Sexually charged workplaces

Human beings in the present day world have to learn something which our ancestors did not need to, namely, how to share our work spaces with members of the other gender. On the face of it , this seems like simply a matter of overcoming our  socialised prejudices about gender roles, but the actual reality may be a lot more complex. Let us begin by  imagining the following scenario-

There is a group of 8 to 10 people sitting in the conference room of a multinational IT company. Their demeanour suggests that they are discussing some important issues around which there are strong opinions. In this group there are two attractive youngsters Abhishek and Madhabi. Both of them are participating in the discussion but every now and then, their eyes keep finding each other. They both seem to be aware that they are being noticed by the “other” and keep acknowledging it through their eyes and occasional smiles. Mr. Mehta who is the senior most member of the group has noticed these subtle exchanges between the two. Mr Mehta who is quite fond of Madhabi, keeps giving disapproving looks to both of them which remain largely unnoticed by the couple. At some stage in the discussion, Madhabi expresses an idea about which Abhishek has some reservations. However he does not want to offend Madhabi and puts forth his objection in a tentative and confused manner. Mr Mehta reacts sharply to him and says in a stern tone “I am unable to understand anything of what you are saying and fail to understand your objection to Madhabi’s excellent suggestion”. The rest of the group members silently look at each other and smile in a “knowing” manner- tacitly agreeing that it would be futile to discuss the issue any further.

This is a fairly common place occurrence and could be happening in several places right at this moment. What is interesting about it is that it so commonplace that its significance eludes us. We are likely to see it as “par for the course” and think nothing about it. Just like the members of the group described above, we recognise that what is visible is only the “tip of the iceberg” and the “real issues” lie elsewhere; but also believe that the prudent approach is to ignore them. This is the prevalent approach of most organisation towards issues of Sexual dynamics unless of course they manifest themselves as cases of sexual harassment.

Whenever Men and Women come together in any space, some sexual energy is triggered. It is not always overt and may not even be experienced by the people concerned as having anything to do with Sexuality. Often it manifests itself in a subtle manner like heightened self-consciousness, preoccupation with how one is being received, subtle competitiveness with members of one’s own gender, shifts in language/body postures etc. Even without our realising, we also convey messages about our Gender Ideology. For example, when a woman sitting in a group generally speaks in soft tones and keeps her gaze down, she  communicates a strong adherence to prescribed gender roles. On the other hand when a woman talks in loud voice, uses rough language and looks other people in the eye, she communicates her indifference/defiance of prevalent gender roles. These “unstated statements” invariably generate strong  feeling responses in others including attraction, repulsion, anger and hostility or tenderness and protective instinct.

Simply put, when Men and Women share a space, there is plenty which is happening below the surface.  In most systems, unless this dynamics manifests itself through blatant violations like sexual harassment, it is pushed under the carpet. Even in cases of Sexual harassment, the general preference is to overlook minor aberrations and subtle indicators. Thus till the proverbial “shit” hits the ceiling, we tend to ignore  it or dismiss it as not very significant. Needless to say, just because we close our eyes to it, it does not go away. It continues to operate below the surface and impacts the ambience of the work space as illustrated in the scenario described above, and/or finds release in unbridled sexual encounters.

In some ways this tendency to ignore or pushing under the carpet is not unique to sexual dynamics of. In most work systems almost all human dynamics  is treated in a similar fashion. The general belief being that work systems must be governed by “rationality” and the “emotional” side is the “private affair “of the individual and must be dealt by him/her alone.  However there are some factors which make the dynamics of Sexual tension very distinct from other forms of human dynamics. These are as follows-

