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  • Sexual Harassment: Beginning to Engage?

    I WAS A YOUNG woman researcher inquiring into sexual harassment at the workplace soon after the Vishakha judgment in 1997. My boss had given me carte blanche and said I could begin wherever I wanted. Along with my co-researcher, I had to fill out 500 questionnaires from employees across all work sectors in Bangalore on incidences and prevalence of sexual harassment.

    It was one of the most distasteful jobs: calling up HR managers of corporates and having them hang up the phone at the mention of sexual harassment at the workplace. Since most workplaces were unaware of the recent judgment and loath to entertain something as controversial and unwanted as sexual harassment, we had to change the name of the study from ‘sexual harassment at the workplace’ to the more innocuous ‘gender at the workplace’.

    Our modus operandi was to request HR managers to gather employees for a session on ‘gender’ where we would introduce the issue. A popular perception is that women’s organizations are troublemakers. This didn’t help matters at all. I had meetings, sent emails and the responses to our request were denial, resistance and contempt. The standard response: there was no need to talk about sexual harassment where none existed. New judgment? “We have not heard about it. We are not bound by it.” When we started saying “well, it is the law of the land and it is mandatory”…the lines usually went cold. It was frustrating, to say the least.

    Once, finally having managed to snag some time with the HR manager of a big software company, I thought I could get my point across. No such luck. This middle-aged, male HR manager explained their meticulous policy on sexual harassment — in all its condescending detail. The policy apparently specified the lengths of skirts women could wear so that they would not be provocative. No amount of logic or reference to empirical data debunking the myth that provocative clothes lead to sexual harassment made any impact. He refused to let us conduct sessions or to get his employees to fill out our questionnaire.

    Roughly, 80% of the corporates we approached refused to engage, even to the extent of replying to emails or phone calls. We did manage to conduct sessions in a couple of corporates through personal contacts. In one of the sessions, the women wondered aloud why I was wasting time talking to them about sexual harassment when I should have been talking to “construction workers who are in need of it”. Urban, middle/upper class women who are able to subscribe to and read The Times of India, are supposedly well-educated, well-informed, and therefore invulnerable to predatory sexual harassment unlike women in the unorganized sector. It was another story that many women stopped to chat after the same session to tell me stories of sexual harassment they had undergone in their working lives. In contrast, during a freewheeling talk with unorganized women workers, it didn’t take much prodding for them to talk about the issue with candour and courage.

    What the study eventually found was that sexual harassment cuts across all work sectors and knows no class or education barriers. And another upsetting trend: middle class women who were relatively powerful didn’t want to acknowledge sexual harassment or support each other in public even though it was a pervasive phenomenon. They felt they would no longer be ‘good’ women or ‘efficient, no-nonsense’ women if they admitted that sexual harassment existed. Popular perception and HR managers blamed women’s provocations for sexual harassment. One can imagine the dissonance a woman undergoing sexual harassment would experience in such an environment.

    Ten years later, though many things still remain the same, some workplaces have complied with mandatory obligations and set up redressal mechanisms. Slow, small steps. We just wish they would be giant, fast steps instead.

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    25 Responses

    1. […] shares her experience of researching sexual harassment in the workplace in the late 1990s. It was one of the most distasteful jobs: calling up HR managers of corporates and having them hang […]

    2. […] Ultra Violet on sexual harassment in the workplace in India and on corporate reactions. Share This […]

    3. Thank you for sharing experiences based on your own work in this field. Makes it so much harder to just ignore or wish away.

    4. I ogle at women with skimpier clothes at work or everywhr..does that amount to sexual harrasment…its natural for me and i cant and wont control it…so maybe thrs some logic of having dress code sort of thing at workplace !!

      PS: Dont come back wid get laid or get a life sorta comments..i already have a life and getting laid is not a problem for me 😛

    5. Well Scarface, people like you remain the reason why some of us have to keep work ing at ensuring there is a recognition of sexual harassment at the workplace as a serious human rights violation. Women can wear just what they please without having to deal with letchers and boors.

      Maybe it would not be such a trivial matter for you if you knew that we have dealt with cases where women have committed suicide having to deal with men like you who continue to think its ok to subject women to any form of sexual harassment. The impact on women is terrible, it affects their mental and physical health, their families, their productivity at work and a whole lot more. And you think its fine for you to continue this behaviour? Seriously. Think about it.

