As a woman founder of a legal firm(Ungender) that educates and advises organisations on workplace ethics and gender rights, one of the commonest irritants I encounter is the comments that follow my formal introduction to people. It all goes well till the time my profession comes up. It's sort of a litmus test for men based on their reaction.
I am a workplace sexual harassment prevention advisor. I advise other companies and their members on the instances of workplace behaviour. While many people may not know the details of this work, thankfully #MeToo made this topic relevant for every working person — millions of them on social media around the world. Conversations around my profile is a joke for many. Statements such as, "we should watch what we say in front of you, else you will file a sexual harassment case," or "hope you never meet any woman of my team, or they will become feminists," or "if we ask you something will it be labelled under #metoo" are generally followed by laughter and sheepish mumbling.
This is not an individual experience. Several women around me, before me, have not been laughing at jokes that are generally funny for men. And for those women who joined in this dehumanising process of diminishing a woman's self-worth, the laughter was almost always forced. If you are our boss or client, we laughed because we felt compelled to. If you are related to us, we pandered to your ego to keep the peace. If you are a stranger that we met in a networking event or a gathering, we don't know you enough to invest in your intellectual development.
But, at some point in time, we all snapped. The power dynamics did not bother us anymore. We all have taken up the emotional labour from time to time to educate men on the rules of respectable conduct when speaking of women and women's lived experiences. As a woman, if you are still struggling on how to address such behaviour, take cues from here to navigate your way through these sexist conversations. For men, please keep reading.
Jokes on #metoo are not funny
Every time you laugh directly, indirectly, or suppress a smirk at the mention of #MeToo, it is an insult to millions of women who have shared painful stories of sexual violence because due process and the power and peer play of gender dynamics at home and workplaces let them down. This power imbalance has prevented women from becoming independent, reaching their full potential, getting out of abusive and oppressive circumstances, taking up the responsibilities of their parents and families. You have not experienced the extent of workplace sexual harassment because your understanding of what it feels for women to be objectified is limited to mostly social media platforms – a narrative set by your male friends. And when women speak of being harassed, you, more often than not, choose to believe the fractional reality of a small percentage of women who file false or malicious complaints. It gives you the excuse to ignore the majority trend, data, facts and historical context.
While you treat the growing issue of gender violence as a joke, you never asked us, women, to educate you. Instead, it is deemed as the perfect opportunity to use gender stereotypes and call women "over sensitive", "opportunist" and "confused". The jokes on violence and women were never funny, and will never be. And we do suggest a detailed reading of data presented in the National Crime Records Bureau or on any of the United Nations' websites.
Marriage jokes will never be funny
Over the past 35 years, I have carefully curated and built relationships with a world of men who are respectful of women, men I am proud of knowing. But they convert. And somehow, marriage and relationships seem to inject a dose of sexism into their vocabulary. The references of now their home being a "jail", and partner being a "jailor/Hitler" suddenly find spaces in their conversations. This is the ridiculous equivalent of feminist women being compared to the Nazi, genocidal dictator at the workplace.
The chain of humour extends further to the sympathy for a "bro" who does not want to go home to a partner who is calling him to check his whereabouts. The emotion of care here is replaced by the word "nagging". Additional references of weekend activities of shopping, or receiving a list of things to procure from the market, being told to participate in family activities, are all considered a sign of enslaved life – a connotation that men generally find very humorous to talk about. While several men find these conversations fun, it is difficult for women to find space in these rooms with you.
The growing paunch that your friend has is not a sign of stress and the fact that his wife is not working does not mean she is resting at home while he slogs at the office. On that note, how's the work from home working out for you during the lockdown? Does it give you a measure of the amount of unpaid labour women put in every day seemingly by being "just housewives?" And if a woman is on office work, your sarcastic references to it as a "hobby", "fashionable career", or "time-pass" is both off-putting and sexist. Don't play to the bros lobby for cheap brownie points.
What's NOT humour at work: Case studies
*References of woman's presence and its addition to the colourfulness of office;
*The anecdotes of compliments at the end of a message or a statement (love, sweetheart, beautiful, heroine);
*Asking women to baby the group because it must come naturally to them;
*Indications of office success contributed to a woman's looks, dressing style, sweetness of her voice;
*Side notes sympathizing the men in the lives of a woman who is staying late at work or going head to head with the world around her;
*Let the woman go home early, we (men) are here to do the real work;
*Asking a woman colleague to order in food during work meetings because "you're good at this".
Basically, anything and everything that you say at work and end it with "this was just a joke".
You may not understand it but see if you can empathise that the path the majority of women took to be able to reach this workplace is full of sarcasm, questions, and doubts about her ability to build a career. A woman has to work twice as hard as men to prove herself and is not paid as much. When she reaches the workplace, she expects to be treated with respect, dignity, least to be referred to as eye candy by her fellow educated and qualified colleagues.
According to a study, one in four men, 28 percent of 20,000 people across 27 countries think it's perfect to crack jokes or recount stories of sexual nature at the workplace in the presence of female colleagues.
It is important that we highlight some specific comments and actions that are passed off at the workplace as humour. Somewhere between the "peer and the power pressure" at work, it is difficult for the women to express their disapproval directly. This gets worse when the authority and power gap is huge. When I asked women about their experiences, several mentioned witnessing tremendously problematic behaviours such as "rating" of newcomers in a company based on their physical attributes, seniors claiming ownership of interns as their future "girlfriends" and referring to new hires as 'items' as a joke.
Haven't you heard men use the term "yeh waali meri hai" or "teri bhabi"? That's how deep the misogyny runs in the guise of smutty humour.
Lastly, crossing personal boundaries will never be a humour trend
In my line of work, I have sat through various grievance queries, conducts that crossed the line of decorum, and stereotypical statements expressed to probe into my personal life. All of them aiming towards creating a profile of a woman you know in some category of moral character fitment.
I often hear a man use ending phrases such as "she is like that only…", "what else do you expect from a woman…", "she is easy…", "she is too sensitive…", "she is a drama queen…", "a box of tantrums…", "attention seeker...", "now you are married, have kids and enjoy life…"
All of these statements are given a closing of – it is a joke.
Sad that somewhere, the stereotypes have spread their roots in our humour. Sadder that this humour has found a space in our lives. Next time when you crack a joke about women, look around. If it's ONLY the men who are laughing, check your privilege.
About the author:
This article is penned by Pallavi Pareek, a workplace gender safety and inclusion advisor. Pallavi has spent over sixteen years advising on the behavioral and cultural aspects of workplaces when dealing with gender conflicts. Her firm, Ungender focuses on bridging the gender divide through compliance on gender specific laws.
This is the second article in the series #UnlearningSocialBehaviour - A Few Words For Men From Women. The #MeToo movement and #NotAllMen have taken the internet by storm, igniting countless debates on gender issues. At the moment, there is a disconnect - where women's views are based largely on their personal experiences and men are trying to catch up with the ever-evolving gender conversation. In an attempt to start a dialogue, we along with Ungender, an organisation with a mission to make India safe for everyone, including all genders, sexual orientations, belief systems, is a doing a series of articles where women will be writing, explaining certain nuance of daily conversations, the sexist behaviour and what men can do to show solidarity with women.
You can read the first article in the series here:
Explaining Or Mansplaining? Here Is What Every Man Needs To Know To Be A Male Ally