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Just Another Sexual Harassment Story

06/06/2016 5:33 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Rear view of a businesswoman looking out the window at the cityscape in Beijing, China

The problem with a young woman, according to the HR chief, is that she is a young woman. His giant corporation does not have many young women, or for that matter, many women in senior positions. A reason perhaps why it has a very generous maternity leave policy for its senior management--there is only one woman in the top grade who may be fertile. And, in the corporation, women across the layers have to wear "modest" clothes, preferably sari, tie up the hair, and they must "never laugh aloud". If a college principal said this, there would be protests and placards, but when a giant corporation's HR lays down such rules, even the youth fall in line. About this, another time.

Despite the innate problem of young women, the HR chief approves the induction of a Young Woman. She is 29 and can speak many languages. She begins to work in the head office under a wonderful Mentor. Her job is to build relationships for her company with governments, universities and corporations across the world. She thrives.

The Mentor in the head office says many CEOs flirt a bit. "Harmless".

The giant corporation has a large subsidiary company, which has a new rockstar CEO, whom men in the corporation consider the Alpha. The Alpha is of a type--smart, articulate, suave, in his late-fifties and has a lovely second wife. One day when he visits the head office, the Alpha sees the Young Woman. They talk. In a few days she is told by the Mentor that the Alpha wants her to be his executive assistant. But she is not interested in that line of work. She wants to deal with diplomats, academics and journalists. That she finds more fulfilling. But the Mentor says if she joins the Alpha, she would be on "the fast track", she would be "in the big boys' club". The Alpha is persistent.

She meets him to negotiate the terms. She draws Rs 2.4 million a year in the head office, she asks for Rs 5 million for the new job. "You're so beautiful that you deserve it," the Alpha says, "But we can't offer you so much." They discuss work, which is challenging. He is very good at his job, she can see. But then he wonders if she would consider wearing a sari to work everyday. And her toes, he says, he likes them. He has a thing for toes.

She does not wish to work for him. But everybody tells her that it is good for her career. He is a superstar, drawing Rs 300 million. And he would not pass inappropriate remarks once she makes it clear to him that she does not enjoy them. The Mentor in the head office says many CEOs flirt a bit. "Harmless". Also, he says something about how there is a tide in the life of a woman that would take her to "the big boys' club". The Chairman meets her. He, too, conveys the bit about the tide in the life of a woman. Actually, it looks to her that she has no choice. It would appear insolent if she goes against the wish of senior management. So she begins to work for the Alpha.

Some days he only talks about work. One day, on the phone, he wants to know what she is wearing. Other days he tells her she is pretty and that it is fascinating how she rolls her eyes. She tells him that she finds all this offensive. He laughs away her protests. He is surprised that she does not enjoy his comments. She is very clear that she does not. He leaves his own room in rage. He sulks for days. She is suddenly isolated, not called to meetings, not given any work. But then, as suddenly, he is fine. She is filled with challenging assignments. Then he flirts, she asks him to behave, he sulks. This goes on for weeks.

She considers approaching the sexual harassment committee of the corporation but discovers that somehow the Alpha is on the board.

Finally he tells her, as though it is not evident to her, that he would like to have an affair with her. She says that is not going to happen. He says she has "low self-esteem". He is a successful man in love with her intelligence and she thinks he merely wants her body. He fears that she is going to discuss him with her friends in a bar and that they would laugh. And he sulks for a few days. Then he is fine and professional.

She considers approaching the sexual harassment committee of the corporation but discovers that somehow the Alpha is on the board. She approaches the corporate's governing board and confides in the most senior woman in the organization. The senior lady is sympathetic but she says, "Wish he was not so good at his job." But she agrees that something has to be done.

One day, the Mentor flies with the Chairman and in the middle of important matters he finds a minute to discuss the Young Woman and the Alpha. The Chairman is sympathetic. "Has he crossed the line?" The Mentor says, "No". The line, the Young Woman wonders, "is perhaps rape".

Finally, she meets the Chairman and tells him she can't take it anymore. The Chairman decides to move her. "Where?" she wants to know. No one has thought of that. Where can she be moved? Somewhere they decide. And they "move" her. She is sent to the back office, which is a condemned building a kilometre away from the head office. She is sent there with no job, no title and no land phone even. Also, she is not told what her new salary would be. Word spreads within the organization that she was probably "moved" because she was not very good. In a few days she quit.

She would be front page news, she would get justice, but she may never get another valued job in the corporate world.

She approaches lawyers. Some of them say they would not take a brief against the giant corporation. Some tell her they would but she must know that she would be professionally destroyed. She would be front page news, she would get justice, but she may never get another valued job in the corporate world.

Meanwhile the Alpha has turned around the company and he is more precious than ever to the corporation. She is at home with a lurking shame that maybe she had not fought enough to seek justice.

(The reconstruction of events in the article is based on conversations between the Young Woman and the author over several months.)

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