I was not straight out of college; I already had a few years as a professional behind me. I had had the opportunity of meeting a lot of people in various professional settings and saw how their true selves reflected through even in a sanitised professional world. So when I found myself at the receiving end of a subtle but dogged sexual harassment, I didn't write it off as a figment of my imagination, I knew exactly what it was.
I was required to make a two-week long trip to the headquarter offices in the United States, as was custom for most senior positions in my company. After a few discussions on the dates, I asked the sole woman working in the administration departments to make bookings for the two-week slot.
Just an hour later, I saw another senior management colleague (let's call him Mark) walk a few seats past me to go to the admin and ask her what dates I was booked for. He asked for his trip to also be scheduled for the same dates. It wasn't unusual for people of different departments to have synced their HQ trips, to attend common meetings together, so even though this did strike me as a little odd, I didn't make much of it. Mark was about a decade older than me, married and had kids. We were in different departments, and our professional interactions were limited to a few meetings and related discussions per week. Mark and I were the only two India office visitors to the HQ that fortnight.
He coolly said, "ah, I thought you'd want to come up?!" I was shocked and could just manage blurting out a meek 'no'.
The US office was in a historical suburban town. It was a serene and a beautiful suburb, with a national park, several biking trails and nature walks around, but also utterly lifeless. The next big city was 30 miles away. The first two days of the trip were uneventful and simply boring. The office would be drained of people by 5:30 pm sharp, and the shops in the downtown area shut at 6:00 pm. I had previously only travelled to the big cities in the USA, so I had no idea how dull and isolated the suburbs would be. Unlike the red carpet welcome that would be given to HQ visitors in India, with a fleet of cars at their disposal, a chockablock evening calendar with people taking turns to take them out for dinner, drinks, shopping, touristy trips, there was no such arrangement at the US offices. All 'catch-ups' would happen during office hours.
Unwilling to go solo, I asked Mark if he wanted to make a quick evening trip to the big city nearby (30 miles away) and we could head back immediately post dinner. I wanted to walk around downtown, the city centre, and soak in as much history as the long summer hours would allow. I insisted on quick dinner because the thought of entering an already dead town at a dead hour gave me the heebie-jeebies. We cabbed it back to the hotel at a decent hour, maybe around 9 pm, and while heading up, he got the lift button but didn't press for my floor. I immediately reached and pushed the number, which was a few floors before his. He coolly said, "ah, I thought you'd want to come up?!" I was shocked and could just manage blurting out a meek 'no'.
He had had enough time to browse through my recent chats and was looking up my emails, flight and cab booking details of the weekend.
The next morning we ran into each other at the tiny buffet area for breakfast. We piled up our plates and awkwardly decided to eat at the same table. He asked about my weekend plans--I'd made bookings to fly down to visit a friend on the East Coast-- and unasked went on to tell me his plans, "I am going to go to this beach city nearby, it's supposed to be quite an experience, I hear". I refused to ask him what exactly was he trying to convey by that 'experience' bit. After breakfast, I walked to the reception and asked them when I could deposit my luggage for the weekend; they were upgrading my room for the week after. Out of nowhere, Mark suggested, "You know, you could just hand it to me, I could safely keep your luggage for you." I didn't even know he'd been overhearing my conversation with the receptionist, leave alone the fact that he thought it perfectly suitable to offer such a ridiculous and overreaching solution. "No Mark, why would I do that? No thanks, no", I said, and I was visibly pissed.
I waited for him to be out of earshot and went back to the reception and blurted out, "He is not my husband (I don't even know why I said that!). He and I are not together, we are from the same office, but that's that. So when I deposit my luggage with the front desk, I will do so with the trust that you will not allow anyone else access to it. Please make a note of this, and let your team know." They probably weren't going to do that anyway, but I just wanted to be sure. I was creeped out. The weekend came and went, and Monday morning we were at the buffet area again. I took a table in a quieter corner, and Mark thought it perfectly okay to join me. I was texting my friend about my safe return to the hotel, got up to get a coffee and returned a minute later. I looked down to pick up my phone and finish my text. Despite the identical phone models issued to all of us, it didn't look like my phone! I pressed a random button, and the screensaver wasn't mine. It wasn't my phone. I looked up at Mark, and he was casually browsing through my phone. He'd probably been doing that for the last minute or so. "What are you doing with my phone?", I asked him. "Oops, no wonder I'm so confused, all these names seemed totally unfamiliar. I kept wondering who are these people!", he chortled, trying to sound genuinely mistaken and amused.