  1. The primal energy associated with sexuality triggers a much higher levels of emotional intensities and passion than what may occur in other forms of human dynamics.
  2. The sexual urges are particularly prone to being suppressed/repressed, and hence it is very difficult for the individual to acknowledge them or own them up. In the scenario described earlier, it is quite likely that Mr. Mehta may have no clue about the link between his  sexual jealousy and his need to “put down Abhishek”.
  3. The social embarrassment makes it extremely difficult to bring these issues into the open and generally there is strong collective collusion to remain silent and pretend as though nothing is happening.
  4. Most importantly, as a species we have developed very little capability of sharing a work space with members of the other gender. In large part of human history, men and women have worked and often also lived in segregated spaces. In Indian joint family system, there was very little interaction between Men and Women . Even between husband and wife, the interaction was confined to the privacy of their bedroom, if they had one. Their work spaces were clearly demarcated with virtually no interference/involvement of the other. The domains of their leisure activities were also separate, and hence they had very little opportunity to learn how to manage the Sexual tension which is an inevitable part of any Man-Woman relationship.                                                                                                                                                                                     Admittedly, with changes in social design, child rearing practices, co-educational institutions and reconfiguration of gender roles, we are getting some experience of sharing a space with each other, but the codings received through a long evolutionary history can not be thrown away just like that. Further,there are many conflicting messages which the individual imbibes through these different sources,which creates considerable confusion around gender roles and relations. Thus while on one hand there is a celebration of ambition and need for achievement in women, on the other hand popular T.V. serials continue to project them as infrastructure/martyrs whose only concern is the well-being of their family. It is therefore not surprising that this confusion is played out in work spaces where both Men and Women carry conflicting expectations both of themselves and the “other”.


Quite clearly, in the days to come the need for men and women to share their work spaces is likely to increase greatly. Consequently, healthy and effective engagement with Sexual dynamics is likely to have a significant impact both for the individual as also for the total system. Unfortunately most of the prevalent approaches in the area of gender diversity/dynamics either side-step the issue of sexual dynamics or treat it as an illegitimate intruder into work space. Their essential position being that in the sphere of work space , Gender is (or at least should be) irrelevant. All that matters is the skills and competencies that the person brings to the table  and whether it is a Man or a Woman is of no consequences. The emphasis is on treating one self and others as People rather than as Men and Women. This stance is neither feasible nor very healthy because it leads to further repression/suppression of sexual urges and/or their indiscriminate discharge.  After all, work spaces are formed, nourished and fostered by communities of Men and Women and not by de-sexualised robots of skills and competencies.  Undoubtedly  Men and Women are not just sexual objects. Equally they have a gender/sexual identity which is an integral part of them and will necessarily manifests itself in their interaction with each other.

Thus we have no real choice other than to learn how to share our work spaces with members of the other gender without de-sexualising either ourselves or the other person.What this entails is a significant reconfiguration of our gender/sexual identities. Hitherto these have evolved in the context of certain bifurcation of socio-economic roles of the two genders. These bifurcations are fast losing their relevance, but our gender/sexual identities are still caught with them. A typical example of this is the difficulty which many Men experience when their advance are turned down by a Woman who is lower to them in power  and status hierarchy.While some high profile cases of this nature may attract considerable attention, it is generally overlooked that it is a fairly common occurrence.  Mere moral indignation about such occurrences does not take us very far. What this require of us is serious work with ourselves-particularly around the question as to what does it mean to be a Man or a Woman in today’s world where traditional bifurcation of social roles are no longer applicable?

Do share your insights about Sexual dynamics  as you have experienced it  in the work spaces that you are/have been a part of.






Guilt Vs. Shame- The Indian Context

Guilt and Shame are not very pleasant feelings, but they play a significant role in fostering Individual and Social health. The popular Psychology particularly of the American variety tends to treat both Guilt and Shame as undesirable but has a marked preference for Guilt. It is argued that Guilt has some redeeming features whereas Shame has none. The basic argument goes something like as follows-

  1. Shame is focussed on the Self (e.g. I feel ashamed because of my poor looks) as against Guilt which is focused on specific actions( e.g. I feel guilty because I cheated)
  2. Shame has a stronger link with other’s perception (e.g. loss of face) as against Guilt which is focused on one’s own realisation (e.g. remorse)
  3. Guilt has a direct link with ethics and morality(e.g. I violated a code of norms and values) whereas Shame is more generic (e.g.I feel awkward in social interaction)
  4. In Guilt, there is a recognition of the “other” as a separate person and concern about the impact of our action on him/her. In Shame, the only preoccupation is with one’s own “self-image” either in the eyes of others or oneself.
  5. In Guilt, there is greater accountability whereas in Shame one tends to look at oneself as a “helpless victim”
  6. Consequently, Guilt can be utilised productively, whereas Shame only leads to withdrawal, passivity, substance abuse, self-beating etc.
  7. Shame is associated with the second stage of Erikson’s model and Guilt with the third. Similarly Shame is seen as linked to pre-oedipal stage in the Freudian frame and Guilt with the Oedipal stage. Hence there has been a tendency to look at Guilt as a more “advanced” feeling than Shame.

