked to live light and not make a mountain of a molehill.
Were the lines between humour and casual sexism blurred?
“Hi, everyone! This is Sanyukta!” Nishi announced to her team who had gathered for a review meeting. Once the introduction was complete, she got down to the presentations.
“Firstly, we will review the latest advertising campaign for Eezy sanitary napkins.”
Eezy was the company’s flagship brand.
Mihir, senior marketing manager, flashed the visuals on the projector. The brand’s jingle played aloud. The visuals showed a young girl wincing.
“Mummy, today is my cricket match and it’s one of those days. What will I do?”
The mother smiled and went over to her shelf, picked a packet of Eezy pads surrounded by rose petals, and handed it over to her daughter.
“No leaks, absolute comfort! Why should periods stop you?”
The camera panned to a pad, where blue fluid was poured in to highlight the absorbent tendencies.
The girl went on to play the match, hit a six, and waved to her mother. After the match, she posed with Eezy, a trophy, and a jubilant smile.
“Eezy gives me wings to fly.”
Everyone in the team clapped, and Nishi beamed.
“Sanyukta, do you have any inputs?”
The newest employee in the room seemed hesitant. She reluctantly shared her opinion.
“Ma’am I find it unrealistic. During my periods, on the first day, I can barely move. I have horrible cramps. Forget playing a match, I wouldn’t be able to lift a matchstick.”
“Ooh, lucky you. You can rest all you want,” Mihir sniggered.
“No uterus, no opinion!” Sanyukta snapped back.
Mihir coloured but remained silent.
Wow, that was a first, thought Nishi.
“Also why do we show the fluids to be blue? Why can’t it be red? Blood is red, right?”
Because of the stigma associated with period blood, Nishi thought.
The atmosphere in the room changed. The men were looking very uncomfortable.
“It will make it very gory for our viewers; like a murder scene!”
“It’s a natural process. Why does it have to be gory? Don’t you think it’s a mindset change that’s needed?”
“We are selling pads, not preaching!” protested Mihir.
“Sanyukta, what would you propose?” inquired Nishi.
“A more realistic campaign that doesn’t glorify a woman on a period. Let’s make space for a menstruating woman without making her a caricature or an inefficient hormonal mess.”
“Let’s park the discussion here; we will review it later.”
A month had passed; the team gathered yet again in the meeting room, for a review. Today, it was Sanyukta’s turn to present. She looked a little off-colour but was still doing a good job. She took the team through her slides. At one point, her calendar reminder popped up, with a period cycle reminder that flashed on the screen, along with the other slides.
Sanyukta had accidentally mixed up her personal and professional calendars.
Embarrassed, she shut down the notification, but the damage was done.
“Ooh, now I am afraid to ask any questions. The hormones will retaliate!” chuckled Mihir.
“Enough!” Nishi reprimanded.
As everyone left the meeting room, Sanyukta looked crestfallen.
“Hey, are you OK?”
“Well, my stomach cramps are killing me, and now the whole office knows that I am bleeding.”
“I have a painkiller,” Nishi offered. Sanyukta gulped it down gratefully.
“Ma’am, why is it a man’s world? Biology did us dirty, but social perceptions did us worse. A woman displaying emotions is hormonal, and not capable of leadership. A girl taking a break for a few hours to relieve herself of cramps is incompetent. And we wonder why the number of women in leadership positions is declining. And guess what? Menstruation starts with ‘Men!’”
Nishi was perturbed. Something had to be done.
“Team, I have been thinking and I would like to propose some changes,” Nishi announced.
The team groaned.
Nishi beamed her presentation. The title slide had an ‘IT’s NOT FUNNY’ inscribed on it in bold.
“What is this, Ma’am?”
“This is a Do’s and Don’ts slide that I have developed along with HR. Many of you have sisters, wives, or mothers at home who have their monthly cycles. You don’t call them hormonal, do you? Instead, you support them and help them with the chores. Right?”
Some of the men hung their heads.
“This slide deck has a list of words we can and cannot use. Casual sexism must stop! It is not funny to make remarks on cycles or be judgemental of pain. We will respect one another in this team and demonstrate empathy. Is that clear?”
Sanyukta looked at Nishi with pride.
“Additionally, I am proposing a change to our communication strategy. We will use red shades in our advertisements for Eezy, which will no longer glorify periods.”
A shocked silence ensued.
“Have you discussed this with the marketing VP?” Mihir demanded.
“He is very supportive.”
The team looked at her with disbelief. The idea was too radical for them to digest.
Nishi smiled. Many years ago, she had been a sales intern, posted to a remote rural location in an office filled with men. One day, she got up from her seat to find a big patch on her dress. She had been woefully unprepared. How could she venture out like this to buy pads? The Eezy factory and retail outlet were at least half an hour away.
That was when her boss, Afzal noticed her predicament. He offered her jacket, left on his bike, and returned with the pads. He was most professional about it, without a single snigger or underhand comment. When she had apologized and told him how embarrassed she was, he had just remarked that he had a teenage daughter at home; and he did this for her all the time. It was no big deal.
Today, Afzal still worked for the company, but was now the big boss, the Marketing VP. When she had bounced off the idea about making Eezy more ‘real’, he had been excited, and given her his approval.
‘The time’ of the month was not going to limit a woman’s productivity or take away from her, her achievements. If anything ought to be taken away, it was workplace sexism. Period.
Image source: a still from the film How Old Are You?
Lalitha is a blogger and a dreamer. Her career is in finance, but writing is her way to unwind! Her little one is the center of her Universe. read more...
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