Mark was a serious, no-nonsense person with a dry and obscure sense of humour, and he liked being in control of things, always. Definitely not the goofy, absentminded, 'cool' guy he was trying to pass off as, at that moment. "No, you knew it was my phone. You went for it. And it takes a good minute to realise you've picked up someone else's phone? Really?", I asked him, barely managing to keep my voice bereft of anger. I felt utterly violated and disgusted, took my phone back to see what he was looking into. He wasn't in the BBM window, he had had enough time to browse through my recent chats, and was looking up my emails, flight and cab booking details of the weekend. To check if I really spent my weekend with a female friend, or was I gallivanting about? This is a professional colleague I'm talking about, not a jealous partner.
I spent the next five days avoiding him during the evening hours
I took those nature walks and went on a bike trail. I tried sushi at a Japanese restaurant that looked charming, I walked by the downtown on an unusually busy day and saw people swarm the cafes and restaurants. I got a tub of frozen yoghurt, sat on a bench by the sidewalk and I also remember playing lots of Candy Crush on my iPad till I felt like crashing for the day.
The week after, I was back at my home office. I told no one about Mark's intrusive and borderline obsessive behaviour during the trip. I was embarrassed to even to bring it up, and I thought people would brush it off as an inconsequential thing. Most of all I didn't want to be in the news for the 'wrong' reasons and be associated in people's minds as a victim of harassment. Something told me I'd be the poster person of juicy gossip, while life would pretty much remain the same for him.
A few weeks later, as a part of my role, not spurred by the events during my trip, I co-conducted office-wide workshops on Prevention Of Sexual Harassment along with an expert in the field. Mark made several attempts to derail the severe nature of the topic at hand with offhand remarks and questions such as, "this entire subject is very arbitrary. Who will decide if it is harassment or not? Why can't the intentions of the men be believed? Who will defend the men?" To his regressive mind, it was an issue of hapless men vs the world which believes all women are victims. The expert and I tried to explain and answer him matter-of-factly, but he continued to trivialise the discussion.
After the first session, the expert and I did a debrief on the pace of the discussion. She asked me, "Who was that gentleman who kept asking nonsensical questions on purpose time and again? He seemed like he's in a senior role. His behaviour is unacceptable, and it sends a message that the organisation tolerates his views on the matter rather than deal with is sensibly and sensitively, should any situation come up..." It seemed like it was just the validation I was waiting for, and at that moment, I told her who he was, what was his role and position with the company, and about the way he'd behaved with me during the work trip. She didn't waste a second in saying that his behaviour was very inappropriate, unwelcome and totally out of line and that he was abusing his position in the company to exert his demands on the women around. "This is harassment, and I hope you've talked about this with an appropriate person", she added.
Though Mark was in a different department and assignment of my projects, compensation or promotion didn't depend on him at all, my work needed the collaboration and approval of several stakeholders, him being the senior most one of them. So, Mark's retaliation towards me came in the form of stalling those discussions and refusing to collaborate. He shot my ideas and projects down in the garb of them not being thought through. Despite him being the only one who vehemently and persistently opposed anything and everything I had to say, most others didn't notice. "You really need to iron your differences with him to get your work done", was the studied advice I got from my manager (who was also Mark's manager) when I called out the unnecessarily aggressive behaviour for what it was. I told him about how he behaved at the sexual harassment awareness workshops, and what the expert had to say about him. I didn't make any mention of the incidents with me. "It took me five months to hire someone for this role. The team is really coming together only now. He is a very difficult man and he has his quirks, granted, but we have to find a way to work with him", he said when I insisted that such behaviour should not be condoned because the person is so senior, but merits correction for those very reasons.
I was at the end of my rope, but frankly, I never really fought it out
I backed out of the situation and consoled myself by thinking: 'be thankful he and you don't need to work together'. I tried to maintain bare minimum professional contact with him. Because the one time I gave it a half-attempt by talking to the manager, his indifferent response only reiterated that this whole exercise was futile and a waste of everyone's time. Each time the victim, be it a woman or a man, brushes off harassment as "shit happens", we normalise the predator's behaviour. We let them carry on, without any disincentive for their actions. We instil doubts in a victim's mind about violation of themselves as something not worthy enough of being called out. We gaslight them as the crazy ones, the ones who love to make a mountain of molehills and don't know how to just get on with it. It's time we don't let the harassers get away. We need to pause, listen and face these uncomfortable truths because not only do they erode shareholder value by fostering a toxic work environment but because quite simply, it's the right thing to do.
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