More than half a century ago, anthropologist Ruth Benedict used the distinction between Guilt and Shame to contrast American and Japanese cultures and labeled them as “Guilt Culture” and “Shame Culture” respectively. Since there was an implicit superiority of “Guilt” over “Shame” some degree of controversy around her work was inevitable. However it opened up the possibility of going beyond the simplistic lens with which we look at these two and also how it is important to look at them in relation to the salience of different cultures. Some significant issues in this regard are as follows-

  1. Many of the differences between Guilt and Shame rest on the “assumed volition” by the person, which is highly subjective in nature and also has a strong cultural dimension. There are people who believe that almost everything that happens to them is linked to their own choices and action; simultaneously there are people who believe that their own choices and actions are of very little significance. Thus the same phenomenon can be seen as “guilt inducing” by the first group and “shame inducing” by the other. Similarly cultures differ in the significance that they attach to “individual volition”. For instance, in the traditional Indian culture, the distinction between “what is of your choice” and “what is not” is not very relevant. The theory of reincarnation being a classical example of how “individual volition” can be regarded as completely irrelevant (it is all because of your deeds in the past births) and also  the only important factor (after all, it is all because of your own deeds though in an earlier birth) Thus to look at Guilt and Shame through the lens of accountability may not be very relevant for cultures like India.
  2. There is perhaps some validity to associating Guilt with a later stage of Psycho-social development,but that does not make it into a more advanced feeling. If anything, it suggests that Shame is the more basic of the two and Guilt is in a way, a kind of shame. However the more important question is as to what does it tell us about the two. As has been suggested by some scholars, it is likely that Shame is linked to “fear of abandonment” whereas Guilt is linked to “fear of punishment”.Putting it in the Indian context, it is significant to note that threat of exclusion has been the most powerful way of dealing with deviant behaviour in traditional Indian society. “Hukka Paani Band” ( exclusion from social intercourse) was a common practice in most Indian villages. In a more subtle form, use of exclusion/isolation continues to be deployed even in the more modern urban society to control individual deviance.
  3. Another significant factor is the relative emphasis which a cultures places on Individualism and Independence as against Collectivism and Interdependence. Cultures which place more emphasis on Individualism/Independence are like to clearly bifurcate between “what belongs to the Self” and “what belongs to others/context”. In cultures like India which have a greater focus on Collectivism/Interdependence, the notion of Self is a lot more fluid and hence it is virtually impossible to differentiate  one’s notions about oneself, from the notions that significant others have about us. This has significant implications for both Shame and Guilt.Shame goes beyond a mere “loss of face” and gets linked to one’s expectations of oneself. Similarly Guilt does not remain an abstract ethical/moral construct but gets linked to “other people’s expectations from one self”
  4. Another dubious distinction between Shame and Guilt is that the former pertains to the Self and later to one’s actions. In Indian tradition, Feeling, Thought and Action are seen as a composite whole and not distinct from each other. Thus it is not very uncommon for a person to feel ashamed/guilty for having an inappropriate thought/feeling even if it is not translated into action.

The central point that I wish to make is that the Western belief that Guilt is a more “productive” feeling than Shame may not be very applicable in the Indian context. Perhaps in the western context, Guilt has played a more proactive role in “self-regulation” and “social -control”; whereas Shame has been seen as something which one only suffers silently and passively. This may not be true for other cultures like India. In fact, it appears that in our tradition, Shame has been the main vehicle for both self-regulation and social-control. Simultaneously, one can not escape the reality that the modern-day societies are built on the premise that Shame is essentially a personal/private affair whereas Guilt entails accountability to others/culpability and is therefore more amenable for self-regulation and social control.

