A woman’s ordeal only worsens after she protests against sexual harassment at the office
Minutes after she lodged a complaint against a senior who had been behaving inappropriately with her for almost nine months, Niharika Tyagi was summoned by her department head. As she entered his office, he shouted at her: “Take your complaint back! Think about him; he has a wife and kids.” Tyagi, though stunned, stood her ground, and the man was sacked.
The matter should have ended there. It didn’t. “From the moment I complained, I faced such hostility from colleagues and seniors that it became increasingly difficult to work,” recalls Tyagi. The men in the office, she says, would openly make fun of her. “They would say, ‘Look at these modern women. If someone puts a hand on their shoulder, they cry sexual harassment’. I became the butt of everybody’s jokes.”
The department head, who was a friend of the aggressor, started easing her out of work and would frequently be rude to her. Miserable and lonely, Tyagi soon left the organisation.
This is a side of sexual harassment at the workplace that seldom gets talked about: what a woman goes through after she lodges a formal complaint. Do organisations ensure that she is not harassed further because she has chosen to speak out? Is her identity protected as is mandated under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, the law that is meant to empower women and encourage them to not suffer in silence? Does it become difficult for her to find another job?
And what about the man who is guilty of sexually harassing someone at work? Doesn’t he have it easier? “Yes, he does,” says director Sudhir Mishra whose 2013 film, Inkaar, dealt with the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. While researching his film, Mishra found that if the man accused is successful, charismatic and of high value to the organisation, “the organisation will be sympathetic towards him. Instead, the woman will be told not to rock the boat”.
For the victim, there is often little sympathy within the organisation, including from women colleagues, and often not even at home, Mishra says. “She is often seen as one who disturbed the hierarchy and harmed the organisation’s reputation.” Many, usually men, even feel that the whole law against sexual harassment is open to misuse by troublesome and vindictive women.
Statistics are hard to come by, but lawyer and women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover says that “in 99 per cent of the cases, the woman is compelled to leave her job because of the hostility she faces after she reports sexual harassment”. Even her friends, says Grover, will advise her to quit and take up another job. “Or they’ll say, ‘He’s too powerful. Why do you want to go through all that?'”
Grover is among the lawyers and civil society activists who have sought the resignation of TERI Director-General RK Pachauri after a 29-year-old research analyst lodged a complaint of sexual harassment against him. In a letter to TERI’s governing council, she and the others have said that a “fair” inquiry cannot be conducted while Pachauri holds this powerful position because all members of the internal complaints committee investigating the complaint would be junior to him, thus “exaggerating an already existing imbalance of power”.
Most victims confirm that the friends of the aggressor often come to his rescue, especially if he is a heavyweight within the organisation. It could be out of genuine friendship or plain sycophancy, the need to suck up to the strong and influential.
In the Tehelka case, involving its founder-editor Tarun Tejpal, the young reporter who complained against him alleged that her superior initially tried to trivialise the matter. Requesting anonymity, a friend of the victim who has been with her through the ordeal, says efforts were made to slander the victim to the extent that even those who were initially sympathetic started doubting her. “Questions were also raised about her professional abilities,” she says. “So much so that random people would ask her if a particularly sought-after assignment she was given had been an out-of-turn favour.” These are subtle ways of shattering a person’s sense of self, she adds.
News television only made it worse. The case became a subject of debate, in which some started to look for inconsistencies in her account. Every “panel discussion” added to her agony. The friend says it took a long time for the woman to be able to write again. “And fighting through depression and suicidal urges was only possible with the support of close friends, family and counsellors.”
In some cases, the aggressor ensures that the victim “pays” for speaking out, and this he does by taking work away from her. Journalist Sandhya Menon knows this from experience. In 2008, she had complained against her superior. The only outcome of that complaint, she says, was that he became very aggressive. The other journalists, who had told Menon they too were sexually harassed by the same aggressor, refused to file complaints saying it would affect their careers. Her colleagues either kept out of the matter or “played a dual role”, supporting her outside work but ignoring her in office, she says.
After months of travelling 21 km to reach office and then not being given any work, Menon, who was also seven months pregnant by then, put in her papers. The aggressor, she says, continued in the organisation.
One of the requirements after a complaint has been lodged is to segregate the complainant and the accused in order to eliminate the possibility of further harassment. “But this doesn’t always happen,” says Pallavi Pareek who acts as an external member on some internal complaint committees and is the co-founder of End Sexual Harassment.
