Daguerreotypist

APRIL 4, 2012 9:08AM

"I'm a woman, you're my boss. Can I hold your hand?"

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"It's really cold in this room," she said.

"Turn the heater on," he replied.

"Oh, the heater's on, but it makes no difference."

"Well, then I don't know what else you can do."

She brushed her hand against his, as he continued to stare at the computer screen.

"Oh, wow! Your hands are so warm! Maybe I should just hold onto you!"*

I imagine the logical next step in a story that begins this way, is for the woman in question to lean over the man in a way that best displays an ample cleavage pushing against the buttons of her tight-fitting formal shirt. Then she would hold him, and maybe run her fingers up and down his arms a few times. He would take off her 'sexy librarian' glasses, and let her hair down with the smooth release of a single hair pin. Finally, in keeping with the norms of some of the most cringeworthy erotic fiction, they would rip each other's clothes off, clear the conference table of papers, pens, and any other stationery that could potentially come in the way, and have loud, sweaty, and completely forbidden office sex. They would bury their nails into each other's flesh, and make no pretense of trying to muffle their loud moaning. They could be found out, and it would cost them, because it's against the rules at their office, but that's the thrill, isn't it?

Only, this isn't bad erotic fiction. It isn't any kind of fiction. This is about my friend, who has been putting up with harassment from a female colleague for months, now.

In October last year, Sanjay** took up a long project in India, after having worked in a very prominent international consulting firm for about three years. He had been living in Chicago since the beginning of his graduate studies, and his job as a consultant has never been his favorite thing to do, but he works really hard, and is bloody good at it. The project in India was one he had looked forward to for a while. His family is in India, and being there on work would mean he would be able to spend time with them. He had also just begun dating a girl, a PhD student in the US, who was conducting field work in India. So the prospect of being in Mumbai for several months was very exciting to him. 

And then he met his colleagues there, among whom was a certain Kavita**. Intelligent, sharp, urbane. A management graduate from one of the best business schools in the country. A hard worker, someone who could get work done quickly and efficiently. Also a highly unprofessional individual who thought nothing at all of harassing the man she reported to.

---

In the beginning, when Sanjay would call me on the phone and tell me about her behavior, I would laugh. I thought she was nothing more than slightly unprofessional, and perhaps socially unskilled. In keeping with the nature of our friendship, therefore, I jumped at the opportunity to poke fun at Sanjay, and rib him incessantly about the situation he'd found himself in. A little amused himself, he continued to report to me every conversation she had with him.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked.

"No."

"How come? In any case, it was my dad who wanted to know. You know, when you came in to office, I went and told him all about you. So he wanted me to ask you."

Weird, but mostly harmless, right? Sanjay didn't think much of it at the time; none of us did. He'd call us and tell us everything, and we'd laugh. "She's doing what? She's commenting on your dimples, now? Man, she has such a crush on you!" Or, "She asked you to go stand at the beach with her? Aww, isn't that romantic?"

And then, following on the heels of a comment on how big his hands were, and how long and shapely his fingers were - this, in a conference room with other team members present, and as he was explaining something to her on her laptop - she went ahead and proposed the aforementioned bad-erotic-fiction idea for getting warm. The more he told us, the less we laughed. It wasn't all that funny anymore. We egged him on to have a chat with her.

"This isn't just about the things she's saying to you," we said. "She's highly unprofessional, and clearly, she's completely unaware of that. This is the kind of thing people can lose their jobs over, and you don't want that to happen to her, right? I mean, come on, she's just started working. So talk to her about it."

He thought about it, and decided he might bring it up during her performance review. Her work had been slipping too, and in his mind, that was more important. So he began a discussion about that instead. And if I know Sanjay at all, he would have started it in the most polite and inoffensive way possible.

She started to shout at him. She demanded to know how he could say to her face that she was completely dispensable (her words, not his). Before any real discussion about her performance - let alone her behavior - could begin, she launched an angry rant, concluding with something to the effect of "I can't even begin to tell you what it's taking for me to not shout at you right now." 

Later, in a classic remorse cycle, she came back and told him all about her personal life. Her relationships, specifically, and how she was under great stress because she was in the process of breaking up with "the perfect guy."

---

"Dude, I think I should cut her some slack, right? I mean, she's clearly very stressed out about her personal life." Sanjay, on the phone, to me. He had no idea just how soon he would have to gulp down his own words.

During work hours, she began to chat with him online. He couldn't ignore her, because she would usually open with a work-related query.

Then this:

"Ok, so by the way, can I call you 'baby'?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I think it's best you call me Sanjay." (No, I haven't, to this day, understood why it did not occur to this otherwise very quick and intelligent man to tell her that she doesn't get to ask why she can't call him 'baby'.)

"Well, do you think you're the only stubborn one around? I can be just as stubborn as you, you know?"

