TW: Mentions of sexual harassment
Written by: Tanisha Johari
The #MeToo movement in India really brought the conversation about sexual harassment at work to the forefront. In the last couple of years, employers have been more vigilant in ensuring that they comply with the POSH Act, 2013. That said, the numbers indicate that there’s still a long way for us to go as a society, mostly because despite available redressal mechanisms, women are still not reporting sexual harassment at work as often as it transpires. Let’s try and understand why that is.
In 2017, over 6000 people who were working in different cities across the country participated in a survey on sexual harassment at work conducted by the Indian National Bar Association. Of the 6047 participants, 37.8% of people said that they had been sexually harassed at work.
Women in the workplace are sometimes hesitant to report sexual harassment even with clear legal mechanisms due to a variety of reasons.
From those who did say they had been harassed at work, 53.3% of people said that they were harassed by their immediate manager, followed by 28.9% of people who said they’d been harassed by their colleagues. A large section of those who’d been harassed did not report the incidents to the Internal Complaints Committee as they feared that the perpetrator/respondent could retaliate or the employer would protect the respondent.
The legal redressal mechanism available to women at work are provisions made by the POSH Act, 2013. If your company has more than 10 employees, then your employer is bound by law to set up a fully functional Internal Complaints Committee.
That said, according to a report published in the Economic Times in 2019, 80% of women know about the ICC but 30% are hesitant in reporting sexual harassment incidents to the Internal Committee. Additionally, more than half of all participants were not sure if they wished to continue to work in the same place where the incident had happened.
This article aims to uncover the reasons that keep women from reporting sexual harassment at work when clearly legal redressal options are available.
To understand this, I spoke with several women in the workforce and asked them for their thoughts on what keeps women from reporting sexual harassment at work. The responses to this were rather saddening, and as a human resource professional, I aim to identify such gaps in gender-friendly practices and create an environment where all employees would feel comfortable sharing sensitive information.
One of the most common reasons that came up in research and my conversations: the fear women had of losing their jobs. Sita (name changed) said that “women keep quiet because the guy involved is a senior to her with influence and may impact her progression in the company.”
No one wants to lose their job. Even when a woman wants to move on to work for another company, they are scared of citing sexual harassment as a reason for leaving in their interviews. In a market where landing one’s dream job is difficult, no one wants this added pressure.
At the outset, companies must make their employees feel that they are important, irrespective of their positions. They need to make employees feel that they are heard and that they matter. Every employee matters. A culture of trust and safety needs to be implemented.
Gossip spreads like wildfire, all it needs is a spark. Meena (name changed) said that “Although the name of the victim is not to be disclosed, it never really remains a secret in the workplace.” One small breach in confidentiality by any party involved will not only jeopardize the investigation, the murmurs and whispers among other employees when they think the aggrieved is not listening only worsens the situation.
Neha (name changed) thought that “There is a constant fear that someone will know and if one person knows then everyone knows.” The (Internal Committee) must maintain confidentiality, and at no given point of time should any information be revealed. Not just the ICC but even the HR personnel who the aggrieved might initially approach should maintain confidentiality at all points in time.
Juhi (name changed) spoke from personal experience at her workplace and talked about how she fears she might become the ‘butt of all jokes’ if people get to know about the complaint. She said, “even if I file the case and everything dies down, all of a sudden people think it is okay to joke about it like my experience is okay to mock.” After going through a traumatic event, no one wants to be reminded about what took happened and definitely not become a ‘fun’ topic for people in the room.
The management must sensitize employees to ensure the safety of the complainant and their mental well-being. Sensitization workshops must go beyond just annual compliance. For everyone else at work to take sexual harassment at work more seriously, the emphasis/importance of following the rules should come from the leadership.
Human beings are social creatures. The society we live in plays a huge part in how we see and do things. Jyoti (name changed) worried what people will think of her if they knew she’d filed a complaint. She said, “We live in a society where people blame the victim. Everyone around the woman treats her differently. It’s hard to live with such pressure. So, women choose to not file a sexual harassment case and live with the trauma that some guy harassed her but can’t live with a society that constantly pokes or blames her for a crime she didn’t commit.”
The trauma caused by sexual harassment takes a huge toll on the victim. There’s a reluctance to relive it again and again for a POSH investigation. Meena (name changed) shared: “there is a lack of empathy and the questions are always asked crudely.” Reena (name changed) said, “the woman has to have a strong will to relive and retell the incident over and over again to the committee.” Companies can provide an external counselor not just for the victim but also to the accused. Mental and emotional turmoil is something that both parties experience. Employers need to take note of that and make provisions for their well-being accordingly.
It’s been eight years since the POSH Act came into place, yet women remain silent or reluctant to report sexual harassment at work. Senior leaders and human resource professionals in companies must work together to build an environment where every employee irrespective of their status quo, gender, and ranking feels safe.
About the author: Tanisha is a human resource professional working in Mumbai.
All images used in this article are for representational purposes only.