When I first heard about Tarun Tejpal’s alleged* sexual assault on a journalist working under him, my first reaction was shock and my second was “why am I surprised?” Because it’s not like I had not heard of unseemly conduct in a respected superior in the media before. Rather, as I realised after a conversation with Curly last week, this kind of behavior seems to be so rife many of us just move on and sometimes even forget it.

The first newspaper I worked at was headed by an illustrious figure who I soon came to learn had a reputation for preying on the bright (and pretty) young women who idolized him. One of them, a close friend of mine, had got the job because Mr Editor was a friend of her fathers and that didn’t stop him from insisting on a meeting at her at his hotel. She firmly declined to his consternation, but she had heard the rumours before. Later, a colleague told me he had done the same with another girl. And there were rumours rife about him and the chief reporter, which I inadvertently fuelled when once on assignment I bumped into her at a hotel he was staying in and cluelessly came back and told some others in the office. I also found out later that another senior editor had quit due to Mr Editor’s advances.

In Hong Kong, the editor-owner of the first magazine I worked for had a reputation for employing pretty young women. Of which, I suppose I was one. We went to a lot of cocktail parties thrown by bankers and after that we’d go out for a drink with him, and all be a little boozy, and I noticed there was one girl in particular whose relationship with him seemed very strange. Later, I’d learnt they’d had an affair, although she was a friend of his family. He would get slightly inappropriate/flirty when drunk, but nothing we couldn’t laugh off. Then, my friend E went on a business trip with him and he got raging drunk and made a pass, which we ignored and he was contrite and offered to pay her plane ticket back to Europe (for a holiday) which he did and then was pissed when she quit. (I don’t remember the details of this clearly, which goes to say how normalized this was). Then, another friend found his flirting getting too persistent and inappropriate, only when she told him off, she was summarily sacked. (This was after I’d left) And again, I’d kind of forgotten all of this and how crazy it was, only it seemed par for the course then. You either knew how to handle these men, or you didn’t or couldn’t and you fell by the wayside.

My only direct experience with any of this was minor. A senior reporter at a prestigious international financial mag who I had briefly met at one of the banking cocktail thingies got in touch with me about a job opening at his publication. He asked me to meet for drinks/dinner to discuss it. I said fine, we met, discussed it. I was already wary of him because he had made out with my friend E after a party, and got a little over-persistent. He did get me an interview at the publication, though I didn’t get the job. However, one off note was that in between I called him to ask him something about the interview and he pushed very hard for us to meet again and discuss it. When I said we could just discuss it over the phone, he started whispering and saying he couldn’t talk right now and I could hear a woman I assumed was his wife in the background. I thought the whole thing was strange and was very careful in my dealings with him.

Curly told me about a couple of instances she knew off. The pattern we found was:

  1. Men who are idolized by women working under them
  2. Men who have done this so many times and are so secure in their position, they can’t even imagine there could be consequences for them.

There are two types of men in these cases:

  1. The men from conservative backgrounds who is at first wide-eyed at the boldness of women surrounding him and then think any woman who’s out there interacting with men is fair game.
  2. The liberal sophisticated types who think they are God’s gift.

The common denominator is the lack of respect for women. The men in category 1 don’t respect women, never have. The men in category 2 superficially respect women but actually have a condescending and patronizing attitude.

There are two types of women in these cases:

  1. The naïve ones who idolize these men
  2. The strong feisty ones who are in senior positions and try to walk the line without jeopardizing their positions.

I never heard of anyone raising a stink about it. When I discussed it with V, he said why don’t these women just call the cops? But I understand why it’s difficult to. Well, in India, few women trust the cops. And globally, I think, because these men are usually powerful and the women know that they risk a lot but drawing attention to themselves, they keep their heads down and move on.

Have you experienced or heard of incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior at work? How was it dealt with?

*I use “alleged” because Tejpal is now contesting his accuser’s version of events, and while it seems like he has a lot to answer for, my old journalistic habits die hard.