Women Uninterrupted | Podcast Series

The Workplace | Women Uninterrupted podcast - Episode 5

Women Uninterrupted is an inter-generational podcast bringing you difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations about being a woman.

Episode 5 of this five-part series is all about holding your nerve. About gathering courage to stay put with dignity in the workforce when you are the subject of sexual harassment. Listen as a young doctor tells her story.

Host: Anna ; Guest: Spurthi

Editor: Neha; Title music: The Carpet Beat, by Maya

The Women Uninterrupted podcast was produced by The Scribbling Pad for The Hindu. It is brought to you by BSCPL Infrastructure Ltd.

You can listen to all episodes of Women Uninterrupted here

You can also listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music

Voices that will alter statistics

It was quite by chance that a bunch of medical students from Karnataka became an integral part of a global project that studied how sexual violence was portrayed in Indian media. They researched, they interviewed, they wrote; along with liberal arts students from other Indian universities.

Dr Spurthi Venkatesh, our guest in this episode, was then a medical student in Bangalore. She interviewed survivors, feminists, ordinary folks, and over the course of two years, immersed herself in the project.

Four years later, these experiences informed the actions she took when she encountered sexual harassment at her first workplace.

The importance of ordinary people speaking frankly and exhaustively about socially sensitive issues was never better demonstrated. From an introverted student to a confident thought leader armed with the vocabulary to address sexual harassment, Spurthi has come a long way.

A 2019 op-ed in The Hindu says only 23% of Indian women aged 15-59 were employed in 2018. Voices like Spurthi’s are the ones that will alter statistics and help meet sustainable development goals.

The workplace: full text of the conversation

The text has been edited for clarity

Anna: Hello, I'm your host Anna and with me I have Dr. Spurthi Venkatesh. I met Spurthi in 2018 when she was a medical student, and I was her mentor on a journalism internship with UNESCO and Bournemouth University. Congrats Spurthi, on graduating despite all the writing work I made you do those two long years.

Spurthi: Thank you, Anna. Glad to be back with you and talking on the same topic on which we were working in 2018.

Anna: Before I talk to Spurthi, I'd like to warn our listeners, this episode deals with a sensitive issue of sexual harassment. I invited Spurthi on this podcast because she successfully reported a case of sexual harassment to the Internal Complaints Committee, now we call it the IC, at her hospital. Spurthi, tell me how different the outcome was, in contrast to the case of a survivor whom you interviewed during your journalism internship with me?

Spurthi: That was a difficult article to write. The reporter and I talked to the survivor over several days. She was a patient at Chennai hospital and was molested by a doctor.

Anna: I remember we had to take a lot of care to be as professional as we could. We were then studying how media in India covered sexual violence, and we had to practice the same standards that we were prescribing.

Spurthi: That experience helped me a lot. Kept me steady, while I convinced myself to file a sexual harassment complaint against my senior at my workplace. I was quite surprised how much things had changed since the molestation case in the Chennai Hospital, which was just before the #MeToo movement….and you told me how you left one of your earliest jobs way before the POSH act or anything.

Anna: That was the early 90s, even before the Vishaka guidelines, or any kind of direction on sexual harassment at the workplace.

I could not put my finger on it then except that I was getting a different kind of attention from my editor, wordplay for instance. I was the only woman on the staff, so I told myself I was overreacting as an immature young person to adult locker room banter, till one afternoon when he appeared in the newsroom and went overboard with the banter targeting me. I told no one but quietly walked out without collecting my dues. Years later, I came back to the same city, I tried looking for him because by then I had the vocabulary. I wanted to tell him how much he had impacted my career, but he had died of premature death. Quite an anticlimax, no?

Spurthi: I had the same doubts when it happened to me on text. Was this sexual harassment? What would be the aftermath? How does a young person know if it's harassment or if it's normal in a casual conversation? I was very much perplexed on where to draw the line between appropriateness and inappropriateness. Then I shared it with a male friend, because I wanted to know his perspective. He told me no, this was inappropriate and should be reported. I was also extremely worried because as doctors we work long, lonely hours, and this incident triggered many personal issues within me. I was feeling uncomfortable and unseen. Thanks to my friend who listened. He told me to go in and inform someone authoritative.

Anna: That was when you went to the IC?

Spurthi: I went to my department head with my evidence, and to my surprise, the very next day I could present my case to IC. It had more women than men and a female lawyer. They also informed the local police

Anna: How did the presentation to the IC go for you?

Spurthi: I was questioned rigorously and repeatedly over the minor details of the incident. There was a bit of over-examination of my responses to the perpetrator, and I could see a healthy amount of skepticism and speculation in the IC’s approach. But, it's necessary for the victim to understand this is a part of the process and to still go ahead with the reporting.

Anna: Did you think that was intrusive?

Spurthi: No. I think we have to help with due process and it speeds up the process. Have faith in the process, which is not easy, but the more all of us speak up it will become simpler and more comfortable for the victims.

Anna: Hearing from other victims, or survivors, is important, so I'm glad you're talking about this today, Spurthi. Can't have been easy for you. What helped you most to go through this entire thing?

Spurthi: At that point of time, I knew reporting was easier than facing what could have happened. If I had not reported it wouldn't have been easier for me, because I was in the workplace for the long haul. It kind of psychologically affected me, because there was a question in the IC, they asked me why I thought I was targeted, and not my peers who also happened to be there. That triggered in me some afterthoughts like, how did others perceive me? Was I presenting myself in a certain way that is more inviting than the rest? I was extremely conscious of my every hand movement, my tone of voice, manner of speaking. I sought therapy at this point, and that worked for me.

Anna: I remember the Chennai molestation survivor at her IC hearing, the hospital management wanted to have the molester present at it. They were pushing the narrative that she should just hear him out as what he had done was okay. Did you come under any such pressure?

Spurthi: No, my hearing did not include him. He has been suspended and I never needed to see him again. In fact, we gave our narratives separately without having to see each other.

Anna: Okay. POSH mandates that there must be enough information at the workplace, that shows you where and how you can reach the IC. Did you have that information at your fingertips?

Spurthi: No, but my department head made it really convenient for me.

Anna: I can see a couple of gaps we still have to address like more information, easy access to IC, more training on what exactly constitutes sexual harassment.

Spurthi: We've come very far in how we deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. Even compared to four years ago before #MeToo movement. I'm not sure if I expected such a quick response, and now I'm confident enough that it’s okay to talk about it.

Anna: Thank you. Thank you, Spurthi, for the confidence you've entrusted in me. I would like this to encourage more women to go ahead and report, and to keep staying in the workplace without additional stress.

If you're working in an organization with 10 or more employees, ask for access to the IC if you're facing sexual harassment. If you are in a smaller outfit, approach the LC or the local committee.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 9:25:20 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/podcast/the-workplace-women-uninterrupted-podcast-episode-5/article65563468.ece