At the time, Sanjay immediately changed the conversation and started to talk about work. If I were him, I think this would be the point at which my patience would completely give way (if it hadn't already happened), and I would think about having a serious conversation with her right then, and then considering actually reporting her behavior to the right person in the organization. That Sanjay did none of this is inexplicable to me, and given just how uncomfortable she had been making him over the past few months, I can only imagine that having never faced a situation like this before, his brain had frozen on him for a few seconds.

---

A couple of weeks ago, after he returned to this team in India, following a week back in the US, she stayed at work late, after everyone but Sanjay had left. She was done with her work for the day, and Sanjay told her that she could leave.

"Not until you let me hold you hand."

"Well, that's not going to happen."

"Ok, then I won't leave, I'll just sit here."

Sanjay continued to work, and she continued to sit around. It was getting late, and Sanjay was getting more and more uncomfortable. He was nearly done, and was ready to go home himself, but he just didn't know what to do at that point. It was like he'd be trapped in a little corner, and Kavita was watching him without taking her eyes off for even a second.

Then she stood up, and began to gather her things, without a word. Silently, Sanjay breathed a sigh of relief, hoping she had given up, and would be going home, now. Until she dashed up to him, and before he could react, grabbed his hand.

"There, now I can go home," she said, a big smile beaming on her face.

---

Last week, as the team was having dinner together, to bid farewell to a member, she sat next to him at the table.

"I want to cross my legs," she began. "Is it ok if I rest my foot on your leg?"

"No."

"Why not?"   

As Sanjay was relating this latest incident to me on the phone, I stopped him right there. I didn't laugh, because it's not funny anymore, and perhaps we were wrong to think it ever was. I didn't even give him advice, or suggestions on how to deal with the situation. At this point, I was just angry. Angry at her, yes. But angrier at him. 

"I don't even know what to say to you, Sanjay. You should have dealt with this a really long time ago, and it should never have come to this."

"Look, I don't know what I could have done. I spoke to her last week about how her behavior is unprofessional, and all she seemed to get from that is that I might potentially complain to her manager in India that the quality of her work is not up to par."

"And you're saying there is no one you can report this to? No one in one of the biggest consulting firms in the world, that you could report this to?"

"Look, I didn't know where to go..."

"You're making excuses. You know that just as well as I do."

It was very clear to both of us why I was angry with him, more than I was angry with her. I'm not blaming the victim here, for the things Kavita had been saying and doing to him. But I absolutely blame him for putting up with it this long. And here's why: he's the man, and she's the woman. He's the boss, and she works for him. When you strip it down to the brass tacks, he knows she isn't a real threat. There's only so far she can go with her aggressive harassment, and she doesn't have the power to withhold any kind of advancement in his position at work. So he's chosen to think of it as nothing more than a mild inconvenience, and deal with it by trying to ignore it. 

---

"It's messy," he admitted. "I know you're right, and I know I should have done something about it a long time ago. Hell, I know I should do something about it now. But once you report something like this, it could drag on for months, and frankly, I don't need that right now."

So he will let it go. He will let it go because at the height of her misbehavior, the most she can do is make him uncomfortable. He will let it go because she is a woman. And that is what gets me. All I can think about, is how this situation would have been handled, had the genders, and/or the professional status of these two individuals been reversed. If a man had been harassing a woman in the workplace similarly, would it be ok to let it go? If a woman's male superior at work had been harassing her similarly, would it be ok to let it go? 

No?

Then how is this ok? To me, the larger implication of this - one that Sanjay and I have discussed extensively - is that the rules for men and women in the corporate workplace have to be different, because men and women are - apparently - different. And that it's ok for a woman to behave like this, because she's a woman, and one should therefore expect, and indulgently overlook, a certain degree of irrationality and unprofessionalism. Excuse me for taking this more seriously than most people would, but in my opinion, this is just the kind of thing that sets back the battle for equality in the corporate workplace that women have been fighting for an absurdly long period of time.

I realize that the person most affected here is a man, but thinking about this situation in terms of feminism doesn't derail the discussion, because the larger issue here is that even today, we set different expectations of men and women. We calibrate our definitions of professionalism and harassment according to gender. And the things we choose to overlook because they pose no 'real' threat - such as Kavita's behavior - only serve to reinforce the stereotype that women can never really be as professional as men can be.    

I don't expect Sanjay to take on the role of some sort of feminist crusader. I understand that it's been a long and tough project. I understand he's exhausted, and all he really wants to do is finish up in India and come back home to Chicago, and to his girlfriend.

I do not understand why he didn't even try to do something about it. I do not understand the ease with which he settled into accepting and ignoring this, because it just wasn't threatening enough. And that makes me angry. ---   

 

*The conversation, as I have put them down here, are not verbatim, but are extremely close to the conversations that have been reported to me by my friend.

**All names have been changed.

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