Making work places safe for women

About a decade ago, I distinctly remember a sexual harassment case in an office in Gurugram. The victim presented clear proof of the offence committed multiple times over. The harasser’s wife too worked in the same office. In order to save the harasser’s new marriage, the management decided to ask him to resign on the basis of “non-performance”. In those times, without the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work place Act 2013 in place, I am sure, many organisations may have struggled to deal with such issues.     

In January this year, India completed five years of enactment of this useful legislation. Barring a few work places that have implemented the Act in spirit, there is still a lack of clear understanding and awareness of the Act.  There is also the tendency of brushing the issue under the carpet rather than addressing it head-on. Very few work places appreciate the value of creating the right frameworks as mandated under the Act, as a means to prevent and redress sexual harassment (SH) fairly and squarely.

Many cases still go underreported due to fear of loss of job or personal reputation. Employees also often misconstrue or misuse it, thereby preventing a healthy work culture to prevail. Given the fact that our workplaces employ people across genders, cultural and geographical diversity, it is important that the Act gets its due place under the sun.

To be sure, the Act is quite comprehensive, covering both organised and unorganised sectors and defines “work places” to include both formal and informal set-ups. Organisations that have ten or more employees need to create an “Internal Complaints Committee” to look in to such cases even if they do not have a single female employee, as it could have a women visitor or temporary trainee. For SH cases at work places with less than ten employees, or where the case is against the owner or if the case is from the unorganised sector such as maids working in homes, such cases are taken up by the district’s “Local Complaints Committee”. A woman need not be an employee of the organisation to lodge a complaint under the Act, she could be a visitor, a volunteer or a trainee. Besides, the definition of “workplace” is extended to include offsites, transport provided by office and homes.

The Act clearly describes what is sexual harassment and its varied forms including verbal (comments), non-verbal (staring), written (email), physical (grabbing) and visual (showing pictures). The main characteristic is that it has to be “unwelcome”. Office romances, therefore, do not come under its definition; but romances that turn sour can end up as SH. Besides, the Act states that SH typically happens in a matrix of power, sexual favors in return for benefits such as promotion etc., or threat to impact employment or career paths in case of refusal. Besides, it is subjective in nature – and therefore it is not the intent but the impact that it creates on a woman. One woman may find a comment casual and banal and take it even as a compliment, but the same comment for another women could hurt her dignity.

The greatest emphasis of the Act is on prevention. A few pointers can help prevent these cases, without impacting work culture of an organisation. Never breach personal spaces. One needs to be careful in places such as elevators, or other enclosed places, etc., where personal space is compromised. A handshake too long or too hard is not appropriate. Innuendos and pet names should be best avoided. In one particular Gurugram-based company, a woman complained under the Act against her boss who would often smoke and blow fumes too close to her face.

One must understand that actions or gestures that might be appropriate in social settings such as hugging or patting may not be appropriate in offices, especially when personal relations and understanding are not established. Cultural and gender context become important, what may be a “norm” in some cultures or places, could be a “taboo” in others. Besides, playing safe and nipping in the bud in case there has been an unintentional folly, by a quick apology can clear the air.  

For women, the key message is to avoid becoming a victim. Some women tend to take these incidents lightly at first by smiling or simply avoiding. These acts must not be shrugged off as natural male behaviour or harmless flirtations. It is also important to let the harasser know that such behaviour is not being enjoyed, and that it must be stopped. While one must try to not let matters escalate, if the harassment does not stop, one can create a safety net by sharing with a confidant or by noting the precise details and record of events in case it is required at a later date for lodging a complaint with the ICC.

In my SH prevention workshops, I often come across worried men, who feel that the Act is tilted in favour of women and that it harbours “gender inequality”. Indeed, this Act is only for protecting women rights, but be rest assured that an astute and fair ICC will find the truth, and in case it is proven false, the punishment for women would be as severe or same for men if the harassment complaint was proven right. In the spirit of the Act, women should not lodge false cases, just to score a point with the boss. It hampers efficiency and positive culture at work places.    

The onus of SH prevention falls on employers. They have to set the right frameworks as mandated under the Act by a) integrating SH rules firmly with the HR policy b) organising prevention workshops for employees and new joinees c) creating an able ICC. A clear message both formally and informally needs to flow that such cases will be dealt in a firm, consistent and fair way. 

With safe environments, more women will be encouraged to join our work places that can gain much by the talents and skills that these women bring along.

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