Stories of women assaulted by Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent response on social media, as thousands of women joined the #metoo hashtag campaign, reiterate the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Weinstein’s case is not an isolated instance of a powerful man abusing his privileged position to exploit people dependent on him for the success of their careers.
Women who face demeaning sexual overtures from colleagues or superiors in professional settings often do not report them out of fears regarding job security. Moreover, the power dynamics within institutions means that women might be undermined, or face a lack of support, even when they do report harassment.
Punam Sahgal and Aastha Dang (2017) conducted an exploratory research to understand the occurrence and dynamics of sexual harassment at workplaces. [out of paywall]
While the number of sexual harassment cases is staggering, little is known about the experience that women go through when their personal space and dignity is violated. Their research seeks to explore how women manage such behaviour meted out to them, what kind of policies and processes do organisations have for protecting them from being sexually harmed, and whether the enactment of a law is adequate in safeguarding their interest and reputation.
Blame and fear
In some organisations, even when there were systems in place, either due to a policy mandate or fear of law, organisations diluted these mechanisms. For instance, in a large public enterprise, the HR department reported that they put up posters on the notice boards to make women employees aware of organisational processes for dealing with sexual harassment. Interestingly, they confided that these posters were removed the same day because “if too many women become aware of the law pertaining to sexual harassment, they may take undue advantage.” In other organisations, sexual harassment committees have been constituted, but in a perfunctory manner, essentially to fulfil the legal requirements.
According to the paper, respondents often held themselves accountable and responsible in sexual harassment situations.
- Underplaying the experience: The researchers found that the respondents tended to brush things off or reduce the intensity of the harassment in their descriptions. One respondent took a month’s time to report the incident to ensure that she was not “overreacting”.
- Tolerating and ‘asking for it’: Respondents also showed an inclination towards tolerating bad behaviour and blaming their own friendliness. The women also did not report the cases because they were wary of causing a stir and did not want to “make an issue”.
- Job insecurity: Women also remain silent and refuse to report due to loss of reputation, stigma, and blame coming on the women themselves.
Other studies on sexual harassment committees in the EPW Archives:
- A study on the internal complaints committees (ICC) in 15 government offices in Kerala found that while committees get formed and meet intermittently, the members of the committees and women employees remain unaware of the provisions of the act and hesitant to assert themselves in registering complaints or fighting for more women-friendly work structures.
See: Functioning of Internal Complaints Committees in Government Offices of Kerala (2017) by Bhavila L, Bushra Beegom R K
- This survey undertaken from 2012 to 2014 in Mumbai showed that even though the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013, not many companies in Mumbai took its provisions seriously or formed the mandatory ICC. The manner in which complaints by women were treated by some companies and what the members had to say shows that employer response to their women personnel and staff victimises the victim. Overall, organisations flouted the Vishakha guidelines. However, persistent efforts by the women and pressure from external agencies compelled employers to implement the guidelines, even if half-heartedly.
See: Implementing or Ignoring the Law on Sexual Harassment? (2016) by Anagha Sarpotdar
- The private sector seems to especially be in a state of denial regarding sexual harassment. Ravichandar (2010) names the five mental blocks that CEOs and managements face in implementing robust policies against sexual harassment: denial, dismissal, double up, delegation, and danger. They believe that sexual harassment does not exist in their organisation because there are no reported cases. They also believe that they are open enough, and any employee can openly report sexual harassment. The article says that the private sector needs to clearly articulate and uphold its code of conduct.
See: https://kractivist.org/india-sexual-harassment-of-women-at-workplace-reflections-on-the-private-sector-vaw/Sexual Harassment of Women: Reflections on the Private Sector (2013) by Anagha Sarpotdar
- A study conducted over a period of three months from April to June 2006 in West Bengal showed that sexual harassment is still perceived as something that can happen in “other” workplaces but not one’s own. Men continue to be present as chairpersons in complaints committees. Organisations have cited the absence of senior women as reasons for having male chairpersons which also raises concerns about the absence of women in senior positions. Members continue to be confused about the range of behaviour that may be termed as sexual harassment. They often did not make necessary linkages between the acts of sexual harassment and consequent work related harassments. Significantly, although incidents of sexual harassment occurred in almost all the organisations, one third of complaints have been dismissed as either “motivated” or “trivial”.
See: Sexual Harassment at the Workplace: Experiences with Complaints Committees by Paramita Chaudhuri
- Unless there is enough emphasis on sensitisation at the workplace, legal changes are hardly likely to be successful. Sexual harassment is rooted in cultural practices, exacerbated by power relations at the workplace.
See: Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (2004), by Sheba Tejani