Sexual Harassment At The Workplace: 9 Myths And Facts You Must Know

Posted: June 30, 2015

Sexual harassment at the workplace in India is more common than you think. Here are 9 Myths and Facts you should absolutely know about.

Let us face it, ladies! Sexual harassment at the workplace could happen to any of us.

Supreme Court Judges have been accused of it by their interns, while a High Court Judge has been a victim. Beauty queen, Sushmita Sen, created a media storm when she accused the CEO of Coca Cola of it. Journalists have been victims and have spoken out about it.

A powerful editor, Tarun Tejpal, is in jail because of proven sexual harassment (and rape). We have all heard of the infamous casting couch in the film world (Madhur Bhandarkar’s case is still in the courts). Designer Ananda Jon has been jailed in the U.S because of coercing underage models to have sex with him in exchange for modelling assignments. K.P.S Gill, the hero of the anti-terrorism war in Punjab was accused of improper conduct by an I.A.S officer, Ms. Bajaj.

Countless such cases have been filed by women over the years. The high profile ones get media attention, but they are merely the tip of the iceberg. Many still await justice. Thousands more of such crimes are never reported.

With women entering every possible profession, being harassed sexually at the workplace is a very real possibility. For each and everyone of us.

Doctors, lawyers, nurses, secretaries, house-maids, judges, IAS officers, female labourers, are all vulnerable.

Apparently, the biology Professor Mr. K had called her to his room after class and demanded certain favours from her in exchange for the ‘completion certificate’.

In my twelfth Grade, one of my classmates Ms.L, a happy-go-lucky girl, suddenly stopped attending college, a couple of weeks before the exam. Apparently, the biology Professor Mr. K had called her to his room after class and demanded certain favours from her in exchange for the ‘completion certificate’. The incident came to light because her family members demanded that the principal take action.

So traumatized was L by this incident that she changed her college. Professor K, however, continued to teach there after a ‘casual leave’ of a few weeks!

The Students Common Room which buzzed with this news, actually had a faction which blamed L ‘s friendly manner and ‘non-conservative’ manner of dressing, for the incident and hinted that she invited it upon herself!

In the news now is a similar incident at the prestigious St. Stephens, where a student has accused her Professor of sexual harassment. Gathering courage, she has spoken out thereby opening a Pandora’s box in this hallowed institute.

From, “she invited it” to “she is lying” to “why the delay in complaining?” are all refrains we are likely to hear in the coming weeks.

From, “she invited it” to “she is lying” to “why the delay in complaining?” are all refrains we are likely to hear in the coming weeks. Fortunately, the Law is rather clear about this subject, thanks to the guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in 1997, and is now a Law. In general, some myths/misunderstandings are rampant with regard to sexual harassment at the workplace (SHW).

Here are a few Myths and Facts about SHW

Myth: SHW is a crime of morality and sexuality.

Fact: Sexual harassment is a power play made by men towards women who they wish to subjugate. The man in question may not be attracted to the woman, but wishes to exhibit his power over her. A man will never subject a person who wields more power than him, to harassment. For example, a professor will intimidate a student or junior colleague, but not his seniors or his boss.

Myth: If it is not physical, then it is NOT sexual harassment.

Fact: Touching, groping, brushing by, standing ‘too-close’ are definitely SHW. Comments of a vulgar, sexual nature, staring suggestively, personal remarks,  lewd comments, use of descriptive slang words, crude jokes, inappropriate questions are also sexual harassment.

And the Law is very clear about this.

So, the next time, a colleague comments on the fit of your clothes or forwards a joke which has sexual connotations, this IS sexual harassment. Emails, Whatsapp forwards, pornography, suggestive pictures left on the desk, invitation to dinner or to sit closer, etc. are not physical, but ARE nevertheless SHW.

Myth: The Woman should have objected to the SHW instantly. A late reaction does not count.

Fact: Very often, (as in all such crimes) the woman is intimidated, ashamed, stunned, embarrassed and afraid to speak out. This does not mean that she is unaffected. Humiliation and shame, plus the very real fear of being ostracized, or worse, fired from the job or not being believed by others keeps women from speaking out. The financial need for the job is also a compelling factor.

And, often the perpetrator is counting on this!

Myth: Women (especially single ones) enjoy being the object of sexual remarks. A NO may actually mean a YES.

Fact: A joke between friends of long duration is very different from a sexual remark made by a colleague or boss. A woman who dislikes something will signify this with her body language, words or behaviour. And, men should learn to respect that. And NO, single is NOT synonymous with ‘available’.

Myth: Only women from certain classes and jobs are subject to SHW.

Fact: All working women across the entire spectrum, from those in the corporate sector to the daily wage labourer, are vulnerable to this. The house maid fending off the advances of her ‘Seth’ and the aspiring singer who is told to ‘entertain’ the producer are equally affected. The fact is that these crimes are largely under-reported. Some studies suggest that nearly 50% of working Indian women (as high as 88% in some sectors) have been a victim of or encountered SHW at some time or the other.

Myth: Women who dress provocatively invite sexual harassment.

Fact: We are back to the old ‘done-to-death’ excuse for all such crimes. What a woman wears does not signal her morality. If dress was so important, then female labourers and women wearing traditional dress should be spared, isn’t it? Mindsets need to change, not women’s fashions.

Myth: Any woman who steps out of her home to work is fair game for ‘friendly’ behaviour (Otherwise she should have stayed at home).

Fact: Regressive ideas like this belong in the middle-ages! A safe workplace is a basic human right.

Myth: Women who make complaints are attention-seeking.

Fact: Actually, the opposite is true. Women are so afraid of making an official complaint, that it takes a lot of courage to actually speak out. Often they publicly accuse their perpetrators only when all subtle means have failed.

Myth: Complaints can be made only if there is an Internal Complaints Committee for women in place.

Fact: ALL complaints have to be investigated and dealt with expeditiously. Committees should be set up, if not done so already. The Law makes it mandatory for all workplaces (including Government, private, NGOs, hospitals, etc.) to have such a Committee in place.

Myth: Having gender sensitization training and workshops for improving gender equality implies that sexual harassment exists in your organisation!

Fact: On the contrary, this step, in fact, proves that the organisation is committed to keeping the workplace safe for their female employees.

It was after a long, hard and tedious legal and legislative process, that India has a Law against Sexual Harassment in The Workplace. It is still largely a man’s world. The struggle for safety from harassment in the workplace has barely begun for Indian women.

We have a long way to go!

Resources: India.com, Scroll, Wikipedia, Hhsonline, Business today, Infochangeindia.org

Sexual harassment at workplace image via Shutterstock

I am Ujwala Shenoy Karmarkar. I love reading, meeting people, listening to music, watching plays,

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Comments

4 Comments


  1. Hey. This is a comment that I have received on my personal Facebook page.

    “I agree with all what you have to say Ujwala, except with the fact that ONLY women are subject to this, I know of incidents where women are perpetrators as well and men are victims.”

    And I think it is a very valid point!

  2. How does invitation to dinner qualify as SHW?

    • Hi. Thank you for the comment and also, for reading my piece with such care.
      Yes, an invitation to dinner made in a spirit of camarderie is indeed not an example of sexual harassment. But, taken in the context of the piece, any invitation is that which has an subtle or overt implication or threat of repercussions will qualify as sexual harassment.

    • *any invitation that has a subtle (sorry typo!!)

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