She cites a case where a woman complained against her boss but was still forced to work under him. “As a result, all possible hostility was directed at the woman from her colleagues who wanted to stay in the good books of the boss because he was the man responsible for their appraisals and promotions,” she says.
For Trisha Mathur, who was 25 and the youngest in her team, the ordeal was compounded when her organisation did nothing on her complaint against the in-charge. “The Tehelka scandal had just broken out and fearing for its reputation, my organisation was desperate to keep my case under wraps,” she says. The aggressor, meanwhile, started telling people in the office that they shouldn’t talk to her or be friends with her. “He was at a senior position and could manipulate the way people behaved with me at work. My life became even more miserable,” says Mathur who then filed a second complaint.
The committee that looked into her second complaint was more pro-active. “I just needed validation of my stand and said I would settle for an apology,” she says. The apology, it was decided, would be tendered over lunch outside the office in the presence of some senior members of the organisation. “There, instead of apologising, he (the perpetrator) started screaming at me. I was stunned and started crying. And then a colleague said, ‘Just forget about it and enjoy your lunch’.”
Finally, Mathur quit the job and opted out of the profession. The man continued in the organisation in the same position.
Confidentiality is an important part of the law. “In the current scenario, how is this even possible?” asks Pareek. “Once you have announced the names of the members of the internal complaints committee and then if some woman is seen talking to them, the gossip starts, ‘Something must have happened’.” Women, she says, realise quickly that their anonymity will not be maintained. “It won’t make a difference to the man, they feel, while their reputation will be tarnished.”
It takes a lot for a woman to come out in the open about the trauma and fight for justice. “The society is telling her to ‘let go’,” says Suneel Vatsyayan, psychotherapist and director of Nada India Foundation that works on gender sensitisation. “She is broken inside. She is first negotiating that trauma at a personal level,” he adds. “And when she finally does speak out, she is going against the stream.” It is immensely difficult.
“Some organisations play the emotional card and tell her how she is an integral part of the company and must not jeopardise her and the company’s reputation,” says a member of an internal complaints committee who does not wish to be named. “Or they tell her that she’ll have problems finding a job later if she complains.” And that does happen, says lawyer Grover. “The rumour mills in the corporate sector are such that word gets out, and then instead of looking at the woman with admiration, people say, ‘We don’t want a troublemaker in our office’.”
Employers insist women who speak out are not rejected for having fought back when they apply for a job. “We are an equal opportunity employer and cannot deny any woman who might have formally complained of sexual harassment at her earlier workplace when she seeks a job in our company,” says P V Venkatesan, chief human resources officer, ManpowerGroup India. “However, we would try to ascertain the facts about the complaint. This may happen mostly through background checks.”
The same, he says, would apply if a man accused of sexual harassment seeks a job in the company. Shailesh Singh, director and chief people officer, Max Life Insurance, adds: “In case we come to know about the involvement of the applicant in any sexual harassment case, we do not pursue his candidature.”
Still, a complaint does make the task of getting a job tedious. That’s why many choose to suffer in silence. A survey by non-profit organisation, Centre for Transforming India, found that though 88 per cent of women working in the information technology and BPO sectors across all the major cities of India have faced sexual harassment at work, 91 per cent of the victims are afraid of even discussing the matter, let alone report it.
Advocate Osama Suhail, managing partner of Falcon Legal Partners, who deals with cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, says that some construction companies, which already have a low ratio of women employees, have internally decided to discourage hiring women. “They feel it is safer not to have women around lest they have to deal with such cases,” he says.
Victims also back out because the “stigma” of having faced sexual harassment at work could jeopardise their marriage prospects. “The first thing that the prospective groom’s family wants us to check is a girl’s ‘reputation’. There is immense stress on it,” says Taralika Lahiri who heads Delhi-based National Detective & Corporate Consultants that conducts, among other things, pre-matrimonial investigations. “There are people who will view the step the girl might have taken as bold, progressive and commendable. And there are those who will totally backtrack when they learn of something like this.”
Grover rues that while “organisations jump to act if there is an incident of embezzlement or even if an elevator in the office is not functioning, most do not take sexual harassment with the same seriousness”. “All systems in our society,” she says, “are working in a systemic sexist manner”.