• Sexual Harassment: More About Power Than Sex?

    When we think of sexual harassment in the workplace, we usually think of a man in power making a move on a female subordinate. But the case against Thinx’s female founder, Miki Agrawal, has shone light on how it need not always be a man who is the perpetrator of sexual harassment. Harassment need not always be about sex, and can in fact be about power.

    Former Thinx employee Chelsea Leibow said that her boss constantly made comments about her body and even touched and fondled Leibow’s breasts. Leibow said that she found it difficult to speak out about how uncomfortable she was feeling because the culture of the office was “we’re all women here, this is to be expected”.

    Miki’s behaviour seemed like “a way to assert dominance over female employees by simply doing whatever she wanted to do without asking, and showing she could get away with it”, said Leibow.

    Leibow’s statements raise often overlooked questions when it comes to workplace harassment.

    Is harassment more about power than sex? Do we need to expand our definition of what sexual harassment is?

    Harassment at its core is definitely an assertion of power of the stronger over the weaker, says Amrita Chowdhury

    A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that male co-workers, clients and supervisors seem to be using harassment as an equaliser against women in power.

    “This study provides the strongest evidence to date supporting the theory that sexual harassment is less about sexual desire than about control and domination,” said the study’s primary investigator Heather McLaughlin.

    Researchers say that sexual harassment is about fear and a tactic for control, and is sometimes couched in transaction-based terms. Take the well-known example of the ‘casting couch’ where directors offer aspiring actresses roles in movies for sleeping with them. Other times the message that is given is “if you don’t comply, I will make life difficult”.

    Ex-head of Harlequin India and Director of Gaia Smart Cities, Amrita Chowdhury agrees. She tells SheThePeople.TV that “harassment at its core is definitely an assertion of power of the stronger over the weaker. Harassment in corporate settings takes many forms — sarcasm, verbal abuse, rights infringement, and indeed physical or sexual harassment”.

    Chowdhury says that, “boundaries of good HR practices are blurring at a time when margins and business survival are at risk and firms are scrambling to make their mark. Many startups don’t have robust HR practices”.

    Corporations and institutions must revisit policies and procedures on sexual harassment. These include ensuring that victims feel comfortable reporting allegations to human resources, training all employees in bystander intervention, and discouraging behaviours that create hostile work environments, says Pooja Bahuguna

    Agrawal, in her widely shared Medium post, said that she would step down as CEO and admitted that in growing her company, she did not pay too much attention to setting up HR policies. “When you’re a start-up and you’re growing and moving so fast (remember, we’ve only really hit this crazy growth period 18 months ago), to sit down and get an HR person and think about those things were left to the bottom of the pile of things to get done,” she said. 

    The case against her shows just how important it is for a company to implement adequate HR policies.

    Pooja Bahuguna, Talent Management head at the Aditya Birla Group’s Hindalco Industries, also says that sexual harassment is more about power than it is about sex. She tells SheThePeople.TV that corporations and institutions must revisit policies and procedures on sexual harassment. “These include ensuring that victims feel comfortable reporting allegations to human resources, training all employees in bystander intervention, and discouraging behaviours that create hostile work environments.”

    Lawyer Mayank Mukherjee tells SheThePeople.TV that in a lot of cases, there is ambiguity about what sexual harassment encompasses. “Even constant staring at someone is not considered an act of sexual harassment but can be traumatising for the individual.”

    This ambiguity is one of the reasons women sometimes don’t report cases of sexual harassment.

     Harassment stems from knowing you have the power to violate boundaries, says Sonali Gupta

    “It’s time for us to expand our ideas about what does and does not constitute sexual harassment in the workplace,” says Bahuguna.

    So what goes on in the minds of those who feel they can harass their employees? We asked psychologist Sonali Gupta whether power was the ultimate motive for the harasser. She tells SheThePeople.TV that harassment is definitely more about power.

    “It also stems from a lack of respect about sexual values and lack of context of consent and the boundary of other people’s bodies. Harassment stems from knowing you have the power to violate boundaries. The people who are being harassed often find it difficult to make a complaint. They worry they will not be taken seriously,” she says.

    Agrawal’s case has shown that harassment can take different forms. And that the harasser isn’t always driven by passion when it comes to engaging in inappropriate behaviours.

    “It’s time for us to rid ourselves of the assumption that only men engage in sexual harassment, or that women who are sexually aggressive are purely sources of humour,” says Pooja Bahuguna.

    Also Read: How I survived sexual harrasment and why it needs to be shared