“I hire more girls because they have nimble fingers, and computers need nimble fingers”.
That’s how my ex-boss, in a leading Indian media organization, reportedly justified hiring of girls when the so-called boys protested dwindling masculine majority in the news room. This was the pre-dotcom boom era in which media houses were mostly run by men.
Office gossips ensued over this approach, and the explanation was even called flimsy and blatant. Even though I was willing to give the boss the benefit of doubt, most friends and colleagues labeled this as death of meritocracy in the name of women empowerment.
There was very little to suggest that this was being done to institutionalize sexual harassment. Yet, whichever side one chose, a culture of silence and acquiescence was palpable, which seemed more troubling than imagined or alleged discrimination itself.
Now when skeletons after skeletons of sexual harassment are tumbling out of the closets of India’s media houses, my mind goes back to the generation when the ground was probably being prepared. India’s MeToo movement is indeed gaining momentum and some of the biggest actors, authors, politicians, artists and TV stars – who lectured others on propriety – have come under its net.
Despite my rather long stint at the organization, I did not witness this particular boss taking any undue advantage of his hiring policy. On the contrary, the office became more disciplined. Girls proved to be more reliable, punctual and productive and competed with men in a level-playing field.
Yet, even in those days, it was apparent that there are indiscreet gentlemen who use their position to exploit others and also some ladies willing to play ball to ride up the career ladder. While disconcerting, it still didn’t qualify as sexual exploitation.
I then viewed this as struggle for gender parity and female assertion of equality in workspace, which was bound to face resistance. Not anymore. As soon as twitterati went berserk with such reports last week, I wrote to some of my female ex-colleagues and received emails detailing harrowing accounts of extremely talented girls who haven’t yet chosen to come out in the open.
What bewilders me is how journalists – who are supposed to fight against and expose all kinds of discrimination in society – witnessed blatant sexual harassment in office and even participated in itEhtesham Shahid
Practice what you preach
It is clear now that things have either deteriorated or just come out of the closet. It could be a case of men becoming emboldened to allow their predatory behavior to hit the roof or women becoming more self-assured to say, “enough is enough”. It could be a bit of both.
What bewilders me is how journalists – who are supposed to fight against and expose all kinds of discrimination in society – witnessed blatant sexual harassment in office and even participated in it. Even more distressing is the fact that most predators kept rising through the ranks and reached positions of power and influence. In some cases reportedly recently, they had the audacity to harass junior female colleagues even years after the first attempt was rejected.
Most journalists of that generation, both men and women, were aware of the idiosyncrasies of some high and mighty among their ranks. I hope they are regretting today that their silence helped at least some monsters to continue with their predatory behavior. Basically, there were three kinds of people – direct beneficiaries, those who chose to remain silent and those who didn’t gather the courage to speak. All these only suggest collective failure.
Controversies of this kind are more frequent in Bollywood, which largely comprises meek people. Their bread and butter depends on cinemagoers voting with their feet to watch movies. Yes, a bit of controversy helps draw crowds but overdose can become counterproductive. Hence, one can understand the culture of silence there.
But the world of journalism is supposed to be different. If journalists choose not to use the weapon of truth and instead allow hapless co-workers to be exploited by despicable predators, then it is time to concede that there is something rotten in the system.
I don’t mean to suggest that such an exploitation didn’t happen earlier and wouldn’t happen again, but for such a large fraternity to remain silent for so long only suggests a state of slumber. May be it’s a case of women invading news rooms in large numbers making few control freaks insecure or may be patriarchal society defined gender relations even in news rooms.
The silver lining is that the “nimble fingers” have awakened and is willing to take down the high and mighty. Once these characters fall, I see more discipline, more punctuality and more productivity in India’s media industry.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham and he can be reached at Ehtesham.Shahid@alarabiya.net.