Surviving men at workplaces

For all that there is criticism about the manner of overkill in the media on the Tarun Tejpal case, I am glad that there is so much sharp focus on what most men in Tejpal’s position have got away with so far.

As a young journalist in the 1980s, I and my female colleagues who were in a rare club of women getting into journalism those days and particularly the night shift circuit, were constantly under threat from our male bosses. We had very little recourse to justice — most of us had to resort to our own tactics to deal with such predators or sometimes band together to fend off such unwanted attention.

I cannot record here the graphic details of the kind of innuendoes and double entendres that were thrown our way by bureau chiefs and editors – a protest then would ensure we were pulled off the best assignments, given the worst corners in the newsroom, increments would be either stopped or delayed until the odd man in a more superior position noticed something was wrong and took corrective action.

As political reporters, at least the first lot of women journalists, who were a little senior to me have much to be thanked for making it easier for us to just exist, I recall a very senior woman journalist, when I was barely out of my probation, shouting down one politician, who had put his face close to hers in one of the corridors of the Vidhan Sabha to ask “Kya bai? Kya chal raha hai?”

She pushed back and shouted loud enough for all to turn back and hear, “Don’t call me ‘bai’ (a common reference to any woman in Maharashtra). Call me ‘tai’ (elder sister), and stand at least two feet away from my face when you ask after me!”

Other women journalists were thrilled to bits because he was one man who had followed another reporter home and was standing outside her gate the next morning as she left for work – one cannot imagine the fright that that girl went through for days until we decided to complain to the Speaker and even then we were not sure that he would be disciplined.

But sometimes it did not need to go as far as that stalking either. I recall an occasion in my own office at a wire service where the top editorial man was listening in into a fight between various other reporters, men and just three women, about how, in the days before mobile phones, they were not told about calls that had been made by their sources to the office numbers. “I always take everybody’s call and pass on the messages,” one of the girls complained, “But the same courtesy is not returned to me.”

She soon received a note from her boss saying, “You always receive calls? So are you a call girl?”

The girl was 23-years-old, her boss was in his fifties, about the same age difference as that between Tejpal and his victim, besides the fact that he had a daughter too. She was 15 years old at the time but since the boss had been stupid enough to put down his harassment in a note (emails had not yet arrived at the time), the note was preserved and a complaint made to his superior. That note nailed him but all the action that was taken was to reprimand him with a mild knock on the knuckles, “Your daughter will soon be of her age and working in an office like this one. How would you feel if her boss sent her a note like this one?” he was asked.

I do not think that shamed the man even a little bit because he muttered under his breath, “I do not think my daughter will work in an office at all!”

It was let go at that.

I guess Tejpal comes from that generation of journalists who got away with every transgression in the moral book and didn’t expect to be nailed so firmly to the cross. Which I think was rather silly considering he has been e pioneer of the sting in this country and should have known the Impact of electronics and internet in modern times.

Whatever the outcome of Tarun Tejpal’s case, it is clear that the times have changed. I hope all sexual predators in such positions will realise that too, and the world will be a safer and better place for the young women in their respective workplaces.

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