A few weeks back, a Harvard-educated Singapore-based businessman decided to grope a young woman passenger on a domestic flight. He thought that no one would notice. But, to his surprise and dismay, the woman not only spoke up but also captured her objection on camera and posted it on social media networks. Within three days, that video had 44 million hits. Sexual harassment is no longer just a moral transgression.
Silence is the most critical ally when it comes to sexual harassment as once upon a time unwelcome sexual words, gestures, images and the everyday invisible acts of sexual harm were comfortably managed as “just the way things are.” In the nineties, all that changed. I pioneered a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court of India from which emerged a landmark binding law on workplace sexual harassment known as the Vishaka Directions. Sixteen years later, those directions led to legislation—the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prohibition, Prevention and Redress) Act, 2013.
Legally then, we can no longer dismiss workplace sexual harassment as some moral transgression. Vishaka raised that bar when for the first time it recognised “each incident of sexual harassment” as a violation of our fundamental right to equality.
The question is do our actions reflect that changed understanding? Have we moved from silence to speaking up? Not really.
Workplace sexual harassment affects one in three women globally, so it’s not unique to India. What is unique is that many workplaces continue to perceive ogling, sexually inappropriate remarks, jokes and gestures, as well as displays of sexually suggestive pictures as a harmless norm.
Yet, 75 per cent of workplace sexual harassment is made up of such “invisible harm” commonly referred to as hostile workplace environment. And because it’s embedded in our workplace cultures, we don’t see it. Even when we do, we don’t act.
In the video that went viral, passengers are seen doing what most of us do in such situations—becoming passive bystanders. Within the workplace, that benign silence translates into a lot of unnoticed harm from individual health, performance and productivity to a company’s reputation and costs. The case of Phaneesh Murthy and iGate serves as a classic example.
It seems therefore that we have yet to own and model our equality at work. Doing so invites us to make a choice between coasting along as passive bystanders and taking proactive steps to create a culture of change that reflects how we live our equality in practice. It’s the difference between token versus substantive legal compliance.
Choosing the latter involves embracing three basic steps:
First, Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) mandated by law cannot remain mere emblems of compliance, left to chance. They require detailed skill and capacity building to ensure fair and equal outcomes in the event of a complaint. It’s critical for such committees to have the presence of a third-party legal expert on the issue. A properly equipped ICC promotes trust and enables zero tolerance messaging in the workplace.
Second, most of us are motivated to invest in preventing fraud, extortion, or other like breach in the interests of our workplaces. Investing in preventing sexual harm to our people calls for equal if not higher priority.
And third, ensuring that those who work with and for us are enabled as citizens to live equality at the workplace, in an environment free of sexual harassment would surely benefits us all—men as well as women.
When we begin to do this, speaking up around preventing workplace sexual harassment can become the rule, not the exception. That is what owning our equality is all about.