      Its a shame that you can trivialize it to this extent and create idiotic excuses to justify for your own disgusting behaviour. To end this, I should say there are many people out there, and certainly many men, who will disagree with your neanderthal views. Try looking at it from a womans point of view for once.

    6. @scarface
      A dress code in an office can be to ensure a professional code but not to prevent sexual harassment. Sexual harassers seldom need any excuse really and by putting the onus on the women, it lets them off the hook.

      The crux of the problem is responsibility. Whose responsibility is to prevent a person from behaving badly? Their own or somebody else’s? Unless the person is a child, the answer would be that it’s their own responsibility.

      So why, in the case of rape, sexual harassment etc, is it the woman’s responsibility to ensure that a man does not behave badly (even terribly, horrifically or illegally)?

    7. @scarface- agree whole heartedly with rebecca-trivilaising the issue is tantamount to shirking responsibility in examining workplace behaviour. it should be the responsibility of all people involved- male and female to introspect and understand when some one is crying out to be heard and saying they are violated and hurt.

    8. This is so wrong, it is Hitler-like.

      Forcing ones ideology upon another at the threat of job loss.

      It is one of the things that proves to me that the Cultural Marxists are evil.

    9. I should quality this because you are talking about India not America. In America it is the “Atomic Bomb” female workers hold over the head of males. It is just a way for them to find ways to sue and also for them to use the fear they cause to get ahead.

      Also it is a way to stuff down all kinds of left wing feminist propaganda to a truly captive audience. You listen to our crap or you lose your job. Imagine the reverse, you listen to a speech by Rush Limbaugh or you lose your job.

      I am very impersonal at work. These aren’t my friends, they are my co-workers, and I don’t talk to them about anything except for what my job requires me to talk to them about and also a courteous Hello. Even that I fear might be misinterpreted. I don’t associate with them outside of the workplace. I have friends but they are not workplace friends. I don’t talk about my personal life with my co-workers. I keep my personal life and my professional life totally separate.

      In America the workplace is a place of fear. You never know when some one is going to misinterpret something (perhaps purposely so) and sue and get you fired.

      But that is America. Perhaps India is exactly the opposite. I am really bothered how women in India are blamed when they are raped even though they are the victim.

    10. @scarface

      I ogle at women with skimpier clothes at work or everywhr..does that amount to sexual harrasment

      It does if you cause discomfort, distress or worse to the people you are leching at. It is their perceptions that matter here, not yours.

      its natural for me and i cant and wont control it

      You can control it very well, you just don’t want to. I’m sure that if we had a legal system which mandated twenty lashes for everybody accused of harassment, you’d stop your ogling in a second. I’m not advocating any such system, mind you. I just wish people did not act mindless of the hurt or harm it causes to others (which is the textbook definition of selfishness), and took responsibility for their own behaviour.

    11. The response from the man in the house is obscene. I think it’s also pathetic thah he gloats over his inability to have any type of self-restraint.

    12. @N

      Unfortunately, this is the way a LOT of men think…even those who would normally come across as nice guys. Have eyes, will see. I think the challenge is: how do we get through to them and make them see that it is not okay if it is affecting another person’s ability to function normally — in the workplace or otherwise.

    13. @Alex

      The situation is so vastly different in India that the kind of approach required is very different. This is a country where women are routinely harassed on the streets — let alone anywhere else — and it is cutely called ‘eve teasing’. While I agree that a workplace of fear is a bad thing, we are on the opposite end of the spectrum. It definitely needs to get to some point in the middle where men and women can have normal, healthy relations at work. It’s not that difficult really, just don’t do something that someone doesn’t like — how hard is that??

    14. “”””I just wish people did not act mindless of the hurt or harm it causes to others (which is the textbook definition of selfishness), and took responsibility for their own behaviour”””””

      why should not women take responsibility by wearing some decent costumes. If woman who wear that type of costumes will be received 20 lashes then she will definitely wear decent costumes isn’t it? remember i am not supporting it.Just saying like that.I am just saying this because decency in clothes must be there both for men and woman, no body should come as half naked or naked( sarcasm). tell me if any body have the right to wear what ever they want to, then man come without wearing any thing is it ok, for ladies in the office?(extreme case but why not?).
      I don’t want to control woman in the name of tradition or something, but what I am feeling is JUST EVERY BODY SHOULD WEAR CLOTHES DECENTLY. THAT’S IT.

      Apart from these there are lot of false complaints of harassment what will be best punishment for them..please suggest we will feel better.

    15. @anandita

      It’s not that difficult really, just don’t do something that someone doesn’t like — how hard is that??

      but we can’t predict which is correct or which is not. Because every body have own their mindset. Somebody feel something is offensive somebody not.It depend upon the person to person. If you are in the big office you can’t do it.

      you didn’t answer one thing what we have to do with woman that purpose fully sue the co-workers even though there is no harassment.Because at any time proper use of any law won’t create fear in many people, only the misuse can do that.

    16. @scarface: your attitude is disturbing to most sensible people. How would you like it if you were stared at all the time wherever you went. For the first couple of days you might feel proud and happy (everyone is looking at me), but after a while you will be desperate not to get stared at. The problem is that most women tend to feel like that a lot of the time, unfortunately, especially in India.

      @ravi: While I agree that one should not walk around nude (or semi-nude) in public (there are laws for that btw), the choice of what one can wear should be left up to the discretion of the person. The myth that sexual harassment only happens to women who wear “indecent” clothing is so false, it’s laughable. Ask any woman you know (who you feel wears “decent” clothing) if they have felt harassed in any way at any time, and you will be shocked at how common it is.
      The Indian Legal System does provide for recourse in the case of misuse of law. But it is primarily designed to protect the people who are most vulnerable – in this case, the victims of harassment – rather than prevent relatively fewer cases of misuse of law.

    17. aditya

      At every time, anyone talk about misuses the anwer is “very few misuses”. But the reality is entirely different. Misuses are very often, sometimes more than the proper use(498A is best example for the later case). If you want proof for misuses are rampant in harassment in workplace, i will provide it, which was given by the woman commission in chennai to rediff.com news.

      I agree that, primary design must be for the most vulnerable persons.At the same time you should not forget the rampant misuses. .Which create havocs…and send wrong signals to the society and further makes abuse of men ‘casual’

      i am very well aware of the situation that even well dressed woman also harassed by some men. But we should not neglect the truth that , woman who don’t dress decently…will attract more harassment. think yourself, there are two woman in bus stop, one dressed well, another dressed to “her will”. who will attract more comments by some rogues ,definitely the second woman.

      It is the era of woman, and woman empowerment so, all of us stating that one or two misuses(actually they are lot) or OK. then what will people do, when abused men become more and more and much bigger in number,

      isn’t it good that having law now, for punish the woman who misuse the law,

      Punish only the cases where the misuse is 100% proved, leave remaining(give the benefit of doubt to woman) . what’s the problem?

    18. @Ravi: it is very unfortnate that you still believe the biggest myth that women’s clothes are responsible for sexual harassment rather than understanding that it is men’t attitudes to women( however they are dressed) that is the issue. nobody walks in naked or semi naked into a workplace. it is coded in social mores that any girl/woman who is confident and dresses for herself needs to brought down to her knees. how can she break out of social norms that prescribe that she should be subordiante. she should express herself in muted terms lest she should attract the wrath of the powerful. any act of hers including dressing well and walking in public is an affront to the male ego- there goes a bold woman. she has no right to be that way… so lets teach her a lesson. thats what is working in an avg street romeo’s mind. it has everthing that has got to do with male attitude rather than what she wears.

      you refer to the issue of misuse- esp of 498A, let me tell you that the actual complaints registered under this act don’t even represent the extent of the actual problem of domestic violence. so everyone who loses a case in court should be punished? since by logic it was a false case to start with? there are certain processess in law and judiciary which takes care of false complaints. women routinely are subject to the most degrading and dehumanising treatments they are the most vulnerable and endure violence- the law as aditya has pointed out is to protect the vulnerable. most women don’t want to waste time in long drawn court battles. even in genuine cases they prefer keeping quiet because of the inept and laborious ways justice is dispensed in this country. yours is an irrational fear, or maybe rational even, the fear that men can’t get away with what they are now getting away with.

    19. @indu

      It’s not a myth, we can’t neglect the possibility by stating like that. clothes can provoke even decent men also.Don’t you ever heard a suggestions for working woman who have night shifts ,from experts,”don’t wear provoking dresses”.why they told like that, is it true that all men who are harassing woman are just doing it because they want to teach a lesson to that woman for being bold.

      I read a survey in one of column in paper which is dedicated for woman issues…what men look in woman? the answer is men won’t stare every woman that they saw, they stare at woman who are looking different, by means of dress or other. you asked me that how can a woman break social norms ?? tell me what are those social norms that nowadays woman (not all woman)hasn’t break until now.nothing.May be you wrote that by assuming a uneducated village woman.