This places us in a very difficult position. On one hand, our traditional (Shame based)ways of self-regulation and social-control are no longer applicable and on the other our psychic orientation is not very receptive to the modern (Guilt based) ways. Thus any attempt to induce guilt creates strong defiance and counter-reaction. This is often witnessed in the perennial tussle between “law enforcing” agencies and  mobs/clans representing “popular sentiment”. Simply put we seem to be losing our sensitivity to Shame and becoming increasingly defiant and violent in dealing with Guilt

This becomes particularly stark when the issues involved pertain to collective pathologies like caste/gender based oppression. The more they are sought to be addressed through “Inducing Guilt” the more virulent the response becomes. Needless to say, there are no easy answers. Perhaps what we need is a judicious mix of both Guilt based strategies and Shame based strategies. The main difference between the two is that while Guilt based strategies focus on the “wrong doings” of the individual/group/ community; the Shame based strategies focus on the “failure” of the individual/group/community to live up to its own “idealised image”

In my work with myself, other people, groups, organisations, I have found that an over-reliance on either of the two strategies becomes counter-productive. Also their efficacy is at least partly dependent upon fear of exclusion (in case of Shame) and fear of punishment (in case of Guilt) Fortunately, there is much more to human existence than these fears. Human beings also have innate needs for self-reflexivity,integrity, meaningfulness, concern and compassion, which perhaps play an even greater role in self-regulation and social control. However it would be utopian to dismiss the role of Guilt and Shame in this respect. The best that one can possibly hope for is to deploy them in ways which take into account the salient cultural context.

Look forward to hearing from you how you have experienced the interplay of Guilt and Shame in yourself and your context.



IIMs and JNU

Some time back I received a link to a “point by point rebuttal” of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech. Not surprisingly, the rebuttal was being given by a person with IIT/ IIM background. I said “not surprisingly” because increasingly, I am finding some clear differences between the stances of people who belong to these two broad categories. Clearly there are variances within each group, but for the moment I am focusing on broad patterns. Also I am using both IIM and JNU in a symbolic sense. Not every JNU type necessarily belongs to JNU and not every IIM type necessarily belongs to an IIM. For example, before joining IIM Ahmedabad way back in 1970, I would describe myself as a JNU type though I had never been there. Let me elaborate.

After flirting with Engineering, I had made up my mind to pursue an academic career preferably in Philosophy. I was studying an unusual combination of Philosophy, psychology and Mathematics. Though I was reasonably good in academics, a large part of my time was spent in college canteen/ India Coffee house, pontificating about all kinds of issues. I was actively involved in student politics and had strong leftist leanings. Much later in life, I realised that these leftist leanings had very little to do with political ideology. They were more an expression of my “romantic idealism” and an innate “anti-establishment” streak. Thus while I revered people like George Fernandise and Madhu Limaye, the same reverence was not extended to Indira Gandhi in spite of the fact that she was fighting against a strong right-wing syndicate within the Congress party and had taken strong measures like bank nationalisation and abolishing of privy purses. Perhaps her being part of the “establishment” had much to do with it. Thus whatever she did was seen as political expediency, whereas whatever likes of Limaye did was seen as an act of commitment and conviction.

However, very soon I got disillusioned with the lack of substantiveness of University life,particularly in the philosophy department and made a compromise decision of joining IIM Ahmedabad. I call it a compromise decision because I had no emotive pull towards pursuing a career in Management. I wonder if any one pursues management education for the love of the subject. Generally speaking their choice is determined more by ambition and issues of  career-success  than emotional/intellectual fulfilment.

I soon discovered that both my romantic idealism as also my anti-establishment streak were not very compatible with the ethos of IIMA. I was surrounded by colleagues who  were very proper in their behaviour,took their studies seriously and had brilliant academic records. While they liked an occasional “Adda”, their primary focus was on their studies, getting good grades and bagging a prestigious job at the end of the course. Further, management as a discipline is much more comfortable with rational pragmatism and tangible empirical evidence than any philosophical enquiry which is based on a different set of beliefs and assumptions about human condition. After all, it will not be very comfortable if managers were to start questioning the primacy of constructs like “cost-benefit analysis” or “increasing market share” or “growth/profitability”etc. Thus “managers are not philosophers” is a statement that has been repeatedly thrown at me both during my IIM days and thereafter. Gradually, my romantic idealism began to wither away and I was in the complete grip of my “anti-establishment” streak. This got manifested in blatant disregard for systemic requirements, mindless arguments and actions of utter self-waste. My stay at IIMA was best captured by a friend in the course-end booklet-

” All night card-games in smoke filled rooms,vehement arguments with harassed instructors, old film songs, impeccable Hindi : that’s Mama. On those rare occasions when he has the time and the inclination he goes to class” ( Mama was my nick name at the Institute)

To cut a long story short, I was a misfit amongst the JNU types and I became a misfit amongst the IIM types. Perhaps there is some perverse romanticism about being a misfit OR may be non-polarisation of ambivalence is such an integral part of my identity that no matter where I am, I become a misfit.This ambivalence has surfaced with great force in the last couple of months while the difference between the JNU types and the IIM types has become very sharp in the social discourse/social media triggered by some recent developments.In this discourse, I hear two very distinct voices both of which leave me feeling ambivalent.

