If you have a job, you should read Own It. It


If you have a job, you should read Own It. It's that simple

A CEO of a corporation, on his way down from a cigarette break, grabs a young employee and forcibly kisses her.

The woman is shaken. But the next day, she goes to HR, and the HR head asks if she will make a formal written complaint. The woman says she will think about it.

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The HR head then calls in a witness - a male colleague who happened to be on the staircase at the time. He is asked if he will make the formal complaint. Only if she does, he says.

She doesn't.

Because she is an Indian woman. Because being "allowed to work", is as much of a good thing as she can expect to have. If she talks about it at home, that benefit may be taken away. No family will tolerate her being violated at the hands of another man. It will be seen as an offence unto the family she belongs to.

And if she reports it, then she endangers her position at the corporation - HR reports directly to the CEO.

So she eventually resigns.

This isn't a one-off. This isn't even an epidemic. It's a pandemic.

There's limited research, but it would appear that one in three women in the workplace have been sexual harassed.

The forms it takes:

A CEO telling an employee at a company event, "You were so sexy on stage I came in my pants." Or a colleague pointing out, "Tumhare saamne Kareena Kapoor kuchh nahi hain" (Kareena Kapoor doesn't even compare to you.)

Touching when no one's looking. Grabbing. Molesting. Elevator scanning. Telling an employee, particularly a client-facing one, "Dress sexily, the client has a crush on you." Or, when a client turns down an offer, "Why? Didn't you drop your pallu?"

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If it's pointed out, the responses will vary from, "Even God forgives one mistake" to "I have two children!"

If there is a response at all. And if - the bigger if, given that most HR departments answer to senior management - there is ever a complaint.

Aparna Jain begins to Own It

Over 190 interviews across all Indian metros - Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Gurgaon; most of them, face-to-face - Aparna Jain conducted the most comprehensive series of conversations about women at the workplace.

Honest, anecdotal conversations about the wide spectrum of problems women have to face, even at the most progressive corporations - sexual harassment, being "allowed" to work, being thought of as the secondary, and therefore redundant, breadwinner. Being thought of as too aggressive, too meek, too involved with children, and unable to negotiate a higher salary.

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Photo: File

This book is unprecedented - both in its scale and in breadth of content. Jain lays it all out. She narrates heartbreaking anecdotes, matter-of-factly. Oh, and her book is simmering with heartbreaking anecdotes.

Like that of a woman whose husband moved to another bedroom because she was nursing an infant. Her husband needed his "good night's sleep" after all.

And a woman who earned Rs 35 lakh a year, but needed her husband's permission to buy a new pair of chappals. To go with the salwar-kameez her husband "allowed" her to wear.

But that isn't the half of it. Jain doesn't just leave you with a voyeur's glimpse into the life of a working woman. For every woman still struggling to get it together, she'll throw in the story of a woman who's figured it out.

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Like Kiran Shah (name changed), who managed to win over her cranky mother-in-law who was constantly berating her for being "an inconsiderate wife and an incompetent career woman." This, Shah figured, was a function of her mother-in-law worrying about losing her relevance.

"I started to make an effort to take her out when my husband was out playing golf on Sundays. I insisted we have a girl breakfast in a fancy coffee shop once a month. I then took her shopping and she cribbed some more. But I insisted on doing it every month, whether it was to buy a simple outfit or have a facial, I got her to do something new each time."

"Something shifted around month three. She wasn't complaining that much. She was actually cracking jokes with me. She was smiling a lot more. Bottom line: No one had done anything just for her for a long time. Her entire life was spent taking care of her husband and sons."

"We had a movie-style teary-eyed moment when I reassured her she was not going anywhere. And that was it. I secretly got her a cash card and every month I top it up. That money is just between her and me and we have a deal that it is only for her personal use. I haven't told my husband about it and I never will. You can call it blackmail, but I call it taking care of her insecurities. Now when I come home from work, I am not berated. She supports me emotionally and I have a real relationship with her, where I can talk about my day to her over chai. My work day has become easier, and I am able to come home in a far more relaxed state of mind."

"I have also started to bring my colleagues home and they all love her cooking, so she feels even more special. That she now knows my colleagues also helps me keep my peace. When I am stressed, she advises me to speak to my friends at work. It's rather sweet."

Shah's move was genius. Good politicking was all she needed to turn the home around. Even if it was just showing her mother-in-law the silly material benefits of her career - a facial and a new outfit.

And there's a lot of that in Own It

The mistakes we all make - crying, appearing like either the heroic martyr, the withering wallflower or the simmering victim, not asking the right questions at a job interview, not asking the right questions on a first date - they're all listed here. Dispassionately, and yet, empathetically.

Jain then deconstructs those mistakes and provides step-by-step solutions. (I'd like to point out that I'm not one to care for self-help books when I could be enjoying good literature, but some of the lessons in here are just smart. Like Shah's top-up card for her mother-in-law).

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It's an important book, because it will likely draw your attention to the scale of the problems that do exist, or the problems you may be fortunate enough to have escaped, but are likely to follow you to wherever you go next. But crucially, this book is not only for women. This is a book a woman must read first, and then insist that her partner, brother, male-colleague, mother-in-law and mother pick up next. But are men reading her book, I ask?

"I know of only one. The director of IIM Indore wants me to come in for a talk. So he's read it, if only for academic purposes. And my editors. But that's about it."

That, perhaps, is as much of a tragedy as any anecdote in the book.

And remedying that would be a very good start indeed.

Edited by Payal Puri

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Sneha Vakharia

Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia