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.