My Company Preached Feminism, But Totally Failed at Practising it
The NGO had a 4-page-long document on women’s dress code. This, even as they work on gender issues in the workplace.
Disclaimer: This post is a self-reflection and comes from my professional experience. This has no resemblance to anybody dead but is very relevant to organisations that preach a lot but don’t practise.
I am writing this post in a state of reflective mental agony after working with a very renowned NGO that is supposedly a crusader for gender equality. Having worked with different organisations on issues of gender, I believe it’s safe to talk about the vicious cycles of oppression and exploitation that happen to most of us in organisations that look just-so-perfect from outside, but are questionable from within.
I was pretty impressed with the work profile discussed with me during my interview by this NGO. A lot of exciting projects were discussed with me and it got me all worked up to shift from Sikkim to Delhi. I joined this new job in the month of September. Initially, I was told that the organisation would need at least a month to figure out where I would best fit in – but till then, I was supposed to work on a project related to sexual harassment of women in the informal sector.
Sexist Dress Code Policies
The day I joined the job, I was given some documents to read on the organisational policies of this NGO. Interestingly, they had a 4-page-long document on dress code (Mind you! They work on gender issues, especially on sexual harassment at the workplace).
This policy describes what male and female employees are supposed to wear in office. For female employees: only sarees, salwar-kurtas and formal pants are allowed. The neckline cannot be deeper than 7 inches (yes, it was explicitly mentioned), kurtas must be accompanied by dupattas, kurtas cannot be more than 4 inches above the knee, no flashy/ dangling jewellery was allowed, etc.
This also comes with an FAQ section, where the NGO assumes that one of the questions directed to it will be – why is this code directed to women more than to men? To this, the NGO responds by saying that this is because men, apparently, do not have many choices but women do and it needs to be defined within certain parameters of the workplace (really?)
I was amused when I read these. The policy contradicts everything they preach to participants who attend their programmes on sexual harassment at the workplace.
The trainer there – who was also my boss and a champion of women’s rights – tells the participants, “Your employer does not have any right to decide what you should wear to work”. Yet, we had to follow the dress code policy. It was frustrating because when a female co-worker wore something that didn’t fall within their ‘parameters’, she was told off by the HR or by our boss – but the same rules did not apply to the male employees who flouted dress code policies.
When some of us raised this concern in a meeting, we were told of how a female employee had apparently worn a skirt to work one day and her skirt had flown up, catching the eye of the chairperson. That was when the organisation had apparently decided to ban skirts! I wondered – in such a case, wasn’t it the chairperson’s problem instead of the employees’?
Discarding the Agency of a Woman
Before I joined the organisation, I was told that I would be leading projects. Days into joining, however, I realised that all I was doing was writing minutes of meetings and other insignificant work. I missed my visa appointment to go to the US for an important meeting because my leave application was pending for over a month. This, after having informed my boss a month in advance about the trip. Leaves here were privileges and not things you were entitled to.
Another issue that really bothered me, was the lens with which the organisation looked at gender issues. Having worked with organisations that are so passionate about their work, the understanding of gender here really bothered me.
While writing an official report, I was asked to write it from an angle that highlights the trauma and pain of a woman and how her life has transformed in the one year since the organisation started working with her. While this could be a perspective to look at things, it was unethical on so many different levels. The approach was to market and showcase some minuscule efforts – while the agency of the women in question was reduced to that of a product.
My Learnings Today
After three months of working in that toxic environment, I decided to call it quits. I am currently working in a much happier place with a super-chill feminist boss who supports and guides me on trying new things at work.
She’s a feminist who brings her feminist ideals to work every single day.
In a way, I’m thankful to my previous job because it pushed me to resign and look for happier places.
So dear friends, learn from my experience and quit that toxic job that makes you unhappy every minute of your life. Also, stand up for what you believe in and practise your feminism – even in a place that doesn’t value it.
(Megha is a professional social worker in the thematic area of gender. She tweets at @kashyapmegha007.)
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