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As Indian women enter the workforce in large numbers, here are 4 myths about workplace harassment that working women in India need to know about.
By Aparna V. Singh
Workplace harassment refers to the act of an employee being harassed at her (or his) place of work or in the course of duty, often due to their gender but also sometimes due to other factors such as caste or class. For working women in India, it is not a rare problem, although one rarely discussed openly, for fear of being thought a ‘troublemaker’ or one’s own reputation getting ‘damaged’.
Although the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill has been passed recently, only time will show its actual impact, given that implementation in India tends to be piecemeal. Until recently, the Vishakha guidelines were the only provisions dealing with workplace harassment in India of a sexual nature and covered the employer’s obligations to prevent workplace harassment as well as deal to with it in a fair manner if it happens.
In practice however, many companies have not complied with the guidelines; most firms for example, do not have a clear workplace harassment policy on what constituted workplace harassment and what an employee should do if faced with it; where such policies exist, they are not communicated well. Studies have shown that most working women in India are not aware of them.
Further, guidelines which state that workplace harassment committees dealing with sexual harassment must have a minimum percentage of women are sometimes not complied with or the victim’s “character” is examined rather than the incident in question.
In this article, we look at some of the common myths relating to workplace harassment of a sexual nature.
Not all workplace harassment needs to be physical for it to be considered sexual. Making remarks of a sexual nature inappropriate to the workplace, verbally pestering a woman for sex, displaying pornography – working women in India need to know that all these fall into the category of workplace harassment even if there is no physical contact involved.
Workplace harassment in India exists in both blue-collar and white-collar environments. Indian women who are blue-collar workers rarely have recourse to the law and the tenuous and temporary nature of employment as well as poorer economic circumstances and lack of support structures to complain, prevents them from taking any action against workplace harassment. Indian women working in white-collar environments are not immune to workplace harassment either. While some companies may have a redressal mechanism, the fear of being branded a ‘troublemaker’ and not being taken seriously deters many from raising the issue.
It is likely that working women in India at very senior level positions, with the ability to impact company policy and hiring and firing, are less likely to be harassed. That doesn’t mean it cannot happen. Indian women still form a very small percentage of board level or C-level positions and it is likely that even a woman in a senior position could face workplace harassment from peers or those further up the ladder. Just because a woman is in a senior position is no reason to disbelieve her if she complains of workplace harassment.
Every company (besides those that employ less than 10 people and may not qualify under the provisions of the bill) needs a workplace harassment policy as well as a mechanism to deal with it, for a number of reasons. First, while the founder may perceive herself/himself as a decent person (and may be one), as the company grows, many different people are recruited and it is impossible to do a ‘decency check’ in each case. Second, if it happens, not having a policy and mechanism means that each case will end up being treated differently. Having a clear workplace harassment policy and mechanism means that every affected person knows how to complain and that the case will be looked into fairly.
Third, everyone thinks that they know what workplace harassment is, and hence it doesn’t need to be defined. The truth is that people’s definitions of workplace harassment vary wildly. One employee thinks that asking his colleague out for a date repeatedly, even after she has expressed her lack of interest, is just ‘being persistent’. Another feels that sending out pictures of a pornographic nature on the office email isn’t ‘such a big deal’. These could all be taken up by an affected person as a case of workplace harassment.
It is critical therefore for employers to first educate their employees on what workplace harassment is and then create an environment where workplace harassment is seen as something to be steered clear of, and where people know the consequences of indulging in such behaviour.
*Photo credit: P.J.P from Flickr (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License).
Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas
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