The first voice I hear is of the JNU types. The romantic/idealist in me resonates strongly with their emphasis on humanistic values of liberty, Equality and Fraternity. My anti-establishment streak is reinforced when they talk of all the injustice and oppression that we have inherited from our past and how it is all too prevalent in our present social order. On the other hand, I also start feeling a little uneasy with their emphasis on only the negatives be it of our heritage or of our present condition. It overwhelms me with feelings of guilt and shame as an Indian and particularly as an upper caste Hindu. I ask myself – is caste/gender based oppression the only thing that they see about us? Do they see nothing to celebrate in the Indian reality? While they keep harping on virtues of diversity and plurality, have they ever bothered to ask as to what are the inherent strengths of this civilisation ? If caste/gender based oppression was its only narrative then how could this diversity flourish?

The other thing which puts me off about the JNU types is what I experience as their  intellectual arrogance and the ease with which they dismiss any view point other than their own. The meanings that they give to words like Liberalism or Secularism or their narrative of Indian tradition and history can not be questioned. While they decry the Brahmincal Indian tradition, I wonder if they ever see as to how much of Intellectual Brahminism they display. They come across to me as very erudite people but leave me wondering about the depth of their assimilation of what they are talking about.

Another voice that I hear is of the IIM types. I strongly resonate with their rational pragmatism, with their refusal to be emotionally blackmailed by sentimentality, by their respect for structure/order and their pursuit of progress/development without upsetting the apple cart. My difficulty with them arises when they refuse to look beyond what seems like “common sense” to them -for example when they talk of “meritocracy” without getting into the nuances of “merit”. Listening to them I feel that there are no structural inequities in this world and all will be well provided  there is “law and order” and people did their work honestly and diligently. Needless to say, corrupt politicians /bureaucrats are their favourite punching bags . Perhaps they do not see much difference between running a company and managing a nation state and believe that all that it takes to set things right is  competent and honest leadership.

The other difficulty that I have with the IIM types is their arrogance of success. In their book, the ultimate test of any perspective is “success” which is invariably defined in tangible terms like GDP, FDI, Improvements in infra-structure etc. Any mention of intangibles like social disharmony, ambience of fear/intolerance, ecological insensitivity is either dismissed for “lack of evidence” or treated as minor aberrations or attributed to malevolence of people who want to detract us from our “development agenda”. Also in their world, people are clearly divided as “winners” and “losers” and needless to say, it is only “winners” who are regarded as worthy of listening to.

One of the main differences between the IIM types and the JNU types is the way they engage with the prevalent values and beliefs of their context. For the IIM types these values and beliefs are “common sense” and hence “self-evident”. They strive to play by the established rules and excel. Consequently they seek stability and thrive in it. On the other hand the JNU types believe that the rules themselves are flawed and need to be re-written. Hence they seek to disrupt and thrive in chaos. It is not easy (at least for me) to say as to who is right and who is wrong. I believe both are partly right and partly wrong.

What adds to the difficulty is the propensity of both groups to deploy the logic of “either-or” variety. Both groups seek to bifurcate on the basis of binaries like good-bad, right-wrong, true-false etc. It is another matter that what one group regards as “right”, the other sees it as “wrong”.  Both groups are very sure of themselves and there is very little space for “self-doubt”. Thus one can only agree or disagree with them- particularly when it comes to their basic beliefs and assumptions.The end result is that rather than complementing each other, they end up fighting each other.

It is hardly surprising that some one like me for who “doubt’ has been a constant companion, should feel a bit out of place amongst people who are so sure, so clear, and so certain, irrespective of what specific position that they take. Simultaneously,since I have strong identification (and equally strong reservations ) with both JNU types and IIM types, I try to co-hold them to the best of my ability. Indeed it creates some difficulties, several misunderstandings and considerable confusion. If there is one thing that I am clear about – it is the need to co-held them, or for that matter all such perspectives/phenomenon which seem contrary and mutually exclusive.

Do share your experience with binaries both in yourself and the world around you.