Updated: May 24
Nature, causes and adverse impact of sexual harassment at workplace as a form of gender based violence and the role of individuals in its prevention and the role of committee members in it’s redressal.
What is sexual harassment, really? What comes to your mind when you hear this term? By legal definition, sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favors or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated. It encompasses everything under the sun, from rape to leering and assault to stalking. When these acts are committed at a workplace, they make for a hostile work environment.
It is the fundamental right of every employee to work with dignity and without fear of danger, violence, discrimination, or harassment. Although a ‘hostile work environment’ is bound to the workspace by definition, it has catastrophic consequences even outside of work. These inimical situations are usually linked to substance abuse and other intimate complications such as increased tension at home.
We are not oblivious to the fact that sexual harassment is predominantly gender-based. Women throughout the world have been facing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. According to psychologists, the major reason for this is the ‘desire to protect occupational territory’. In most cases, gender-based and sexual harassment is a way to dis-empower and discourage women in male-dominated occupations. Another reason for such conduct could be the fact that most men are surrounded by a culture that reduces women to sexualized objects and when their jobs negate the men’s perception of women as sex objects, they are faced by sexual harassment. Also, there have been many instances where men feel so entitled and invincible to the point where they think it is perfectly okay to trespass sexual boundaries of a woman. Such was the case of the Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of rape, sexual abuse and sexual assault by more than 80 women in the film industry. The victims claimed that he promised to advance their careers in return for sexual favors.
Sexual harassment is of three types – visual, verbal and physical. Sexual harassment in the visual form may refer to unwanted leering, or exposing oneself to someone who does not appreciate the exposure. Displaying or parading pictures or videos that maybe offensive and/or of sexual nature also indicates visual sexual harassment. Verbal harassment includes offensive nicknaming, relentless requests for sexual favors, usage of sexual innuendos and comments that have a sexual connotation. Physical sexual harassment is the most conspicuous and ubiquitous form of harassment, which usually results in assault and even violence. Physical harassment subsumes unwanted touching, fondling, positioning oneself too close to someone, or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator inappropriately. All of these illicit activities suggest sexual harassment and all employees must be acquainted with and cognizant of both enacting or enduring them.
According to a 2018 survey, 38% of women reported that they have experienced sexual harassment at work. While most of us are aware of the ‘casting couch’ status quo that prevails in the entertainment industry, the number of cases reported by banks and IT firms in recent years cannot be overlooked. The threat of losing a job can make victims of sexual harassment afraid to come forward or even be compelled to oblige sexual favors. This is termed as ‘quid pro quo’ harassment, and is therefore mainly targeted towards the low wage earners.
These atrocities resulted in the brewing of a worldwide movement against sexual harassment, more popularly known as the #MeToo movement. Millions of people globally contributed to this movement which was initially concentrated against the popular film producer, Harvey Weinstein in 2016. Survivors of sexual harassment and abuse congregated against the perpetrators on the digital front. So, did anything change? According to a survey conducted by the Economic Times in 2018, the movement resulted in higher self-esteem and confidence in women to speak up against the offenders. Companies in the corporate sector also promised more stringent responses on reported cases. On the contrary, cases of gender harassment and sexist remarks against women was snowballing. In 2019, a survey conducted by ComplyKaro Services recorded a 14 percent rise in sexual harassment cases from the past year. Now, here we are in 2020, wondering, did anything really change?
In an effort to facilitate favorable working conditions for women, the Government of India has formulated the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act. It is described as - “An Act to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” Sexual harassment results in violation of the fundamental rights of a woman to equality under articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India and her right to life and to live with dignity under article 21 of the Constitution and right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business with includes a right to a safe environment free from sexual harassment.
The Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act is applicable to any workspace that has 10 or more employees irrespective of the nature of industry. Conformity of the Act includes:
i) It is imperative for every organization to form an Internal Complaints Committee, headed by a Presiding Officer who is a woman and is employed at a senior level in the organization.
ii) The Internal Committee, may, before initiating an inquiry and at the request of the aggrieved woman, take steps to settle the matter between her and the respondent through conciliation: Provided that no monetary settlement shall be made as a basis of conciliation.
iii) Formulation of a policy for the prevention and prohibition of sexual harassment in the workplace.
iv) It is mandatory for the employer to submit an annual report which comprises of the number of case filed/disposed in that year.
v) The IC must go by the evidence, prior to passing an order. The Act makes filing a false complaint, a punishable offense which can be as harsh as that of being guilty of sexual harassment.
While the POSH Act seeks to protect women against sexual harassment, it excludes men and other non-binary genders. So, does this Act really provide the right to equality before law? The answer to this is an ethical debate. However, the International Labor Organization addresses the issue as an outrage against both women and men. Therefore, the government may soon consider engulfing all genders under the POSH Act to deliver equal access to justice for all.
According to studies, victims of sexual harassment usually experience acute stress, which triggers depression and anxiety. While some women may neutralize the symptoms through social support, there are many who might feel so tormented that it will continue to affect their personal and professional life. A person going through the aftermath of sexual harassment or violence may also experience signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), especially if it has resulted in violence or assault. This may also lead to lower productivity during work, low morale and higher sick leaves. This not only decelerates an individual’s career progression but is also fatal for the company and it’s reputation.
Harvard Business Review performed a series of experiments in the US to find out how a single sexual harassment claim could alter the company’s reputation. As a result, they found that not only did people find the companies with a sexual harassment claim less honorable in contrast to companies with no such misconduct but they also found the companies with sexual harassment reports less equitable than those that reported financial misconduct. Most people perceived this to be more of a cultural problem than an individual problem. When asked, people suggested that hiring more women in such inimical workspaces might alleviate these problems. To recapitulate, even a single claim of sexual harassment excessively influences the reputation of an organization.
The repercussions of tolerating such behavior is severe, and thus, the leaders in the organization must play their part in the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. When allegations of sexual harassment are not taken seriously, the employees know that it carries more risk than reward, and are afraid to speak out. This demoralizes not only the victim but also the witnesses, and encourages the offender for such misconduct in the future. Hence, it becomes mandatory for the organization to take strict actions against such miscreants and facilitate a healthy working environment for all employees.
Organizations may also use the power of Supply Chain as an instrument for the prevention of harassment in workspaces. To illustrate, consider the Fair Foods Program that stems from both the standards outlined in the Fair Food (human-rights based) Code of Conduct, which go well beyond the requirements of law, and the multi-layered approach to monitoring and enforcing compliance with those standards. This program was found to be very effective to help “ensure farm workers have the right to work without violence and the opportunity to create a workplace of respect and dignity.” The same instrument can be applied as a means to prevent sexual harassment. This may also serve as a form of Cause Related Marketing for a company. It can be made official by signing an agreement about what is and isn’t tolerated in their workplaces, and then, come up with a collective way to enforce that agreement.
Most women are lenient when discerning the signs of sexual harassment, which makes for an incentive for escalated misconduct of the perpetrator. Women must be aware at all times to recognize intrusions in their personal space, and submit a written complaint to the higher authorities in time. As they say, a stitch in time, saves nine. If immediate action is taken by the authorities, it may prevent further ascension of harassment towards assault or violence. It is also the responsibility of the bystanders to intervene or report to their managers or supervisors about such incidents.
To conclude, women don’t want to be ‘protected’. They want to be given a chance to live and work with dignity, without feeling the need to be protected. The organization as a whole is responsible for maintaining an amicable work culture and take uncompromising action against the culprits. It is also the responsibility of every citizen to do their part and stand up against such offences, to make it a safe place for everyone around them.
~Authored by Shalaka Thakare