Unspeakable Inequalities: Everyday Sexism at the Workplace

by Anand Philip

We know that sexual harassment is rampant in the Indian workplace. While we are constantly made aware of these forms of gender violence, it’s rarely that we hear anything about the commonest kind- the everyday sexism of the workplace.

Here’s a list of various contexts and types of sexism faced by women in the workplace in India, curated from emails to me and tweets when i curated @genderlog a few weeks back.

This is in no way comprehensive, and the headings are just patterns I’ve noticed.

Entitlement

Shamita writes

In a couple of organizations I’ve worked with, I have observed that there are casual remarks made by male co-workers in my direction and sometimes in the direction of other female colleagues about how there are “no hot, young chicks in this company.” Like the reason we exist in the organization is just so we can be eye-candy for the men we work with.

In a recent conference about masculinities in South Asia organized by Prajnya, I saw films specifically shot to throw light on masculinity. One thing that stood out, from all of them was how South Asian male seems to have a sense of entitlement when it comes to women’s bodies and lives. There’s a belief that it’s the man who owns the woman, and that the woman needs a lifelong parent to make decisions for her. This is used to explain away things from who cooks, to physical violence.

Shamita continues
“Comments are made also in the direction of married women (like 30 years and above) about how they’re so old and like that is such a bad thing.”
This free for all scrutiny, as if it’s men’s birthright to make such comments about women’s bodies, and lives, and as if women owe it to men to be more attractive while at the work place. I wonder if such conversations exist about men, not that it would make this right.

Only men allowed

From my experience in medical colleges, there’s a clear bias against women doing what are considered the “manly” specializations. The entire orthopedic department of my college had two women doctors. Both of them were constantly talked about as being one of the boys. This was also observed and confirmed by others

Rohini, an IT professional writes

Some of this is paternalistic – Hard work is for the men, or don’t put women in ‘dangerous’ industries. Hidden in the language of being practical and caring, of course.

Some of it comes from workplaces never having been designed for women- by default everything’s designed for men, and with the entry of women into the previously men-only workforces, everybody’s got to confirm to that ideal male behaviour.

Stereotypes

Self explanatory tweets, I think. From blue’s for boys and pink’s for girls, to Gynecology is for girls and surgery is for boys, there are large and small stereotypes that are used to discourage, and make boundaries for women at the workplace.

Moral Policing

It goes by many names. Protecting women, protecting culture, safety, real-life considerations etc. but it’s all aimed at others owning the choices that women should be making for themselves.

Mansplaining

A particularly common form of sexism in which women, assumed less smarter, are spoken to like Sumi describes;

I routinely have men I interact with regarding academics state the blindingly obvious, beginning their diatribes with “Please try to understand…” or some such, and occasionally suggest that I refer to my own writing for further information. Of course, the reference material is never acknowledged to be mine, and, if it’s my blog, I’m generally given its URL. I assume that this is some form of mansplaining, although I’m not certain. I don’t always clarify, and the few times I have done so, I’ve not received an apology.

No one will marry you!

The worth of a woman, and her most important role is assumed to be that of a home maker, of mother and wife. She is expected to do as the society asks her to, because otherwise, she wont be able to fulfill her role, her greatest desire and achievement.

Suchi writes

House hunting: I was asked by almost every house owner for details of my marital status….Almost every house owner expressed doubts about my ability to pay rent without a husband in tow. Presumably because women are not expected to be financially
Job hunting: I was asked far more often about my plans relating to marriage, pregnancy and how I planned to handle child care than I was about academics, experience or competence; I’m reasonably certain that the same would not have happened to a man.

If there are a number of young-ish people in a store, and I show up wearing a saree on my way back from work, I usually wind up jumping the queue (against my will), with the shopkeeper explaining to everyone in earshot that I need to go home and cook. I’ve never made this claim to anyone. Also, this only happens when I’m in a saree.

A more detailed account of many of these can be found at the storify – http://storify.com/genderlogindia/everyday-sexism-at-workplace-india-edition

and as an offshoot of this tweet https://twitter.com/genderlogindia/statuses/406111048844853248

In summary, everyday sexism is a product of beliefs and systems that are so pervasive, we usually overlook them or explain them away as normal. But they are neither normal, nor to be taken lightly. The beliefs that lead to rape take root in the beliefs that lead us to mansplain, police and sterotype. It’s a spectrum, from “soft” sexism to physical violence, and it needs to be challenged right at the start.

***

Dr. Anand Philip’s Twitter bio describes him as “Your friendly neighbourhood GP.”

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