Articles and Commentaries |
November 12, 2018

Breaking the Mould: Women in a Patriarchal Society

Anger and women

As I sit down to write this, the world (of news and otherwise) has erupted over Serena Williams and her actions at the US Open final against Haitian-Japanese player Naomi Osaka. Post after post on my social media timeline since Sunday, September 9, has been about her fit of anger after an umpire gave her a code violation. It soon went on to be called “the mother of all meltdowns” by at least one leading US media house.

The coverage when I woke up on Sunday morning Indian Standard Time was skewed, at least from what I could immediately get my hands on. Initial reports made it out to be this: Williams was handed a code violation after she was coached from the side, she then lost a penalty point for breaking her racquet in frustration over this, and then a game penalty when she called umpire Carlos Ramos, a “thief” and “liar” and became very angry with him. Williams was nowhere close to winning the match, and she then lost and allowed the audience to boo 19-year-old Osaka, Japan’s first Grand Slam singles champion. The teenager, who idolises Williams, cried during her prize ceremony and apologised for winning. Following that, Williams accused the umpire of sexism at a press conference.

Why has this become such a huge deal? Williams is a woman, and black. Most people — men and women — think she is “using the gender card”, and not just that but the “colour card” too. Some even think the poor umpire “did not stand a chance” against her rage. Many opinion pieces and posts on this that I have seen use these words or strongly imply that that’s what the 36-year-old did — fight unfair because she was angry. And at a time when feminism is back under a spotlight, and especially when men feel threatened, it is no wonder this is garnering so much attention. When questions of colour, race, women, immigrants, being woke, being liberal surround us, did one of the most successful black women in the world actually have the audacity to claim someone was being sexist (or racist) towards her because she was losing a match and angry?

One cannot assume to know what Williams was trying to do or what went through her mind, but from the videos I watched later, it did not seem as simple as the reports made it out to be — sure, she lost her temper, she shouted at the umpire which led to her losing a match, but she also attempted to make up for the disaster of an evening by telling a crowd of booing people to let Osaka have her moment. Later, at a press conference, she brought up sexism, which seems to be “convenient” to people. But sexism has never been convenient for women. Some weeks ago, Williams wasn’t allowed to wear a black catsuit — which she had worn to prevent life-threatening blood clots — and I was surprised that she did not say a word though women on the internet rallied around her. But that night at the US Open final, she did speak up. And she seems to be paying the price.

I have heard many arguments and complaints against her now. Some would say she is a global figure, an idol for women, black or otherwise, and that she needs to act the part, she cannot go around accusing people of racism and sexism whenever convenient, or much less shout about it. But some people do not seem to realise this — women have tempers, they are not perfect, they cannot keep quiet while fighting their battles all the time. Whether there was sexism from Ramos or not, we should probably just allow Williams her anger. She has earned it after years of being two of the things that people vilify most — black, and woman. Williams has probably lost thousands of battles in her lifetime just because of her gender and race, and is perfectly human if she loses her temper when she feels an umpire is being unfair. Who would not?

Some would argue then, that the point is they are not judging her because she got angry but because she dragged gender and discrimination and even her daughter into it. And that she has done this before. But let us return to just the anger for now.

A lot of people did not appreciate the way she handled herself that night, women included, of course. But it simply seems to reinforce that women have to constantly behave themselves in order to be taken seriously. By other women as well. I am not sure that because Williams lost her temper she is less of an idol or sportsperson. It seems most people would have preferred her to remain silent, behave appropriately, because in sports, losing a point or game is all part of the package and one has to be prepared for it.

There are those who would also say she lost it because Osaka was a better player, and that Williams owed it to Osaka to win gracefully. There are thousands of “arguments” against what Williams did. But how many of these people have thought about what it is like to be a black woman for a day, forget a lifetime? And why cannot they just allow her her anger, even her accusations? But everyone is always worried about accusations harming a man’s reputation, hurting his feelings or whatever it is, whether it is to do with sexism or assault or any such thing. Very few people give the accusers the benefit of the doubt, and if they do, they are viewed as crazy feminists.

Dr Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a non-profit to end violence against women, wrote in an op-ed: Studies show that black women are less likely than other groups to express anger in situations in which they are being treated unfairly. Tillet also wrote that her sister was afraid for the tennis player because “she knew too well how easily black women’s expressions of rage could be turned against them.”

“Do not bring gender into it when it’s all about behaviour,” a cartoonist said, defending his now-famous caricature of Williams in The Herald Sun. But, how do you separate the two when all your life’s experiences provide the context?

