Speaking up in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Piyusha Vir talks about the sexual harassment and sexism she has faced in the hospitality and the hotel industry.
Courage. It’s a big word.
The world is in a furore, at least the Indian media and literary circles. If you don’t know what I am talking about, then here’s a quick update. Authors, journalists, comediennes – all big names – have been outed is a shocking expose on Twitter, all thanks to some courageous women who dared to speak and stand up against these powerful men.
The collective effort of these women is hard to ignore and it’s inspiring for more women to come forward. More women like me who are not just from media and literary circles but other professions and other industries too. Even if we women don’t out the men, it’s critical that men everywhere introspect and analyze their actions because ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ isn’t good enough anymore.
We’ve normalized such behaviour for too long. But, coming back to other industries and streams where sexual harassment is common – did you know which is that one industry where sexual harassment is rampantly normalized? To the extent that even job descriptions and interviews show evidence of blatant sexism and sexual harassment. Many of you know the answer because you know me!
That’s right, the service industry. Most instances that I have personally experienced range from subtle to shameless. People often ask me why I left the high-flying hotel career. What do I tell them? That I simply got fed up of all the sexual harassment and decided to just give up all one day?
Or that the gaslighting and mental harassment was too much for me to maintain my sanity any longer? Or that I had been ambitious and changed jobs every year for a better pay and more responsibilities? Or that every time I thought I had proved myself capable and deserving, I was passed over for a promotion because a less-deserving man got it?
The truth is that the service industry, especially the hotels, are extremely tough physically and mentally, more so, for women. And, extremely sexist.
Ever been to parties and functions where women were serving drinks and snacks? No, right, because that’s real work to be done by men. You’ll probably never meet a woman tandoor chef.
That’s physically demanding and gruelling work. Women are supposed to look pretty, not hot and sweaty. In fact, women in the professional kitchen space are rare. And on the one-off occasion that you do meet a woman chef, just talking to her would rid you of all misconceptions of women empowerment at the workplace.
(It’s not that the hotels are at fault all the time. In all fairness, a lot of hotels enforce strict work timings for women in departments like Housekeeping and Kitchen, especially where it puts them at greater risk. For example, in most hotels, women employees are exempt from venturing into certain areas at night, like guest rooms. So even if a guest, especially a male, needs assistance inside the room, a man would attend to the request. In most hotels, women in the house-keeping or kitchen department are not assigned night shifts.)
Of course, in most companies the policies are written down, guidelines in place and a clear course of action stipulated in case of any such incident being reported. So yes, the measures are in place at the policy level. And yet, the employees –bosses, colleagues, juniors – working there disrespect them, as a result outrightly flouting the policies and guidelines by their everyday actions. The women keep quiet. What else can they do?! Because, hey, it’s no big deal and it was just harmless flirting.
I have been at the receiving end of such despicable behaviour and such trivialising remarks. Detractors, naysayers, misogynists often ask, “Why she didn’t speak up then?”. They may put the same question to me too.
Yes, I didn’t speak up then. Truth is, even now when I am safe, in a place where my perpetrators cannot harm me, I am still scared to come out and name them publicly. Not because I don’t want to ruin their careers or their lives but because I am scared that I will be the one who will be hauled over coals. My actions would be scrutinized, and I would be faulted. Or targeted like Tanushree Dutta. Or questioned and ridiculed like Jwala Gutta. Or banned by social media apps like Twitter and Facebook.
I have forgotten how many times I’ve had to ward off unwanted attention from colleagues and guests – only because a woman in the hotel industry is thought to be an easy lay. And we, women in hotels, don’t even talk to each other about it because it’s expected and hence, normal.
Like, when I went out with a colleague because I liked him, I thought we had something special and took it to the level of video chats late in the night but when he suddenly, and then, most unexpectedly started masturbating and then flashed his genitals, it was my fault.
Like, how, as a young, inexperienced industrial trainee, when I complained about a sexual harassment incident, I was told by my then supervisor that, ‘Prevention is better than cure.’ No action was ever taken, the complaint was not even reported.
Like, how the next time, I personally reported the incident to the department head (to ensure that stronger action was taken) but received a backlash from his friends who ridiculed me for taking too seriously a trivial incident and blamed me for causing the guy to almost lose his job.
Like, how at a new job, a particularly troublesome junior shouted at the senior management during a departmental meeting, ‘I had asked for more people in the team – I meant for them to report to me, not that you bring a woman boss over my head.’ I was fired the next month on the pretext of questionable work ethics.
Like, when I knew that a certain person was a perverted jackass and still agreed to work under him anyway, only because I wanted to progress in my career. That was my fault.
Like, how this man, my boss, would stare down my chest, several times in a short conversation, enough number of times to make me check my button placket. Like, how I buttoned up my shirt till I felt its choking me, and still allowed him to make me feel like I was naked. I should have dressed up better still.
Like, how an interviewer once commented, “the Front Office department requires women to conform to a certain weight and figure. Don’t you think you are unfit for this role?” It was my fault that I didn’t agree with her comments and said my skills are what made me better equipped for my job.
Like, how male clients flirted shamelessly, despite knowing it was most unethical and unprofessional on their part to do so. Like, how I would try to keep subtly trying driving the conversation back to what it should have been – a business dealings within two companies instead of a personal interaction between two individuals.
I hope the skeletons of the hospitality and hotel industry too come tumbling out soon. I stand on the sidelines waiting to shame them when it happens. There’s a lot I want to say. Some of it goes back a few years and some a few decades.
I am speaking up, less than I want to, more than I would have. I am speaking up today, not because I feel ready but because I believe there are enough people to hold me and wipe away the hot tears that well in my eyes. I am not speaking up today because I still don’t have enough courage. I wish I did, though.
‘Someday… I will!’ I promise myself and go back to supporting those who do.
Image source: a still from the movie October.