I sat across him in his office waiting for him to respond to my statement, ‘Thanks for calling me for the interview. I am keen to work in the Films Department.’
This ad guy looked across at me and said, ‘Why do you want to work behind the camera? You should be in front of the camera. Look at that skin.’
A shiver of embarrassment went down my spine but since this was a job interview, I held my composure outside and replied, ‘If I wanted to be in front of the camera, I would have gone for it. I’m looking for a job in the Films department.’
He immediately got up and said, ‘Come with me. I will show you the office.’
I followed him, hoping he would reflect upon my diploma in Film & Video Communication from NID, one of the most prestigious institutes of India. I also hoped that he had noticed me doing my job well, as an Assistant Director on an ad film we wrapped up for his agency, just a couple of weeks before this interview.
I was hoping he would notice more than my skin.
He took me to the first table in the office. The Client Servicing guy stood there and the Films guy asked him, ‘Look at her. If she joins this office, wouldn’t you be distracted?’ The Client servicing guy laughed and I felt my cheeks going flush with embarrassment.
He then took me to the next table and asked another guy, ‘Hey you! Would you be able to get any work done, if she came to this office?’ The guy laughed and this time my heart sank a little bit in my chest.
Not once, not twice, he took me to an entire row of desks behind which, men sat and sniggered at his comment as five feet eight inches of me shrank within and I just looked like a big girl who could take care of herself but deep inside, I became a little child not knowing what to do in the face of this bullying.
You see, that was my first job interview.
I had been told that one goes for an interview to get a job. You either get it or you don’t. As a result, I was prepared to deal with the eventuality of not getting a job. But I had not been prepared for the misogyny I faced. My college and my education did not prepare me for a job interview that reeked of sexism and just plain bullying. I wasn’t told that if he didn’t have a vacancy he wouldn’t simply say ‘No’ even though he could have just done that.
For many years, I was unable to understand why he did what he did. I was also unable to understand why I tolerated this. For many years, my hands itched at my inaction. My voice craved to break free so I could give him a piece of my mind. What if I had said this. Or that? Why didn’t I say it? Why did I feel so small? I wasn’t getting the job anyway. I should have done something…anything.
Each time I thought about it, I went through this job interview scenario in my head, over and over again where I could change this narrative of sexism and bullying. I wanted to plan the perfect response in case this happened again. Or prepare a speech, just in case, I saw the same man, so I could confront him.
Of course, if it happens now, it wouldn’t take me a second to call him out on but it’s too late now. This happened over thirteen years ago.
And this was not the only incident. Many small and big incidents preceded this and followed it. There were times I foolishly wondered if it was my fault. There were phases of self-blame, doubt and guilt for someone else’s actions. Did I laugh too much with them on the set or in the office even though everyone else was laughing at the joke they had cracked? Did I come across as too intimidating – as someone who had to be taken down? Should I play dumb next time and pretend I don’t know my job? Is it just me who is attracting these kind of people and incidents? Am I over-reacting?
The answer, as I have recently discovered, is No. I wonder how many women have been at the receiving end of these micro-aggressions even before they join the workforce. A job interview that reeks of sexism and bullying is only the beginning of what they face on an everyday basis. And not just in the media industry. And most importantly, when I think of my life and what I have faced in this small span, I shudder to think of the misogyny women face every day, out there.
Forget about acting upon these. Even ignoring this harassment day in and day out consumes time and energy and severely impacts the mental health of the person at the receiving end of this.
You might wonder what is the need to talk about this now. The same need that a fresh college graduate needed to hear this thirteen years ago, that it was not her fault. That she could stand up and answer back. And that a series of such incidents should not define her career trajectory. It was important to talk then. It is important to talk now.
Also, with all the empathy I have gathered over the years, if I were to meet this man again, I wouldn’t want to blast him. However, I do want to sit across the table from him and understand if he realised the impact of his words, at the time. Many times these micro-aggressions come in the form of unconscious biases we have towards a certain gender, race or religion. They can come as much from women as from men. The best way to deal with it at the workplace or at an interview is not by blaming the person but by understanding what caused that action. If I were to take this same interview, I will tell him that this was unnecessary and that he needs to look into his biases. And that would be my closure.
I am glad I did not take up that job. But in a way, it was taken from me. Today if someone asks me about my first job interview, I wish I could say, ‘I nailed it.’ But the truth is, it never really happened.
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