      PLEASE TELL ME THOSE PROCESESS IN LAW ,from which a man can punish his wife by the law for the misuse of 498A,If you give details , you really did a great favour for men who are victim on those casesiI NEVER SAW A WOMAN WHO PUNISHED FOR THE MISUSE OF 498A.IF SHE PUNIHSED FOR THAT 90% MISUSES WILL OVER. If adithya is right, then after 498A men also become more vulnarable, putting case on men is much easier than getting cinema ticket. so where is the protection for them from being subjected to harasment legally. At the same time, domestic violence is not a gender issue. Only men can harass woman is really a myth.may be men like me now are little bit insecure, but not feared.

      At the same time you didn’t mention anything about misuse of harassment in workplace. they are really hight than any other.

    20. May i know why previous comments was not posted.

      Ok, let me address Ms.indu here,

      Madam, show me what are those CERTAIN PROCESS WHICH CAN BE USED AGAINST THE WOMAN WHO MISUSE 498A. if you told, it really a great thing for men, who are victim of 498a.

      Upto my knoledge, there are no such process.

    21. @ravi: Each act in the law is not designed to prevent it’s misuse. Instead, all misuse of laws is covered under contempt of court.
      At the same time, you might not be aware of how many women are raped, abused and sexually harassed in our country in comparison with the numbers of men who have been falsely accused. Almost every single woman in India will be able to give you at least one example of how she has been harassed or teased or molested, while I doubt that you will find more than a few thousand men (even stretching the limits) who have been falsely taken to court for harassment.
      You seem to be intent on trivializing the fact that many many women in India are in vulnerable positions and do not have any recourse to simple processes even in large corporates.
      If there were more men who would stand up against harassment of women in the workplace, the laws would not even come into question.

    22. Also, regarding clothing; you may not realise, but women in Afghanistan under Taleban were required to wear a burqa (the least sexually provocative dress I have ever seen). This did not lead to any appreciable reduction in rape statistics in the country.
      Women (and men) should be free to wear what they like (within reasonable limits). If just being ‘different’ is license to molest a woman, then I am sorry, but you are no better than the Taleban.
      Also, most offices tend to have either official or semi-official dress codes. And women adhering to these dress codes are the victims of the harassment.
      Please stop getting on a high horse about what some women do to some men and think about what many men do to most women.

    23. i am doing a design project on sexual harrassment, after vising an ngo exipped with enough material, and enough cases to make any woman in her senses angry, i walk out seething in anger, promising myself to bash up any guy who so muchas stares at me now, and to put myself back in my place, a motorcycle zoomes by me, spanking my behind, even before i had a chance to turn and see, it made me feel so helpless.
      i am now doing a series of posters, as a hypotetical project.
      there are two options for me. to sympathise. or to empower.
      i was suggested to make something like broshures or pamphlets which could be put in toileteries so a woman can read it in her own space.
      now how trivialising is that… just by sympathising arent the women who have faced it place automatically on a lower pedestrial.
      now i feel that most women doint even know that these remedies, the vishakha guidelines exist, and refuse to acknowledge the shw is a reality which could happen to anyone, inculding themselvs
      i am proposing a series of poster campaign, whch would have disturbing and provocative pictures in order to put them in a public place and let people know , mostly women, that they are being objectified.
      and that it is a disturbing reality.
      soemthign like an image of a plug point in an office environmet stuffed with wires and plugs, in a dilapidated condition.
      hope to hear responses and suggestions.

      and ravi i find it extremely distasteful that you dont even have the decency to frame such repulsive words in a way which does not throw such light on your opinions. typical male chauvanist to say the least.

    24. It is commonly said that if a girl wears a skirt she will become target to sexual harrasement.
      But even if we wear normal clothes like salwar kameeeze, it dosent stop ,recently my married pm was looking at my breasts when i was bending and explainig a problem, he even touches my breasts from side when he sits next to me accidently and even says sorry.
      since he is very close to the HR i cant even report it to any one … this is going on for a month now
      recently he hugged me from behinde holding my breasts, i was shocked ,he said he was just trying to scare and it was a practical joke.

    25. To the guys here talking about the way Indian women dress and how they should dress more decently…

      I have been all over India – it’s homes, offices, shops, streets, and I have never ONCE seen an Indian girl or woman indecently dressed.

      So that leaves me wondering, what are you talking about?

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