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.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Sexually charged workplaces

  1. I believe that it is time for us to start addressing some of these dynamics which we keep pushing under the carpet and perhaps the only time we refer to them is in humour or sarcasm. But addressing them will also mean addressing some of our deeply held discomfort, awkwardness, embarrassment and to some extent shame associated with sexuality. The idea of acknowledging, exploring and discussing this issue with a certain degree of dignity and objectivity is alien to most of us. There is so much emphasis on suppression that unearthing these issues seems like a uphill task. My concern as always is how. That question often becomes a stumbling block for me to take it further even if there is a willingness to discuss the same.

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    1. I believe a good starting point would be to acknowledge that gender is an integral part of our identity and how we hold the masculine and feminine principles within ourselves has a significant part to play in our interfaces. Issues of Sexuality can then be engaged with in the broader context of gender- what I have in mind is something akin to the work done in Gender and Identity lab offered by Sumedhas. The intensity and depth can vary according to the readiness of the people concerned but at least a start can be made

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