Mail Today 28 March 2012
It's a story we've heard many times, of a woman being bothered by the persistent interest that a male colleague(sometimes even the boss) is taking in her.
He may be direct about his intentions, passing lewd comments, issuing invites for dinner or coffee or flooding her with text messages.
Or he may bother her in other ways, touching her 'accidentally' or setting up situations in which she is left alone with him, and so on.
Women are increasingly faced with the pressing question as to how they should deal with harassment in the workplace
Either way, she is left feeling helpless and angry. Confronting the perpetrator of this harassment may result in job loss, and not doing anything about it means a daily struggle of fending him off.
So what to do? This is a pressing question especially today when more women are entering the workplace and are faced with this scenario regularly. A November 2010 survey of 600 women employees in the information technology and outsourcing industry found that 88 per cent of them had faced some form of sexual harassment at work.
In two-thirds of the incidents, the perpetrator was a superior at work, according to the survey conducted by the Centre for Transforming India, a Delhi-based non-profit.
Other studies have found that 40-80 per cent of women experience sexual harassment by their male colleagues or superiors at work. Though guidelines on sexual harassment were passed in 1977 with the idea of ensuring safe working spaces for women, most women aren't aware of their existence.
'People are not yet familiar with the Vishaka guidelines, which state that a woman from an NGO should be appointed to the inquiry committee set up to investigate complaints of SH.
Employers appoint women who are not acquainted with the issue of sexual harassment or women's issues and often choose some socialite who has no interest in the case,' says Indira Jaising, Assistant Solicitor General of India and Director of Lawyers Collective
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Every woman in the workplace needs to equip herself with information about what she can do if she is being harassed.
It's important to pay heed to any sense of discomfort you may feel during your interactions with male colleagues and confront the problem directly.
Advocate and equality consultant Naina Kapur believes that creating consciousness with knowledge is essential, as is making people accountable.
She believes in bringing people around to a viewpoint with good communication.
'It's about conversation and not about street protests anymore,' says Kapur. Jaising and Kapur both agree that women must speak up. However, a methodical approach is a good idea.
Here's a step by step approach advocated by Prerna Sodhi and Shefali Anand, authors of How to Deal with Sexual Harassment at Work.
1 Communicate your disapproval
If you can avoid the colleague who makes you uncomfortable, do so. If you have to work in close proximity to him, avoid being alone with him.
And tell him to stop his specific behaviour: If he stands too close, you can say: Can you stand away please, because such closeness makes me very uncomfortable.
Or, if he touches you, say: Can you please avoid putting your hand on my shoulder because that makes me uncomfortable. 'If the person has sent you a joke through an email or SMS, reply through email or SMS when asking him to stop,' says Richard Lobo, head of employee relations at Infosys Technologies Ltd.
2 Keep a record
If your colleague isn't getting the message, prepare to report him. Gather evidence to substantiate your claims. 'Note down the date, time and details of each incident,' says Sheeba Satish, HR manager for Fundsupermart.com, a mutual fund distribution company. Save any emails or text messages that contain inappropriate language.
Try to use your mobile phone recorder to discreetly record his remarks.
3 Find a confidante
Share the situation with a colleague you trust in the office. She may be able to keep a watchful eye on the situation.
But be picky about who you share this information with, and ensure that your confidante is trustworthy. A senior colleague or mentor who carries more weight in the organisation would be ideal.
4 Formal complaint
If the above doesn't work, make a formal complaint to senior members of the organisation, with whatever evidence or notes you have.
Make the complaint in writing and keep a copyremember an oral complaint can be hushed up.
Often women don't report sexual harassment for fear they might lose their jobs, but unless you are willing to take action, your problem will persist.
5 External resources
If your company doesn't take any action on your complaint or doesn't penalise the miscreant, you can approach the National Commission for Women, a women's group like Jagori, or Human Rights Law Network and the Lawyers Collective.
They can approach the company on your behalf in an effort to force it to take action.
6 Create Plan B
Leaving your job should be your last resort. But before you take this step, it's best to start looking for another job.
Leaving without an option may result in a feeling of powerlessness.
A look at the law
Legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace became a reality two years ago when the 2010 Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill was formulated.
The act seeks to create a safe, secure, and enabling workplace environment free from all forms of sexual harassment and makes it mandatory for all organisations, including private sector organisations, to form committees, headed by women, for the inquiry and assessment of complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The bill terms any unwelcome sexual behaviour or advances-verbal, physical, graphic or electronic, including SMS- and humiliating or hostile conduct as sexual harassment.
Students, research scholars in colleges and universities and patients in hospitals are also covered and more recently, domestic workers have been included.
'Employers need to have a clear and written policy that sexual harassment is misconduct and will result in dismissal.
The message that it will not be tolerated should be sent out loud and clear. Sensitisation programmes at the workplace to put norms of acceptable behaviour in place are necessary and prompt action must be taken against the perpetrator,' says Indira Jaising.
Drawing that line
By ANUP KUTTY
The verdict is out and the line that defines harassment has now been defined. Sexy is fine (thank you, NCW) but bitch is taking it too far (ok, Madras High Court). I am glad it's out in the open now.
My personal confusion with these tags began in 1997 at the Miranda House college festival. I was on a date with this girl who I was drawn to because of her strong opinions on gender equality and her ability to roll thin cigarettes.
She told me she smoked them to make a statement. We were sitting next to the basketball court sipping fountain Pepsi and sharing her thin lizzy, watching the DJ belt it out.
A handful of bored girls lazily moved their torsos on the makeshift dance floor like they were severely underpaid to do so.
After a while, the DJ who'd had enough of this nonsense turned up the volume and screamed into the megaphone 'Come on you sexy bitches, I want all of you on the dance floor shaking that ass.'
I choked on my Pepsi and turned to my date to express my sincere disapproval at this sort of behaviour but she had vanished.
The sexy bitch was right up there on the dance floor shaking that ass.
Over the years, I saw rappers, friends and even other women call the ladies all sorts of names and get away with it. I was led to believe that it was fine, we were now a progressive society after all, biatch!
Under this illusion, I finally pushed my luck while launching a lad mag and found my team slapped with a defamation case for a seemingly witty caption in the magazine directed at a south Indian star. She refused to take it lying down.
To make up to my distraught team, I took them to a club where everyone went ballistic to some hip-hop song where the guy went 'You sexy bitch!'
With Dutch courage, I turned to a female colleague and asked her whether she'd mind if I called her a sexy bitch every once in a while. She said she wouldn't if I really meant it. 'It's all about the context, you dog!' she laughed and went back to pointing her finger at the DJ and dancing. How about cow? 'Absolutely not,' her voice turned grim and she left the dance floor. I made a note.
Bitch – yes, Cow – no. I am happy that our courts are making similar notes. I have a list of adjectives that will work with the ladies in a variety of situations and would be glad to share it with the courts or genuinely interested men.
But till the time we finish compiling the dictionary of politically incorrect words to avoid with the ladies, here's a piece of advice to you men - Don't call them sexy bitches unless you are a DJ and she's walked into your club.