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An unequal balance

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-03-2017 Namita Bhandare

You might have met this boss. His hand brushes your back. One-on-one discussions are laced with innuendo. At meetings he will ask about your love life.

He’s just being “friendly”; don’t be such a prude, yaar, the others will say. You shrug. You ignore it. You need the job.

Or you could choose to complain.

Should you choose this option, here is what will likely happen. You might discover that your organization is the one in three Indian companies that doesn’t have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), as required by the law, because “these kind of things don’t happen here”. Or, if it has one, it will initiate a hearing to which you will be summoned and asked about specific incidents and perhaps also about whether you have a boyfriend, your drinking habits and so on.

Colleagues could urge you to “settle”. As you approach the water-cooler, conversation will cease because, naturally, everyone is gossiping about you—she’s not that attractive. Wasn’t she overlooked for promotion…?

Despite a law since 2013 and the Vishakha guidelines before that, sexual harassment at the workplace remains a maze that nobody seems to be able to negotiate. To start with, there seems to be a complete and perhaps deliberate lack of awareness as to what constitutes sexual harassment. Is it against the law to call a female colleague “sexy”? Is it OK to do so outside the office?

The answers are simple: Yes and no.

So, even if you’re a heterosexual single male, you may not call a female colleague “sexy” because, guess what, to do so would be not just morally wrong and demeaning to her, it is also against the law.

Easy and straightforward? Not quite. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from a spate of high profile cases from Greenpeace India to The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), it is that the wheels of justice seem stuck in the mire.

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At Teri where forensics have established that R.K. Pachauri’s claim that his phone and email were hacked was a lie, the original woman complainant has quit the organization and is now working for another research institute. “Sexual harassment and assault can scar you for life,” she says. But, “if someone is willing to talk, they must be given a patient hearing because they can be true survivors of a willful misogynist crime penetrated deep in mindsets that we assume to be liberal and modern.”

Why is the law failing women like her?

“It’s the attitude of the organization,” she says. Companies tend to support the more powerful accused male rather than the subordinate female complainant. Moreover, there’s a tendency to brush the matter under the carpet for fear that it will damage the company’s reputation. “We don’t think the violation of a woman’s dignity or bodily integrity is a crime,” says advocate Vrinda Grover. The problem is not that organizations are unaware of the law. The problem is that they don’t care.

A text-book case on how not to deal with sexual harassment would be the manner in which entertainment content start-up, The Viral Fever, dealt with an anonymous social media complaint. Refusing to even acknowledge such a possibility (and I concede that an anonymous social media complaint comes with its own set of problems), an initial company statement threatened to “find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice”.

The company has since, after howls of protest on social media, admitted to being “confused” and says it is now “committed to getting to the bottom of these allegations.”

At a time when India’s female labour force participation is declining and economists are talking about the potential boost to gross domestic product (GDP) from equal participation, it might be useful to look at conditions that make it hostile for women to seek jobs.

National Crime Records Bureau data finds a 51% increase in cases of sexual harassment cases from 2014 to 2015. Nearly 70% of respondents in a survey by the Indian Bar Association earlier this year said they would not report sexual harassment for fear of reprisals. And smaller companies might be prone to serious under-reporting, found this Mint report.

The fact that this malaise should exist across the board from multinational companies (MNCs) to public sector organizations, from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to young start-ups says something about attitudes to women at work. This is not about a few bad apples but a culture of entitlement and an attitude that states, what’s the big deal about sexual harassment?

More than committees and norms, companies need policies against sexism.

A female employee is not eye candy, placed for men to admire and comment on. She is a professional worthy of the dignity afforded to any man in the office.

Ultimately sexual harassment at work is about unequal power balances. When that balance is so out of whack in society, how can we expect it to be any different at workplaces?

Namita Bhandare writes on social and gender issues.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare.

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