The male coverage: ‘The sport that made her a multi-millionaire’

But what really angered me, considering I do not play tennis and cannot judge how an umpire and sportsperson should act in the game, was the coverage of Williams and later, opinion or “analytical” pieces. The media reports on what happened at the match all blended into one for me. From local Indian reports to AFP and the like, they all used words such as “tantrum”, “meltdown”, “fit” etc to describe how Williams behaved. It made me wonder how many of the editors were women, let alone women of colour, or even just people thinking about the language they were using.

The same pictures were used too — Williams pointing at the umpire angrily, or her weeping at the podium. Pictures can be used very effectively in copy. It is often the first thing a reader catches, and one of the most important.

In the first day or two after the incident, I saw one news outlet, just one, had used an image of Williams hugging Osaka during the prize ceremony.

The tendency for the media is to play up what they think readers will like. In this case, as in most others, it was negative emotions. But it would have done no harm whatsoever to use an image of Williams crying with Osaka (which some did do later, but very few), or trying to grin and bear the pain together. It is just (terrible) instinct to hone in on the negative emotion here.

Several media houses that I follow, both print and web, carried similar copies too. They printed the initial news (with headlines similar to the ones mentioned above), and then what she said at her press conference. A leading English Indian newspaper’s website posted a piece from AFP titled “After US Open meltdown, Serena Williams says she is ‘not a cheat’, accuses tennis of sexism”. The image used was a close-up of her crying. “Serena Williams insisted she was not cheating in the US Open final on Saturday before accusing the sport which has made her a global icon and multi-millionaire of sexism.” This is how the piece opened. I won’t elaborate on how it continued.

The implications? Since she is an icon and millionaire, she has no right to call out sexism in the sport, especially since some people think it is fake. So, if journalism or writing make me wealthy and I am luckier than a lot of other disenfranchised women, I cannot complain about sexism in journalism? Ah. I see.

Anger and other feelings at work

I have worked at multiple organisations now, almost all in the media in India. One of the reasons I have been able to empathise with women like Williams is because she is human. Her fights are public, and her emotions are real.

Thinking about it after I read a piece in ‘The Cut’, I find I cannot be openly angry in the workplace either. I have never thought about it much since I have not had time to, but the truth is, I have not been allowed to be. Most women have to be pleasant, affable, preferably smiling, no matter how much work they do, and how little they are paid. And God, forbid they ever speak of inequality at work — they become outcasts then.

Most organisations would like to believe they treat men and women equally. They do not. In my view, very few, if any of them do. Even if, say, one’s argument is that half the top positions at these companies are filled by women, who says women are not sexist? They have been raised in the same society that teaches men they can behave differently from women.

At work how does one explain to men that they take up more space than women do, that they speak louder, have more confidence because they have been allowed to do so since they were young, and that this is usually much harder for women to do? When women shout or  strongly put forth their opinions, especially if it is to disagree with someone else (usually a man?), how seriously are they treated? These are even smaller instances of sexism though. From what stories women in Indian media share with me, it seems difficult to even occupy a space at the top, or somewhere near there in some media outfits, unless the woman is a “features person”, let alone be there and be able to express strong opinions, or anger. This is not to say that there are not Indian media houses with women at the top, but this certainly is not the norm, and not all the women have as much power as it seems they do.

From personal experience, men are given promotions quicker than women. Men speak up during meetings more, and even if they do not always contribute something new and fresh, they speak with confidence — something a lot of women do not always have. And if we disagree with someone, especially if it is to do with gender policy or something related, we are labeled difficult, unfriendly, “that feminist”, or something else. I have never had to hear what men at work say about me when I am not around, but there has been one instance when a junior photographer told me that women like me “take this mansplaining thing too far”, because I asked him not to coach me on how to edit a copy.

In this instance, I did not even get angry, since it was not the first time a younger man was telling me how to do a job he had never had.

Now I realise, I have never seen a woman really lose her temper at the workplace. I am sure there are companies with fuming, screaming women bosses, but I have not had one. The closest I had was a loud, female colleague who often told me what to do, which annoyed me. I realise now, her behaviour was unnatural for her gender, which is why I disapproved. I have had plenty of men behave the same way with me, but they did not evoke the same anger till a couple of years ago.

Now, when I find myself losing my temper more often than not, I have to bite my tongue. It’s impossible to fight the system, keep your job, and your cool, and impossible to do it day in and day out. (Which is why one would think Serena Williams just lost her temper one day. It happens. We get tired of having to fight.) To many the media seems an open, less gendered, more “liberal” field, but it just comes with its own forms of sexism. Once you are viewed as “that feminist”, even the seemingly gender norms defying, cool bro boss (be it male or female) will be wary of you. And I am not even getting into unequal pay, mostly since salaries are kept private and whatever one hears is based on rumours.

