• Law alone can’t deter sexual harassment at workplace

    The Women Writers’ Festival session titled ‘The politics of sexual harassment: fighting stigmas, stereotypes and status quo’ began with an acknowledgment from the panelists that law alone cannot be a deterrent to cases of sexual harassment, which seem to have spread like an epidemic. Every time a person in power abuses his position and gets away scot free, it somewhere encourages someone else to follow the same footsteps, because the repercussions are so little.

    Lawyer and author Malavika Rajkotia says, “The Vishakha Act has now been followed by a more comprehensive The Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013 but no law can deal with social change unless there is a deep tectonic shift in organisations on how they deal with the issue of gender.”

    Nikita Saxena, the web editor of The Caravan, who had reported in the magazine about the sexual harassment case against veteran environmental scientist, RK Pachauri, informs that women in such cases are often afraid of their own anger.

    They are legitimately terrified that something like this couldn’t possibly be important enough to be brought to the company’s attention. “Even if something like this continues on a sustained basis the first instinct of a woman is to question herself – Did I encourage him? And then it is easy for others to dismiss it as a boss being infatuated with his employee – someone who can’t help himself,” says Nikita Saxena, Web Editor of The Caravan.

    In fact, Pachauri isn’t the first influential figure to have been embroiled in a sexual harassment case. From Bollywood choreographer Shaimak Davar to Asok Kumar Ganguly, a former Supreme Court Judge and head of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, publisher David Davidar to well-known software executive Phaneesh Murthy, former director general of Punjab Police KPS Gill and of course including Tarun Tejpal, the founder of the magazine Tehelka who accused of sexual assault and rape by a former colleague. None of these men had to serve any jail time yet.  

    Women Don’t Report Because Of These Probable Reasons:
    • They don’t want to be embarrassed by making a public declaration
    • They don’t perceive casual harassing remarks as real harassment
    • They wait for something physical to happen before taking the bold step of reporting it
    • They aren’t enough aware of the sexual harassment law
    • They may be willing to hide it in the ‘interest’ of their careers
    • They are advised against reporting by peer group and seniors or sometimes even HR departments

    Writer Nirupama Subramanian also points out that the general culture of an organisation also suggests how it might respond to cases of sexual harassment. She recounts a time when she was the only woman in a small team meeting with a client, and the latter wouldn’t even acknowledge her presence, let alone her suggestions. Nirupama elaborates that sometimes corporations do take a woman for granted. If there is a weekend meeting, she is advised to not attend because she probably needs to “spend time with her family.” A woman is expected to arrange for the office picnics while a man can wash his hands off errands because he needs to prepare for an important presentation. These being examples of harassment that most women don’t even perceive to be so or know so.

    Author Aparna Jain feels that often women themselves lead to these biases.

    Women in positions of power, who could be receptive and empathic to such incidents, want to brush it under the carpet because it might hamper the company’s reputation and their own? “There is this inherent mindset where women try to be like men to become successful. It is up to us to change the system.”

    The stakes are always severe for women who choose to complain against an employer. More often than not they advised by the company to not take the matter to court. In some cases, there is a large financial buyout involved and women move on to other companies with good recommendations because the don’t want any road block to affect their careers.

    Although it can be a lonely battle for any woman to take on, Malavika concludes, “Any step towards justice has to begin with a complaint and ignorance of the law cannot be an excuse. Organisations need to be vigilant and there need to be regular compliance audits to ensure that the legislature is implemented.

    There is no system, no law that can improve human beings. We can’t eliminate but only try and curtail it to the best possible extent.”

    Read More by Amrita Paul