June 2015: Training the spotlight on everyday sexism in the work environment.
He is a noted Delhi-based advertising and marketing guru, and we’d connected when I was the editor of a magazine. Sometime in 2010, I met him for coffee one afternoon, for banal shoptalk they call ‘networking’. After, he’d come to Mumbai as often as I’d go to Delhi, and, after years of “we must catch up the next time you’re in town”, he called during the summer of 2013 to say he was going to be in Mumbai for a day. “Let’s meet?”
He had meetings in South Bombay all day, and would return to his hotel, close to the airport and my home, only in the evening. I proposed dinner at one of the many lovely places in the vicinity; he chose the coffee shop at his hotel.
He kept getting delayed (happens—media, Mumbai, traffic, life), and it was rather late when I reached his hotel. The coffee shop was now closed, and I told him so when he emerged from the lift—“The other restaurants in the hotel are still open,” I said.
“Oh, doesn’t matter, we were going to my room anyway,” he replied.
Umm, were we? I realised it had been the plan all along; the coffee shop was close to the lift that led to his room. My antenna went up—that little superpower instinct kicked in. I seized him up—I’m a big fit girl in my 30s, I’d be able to take on this 50-year-old if it really came down to it.
In his room, now on guard, I strategically chose the big single chair, not the two-seat sofa—placing him across the coffee table and myself closer to the door. (He tried to break up this arrangement several times during the evening—“Come, let’s read the menu together”; “You’re so far, I can barely see your face”.) Strike 2.
We talked about this and that… and then, he started talking about sex. Look, I’m no prude. I write about gender and sexuality, and it’s a subject that fascinates me. I’m also very tuned to the difference between talking about sexuality and talking about sex. Strike 3.
And then, on one of his trips to the bar table behind my chair, he reached over and started fondling my neck. “Stoppit!” I repeated a couple of times, craning away until he did… And strike 4! I was out of my chair and out of the door, and drove home shaken into the loving arms of the husband and some friends who were over for drinks.
I never did confront him, but blocked him from all channels of communication. Often since (in classic victim self-blame) I’ve wondered whether I’d given him mixed signals—and the answer is no, I hadn’t, ever. This was no more than symptomatic of a misogynistic work environment replete with casual sexism, signs of which we encounter every day.
“How come clients only want to meet us female models for evening drinks to ‘discuss work’, and are perfectly happy meeting the guys for a quick chat in their offices?” a friend said to me once. In my previous workplace, every successful female colleague was rumoured to have been sleeping with the boss (myself included). Reprimanded by a female superior? Must be her time of the month. Insidious little parts of a much bigger puzzle.
So today, as heads roll at Greenpeace India for the perpetration as well as mishandling of the sexual harassment of a former employee, I can’t help a bittersweet smile. Small steps for women, big leaps for womankind.
An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in June 2015. Watch my interview of 'The Greenpeace Girl' Sonam Mittal here.