I also realised that men have fragile egos or feelings. Half the reason women cannot yell back, point out errors or be assertive is because men just have not been trained to handle it and end up taking it badly. Simply put — we cannot behave like men. At least, we cannot behave like them and expect there not to be any ramifications. For instance, a female colleague of mine once had to tell a male editor that she used to play cricket, and hence, she could write up a match report. He had told her he would be away that evening, but could still write it up, before he launched into why the match was important, and so on. Once she told him she was perfectly capable of writing up one, and hey, she used to play the game too, he looked shocked and, briefly, even hurt. Although it was only for a few seconds, she and I saw it. Then he grew embarrassed. Since then, he avoided her as much as someone working at the same company possibly could. We later learnt he had given the resident editor a negative report about her work (he was higher up than her in the hierarchy), though there was no proof to connect the two incidents.

Women at work

When I was younger, I would often wonder why so few women occupied senior posts at the organisation where I worked. I noticed that even if any topmost positions were filled by women, they tended to be single women. Of course all of these are not meant to be sweeping generalisations, but in the course of my career, these have been my personal observations.

Some years ago when a colleague worked until almost her due date, and came back to work a few days before her three months of maternity leave were over, I asked her why. She said something to the effect of, she could not presume her job would just be there waiting for her when she returned. Since then, many of my friends and colleagues have become mothers. Most have given up their jobs, or had to choose between staying late at work or returning home to their children, ie, between a promotion and their child(ren).

Since the above incident, the law has changed in India. Maternity leave is now six months, not three. But, instead of helping women heave a sigh of relief, I have heard from some that they fear their bosses could do them more harm now, since they were entitled to twice the amount of paid leave. Of course, people could argue these fears are unfounded, baseless. But then why do so many more women choose to freelance?

But even for women who do not have to split their time between children and work, rising to the top is hard. The numbers speak for themselves.

According to a UNESCO report on women in the media, in the Asia-Pacific region, women hold only a fifth of governance positions, and less than ten per cent of top management jobs. The numbers are highest in Eastern Europe — 33% and 43% in the top management and governance — and in Nordic Europe — 36% and 37%.

A look at the gender discrepancies on Page 1 bylines shows a disparity, ranging from 49.5% and 40.9% of articles written by women to 16% at another English newspaper in 2017. Not surprisingly, sports had the lowest representation of women, at 9.1% at one newspaper. As the report I am quoting points out, editorials and op-eds by women are slightly higher (24.5% by women), but this in no way means there is diversity among the women.

“In our conversations with female journalists currently or previously employed at print newspapers, many people noted that there are many female reporters on staff, but there are few in leadership roles,” the report said.

Aside from the people who write the news, the people in the news are also more likely to be men. From stock images used, the subjects of news reports, and people or experts whose quotes are gotten for stories, the majority are likely to be men. “Only 22 percent of the people heard or read about in the news in India was female; the corresponding figures for Malaysia and Nepal were the same: 15 percent… Women were found to comprise only 23 percent of the news subjects in stories from the total of 84 news websites included in the survey,” UNESCO says. The report covers a lot more — safety of women, the pay gap, and sexual harassment.

Onto the H-word

Harassment? What is that? Most people do not seem to know what harassment constitutes exactly. And yet, I have not worked at a single media organisation where there has been a clear sexual harassment policy or a workshop held, or anything concrete done to let people know that these problems are real and can be tackled at the workplace. Not one.

Forty percent of the women respondents to the UNESCO report said they “witnessed sexual harassment” at the workplace, versus the 25% of men. I am guessing there were also some who did not know that they were being harassed.

While a sexual harassment complaints committee, commonly known as the Vishakha committee, has been made compulsory at the workplace in India, only one company I have worked at made it clear that they had one. Mostly, the women I know who have been harassed chose not to say anything, for reasons ranging from, “It is too much effort”, “Nobody will believe me”, or “I do not want to get into trouble”, to “I was not sure it was proper harassment since he did not touch me”.

Most of the cases I have heard as stories. “Someone said Rahul said this about married women, because Ananya is not doing her work properly”, or a (often drunk) man coming on to a woman at a party (happened at multiple organisations), to a senior editor sending inappropriate text messages to staffers or commenting on clothing. There are hundreds of examples. Yet, nobody cares to spell them out as harassment. No woman wants to be the one insisting such trainings or meetings or workshops are held either. Even if they are, they often just end up crying themselves hoarse.

(This article has been written under pseudo name for personal reasons.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of November-December 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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