Article: Subtle forms of sexual harassment

Employee Relations

Subtle forms of sexual harassment

This is something common globally where you will often find the victim second guessing themselves to oblivion. Sadly the perpetrator behaves in a manner to lure the victim into believing that they perceived the situation wrongly.
Subtle forms of sexual harassment

Recently a case of sexual harassment came to the limelight on social media about a prominent university in Bangalore where the proctor, protected by anonymity, had made inappropriate remarks or requests to students. In one such instance, a student was asked to lower her camera angle while giving the exam. She was even threatened that she would be accused of malpractice if she did not comply.

What was alarming in the case was the approach of the University towards this whole incident. The approach of the authorities is to manipulate the narrative by turning the perverse behaviour into a ‘caring’ one. This is a classic case where the perpetrator who is a person in authority often uses these tactics to diverge attention from this coercion.

As a society we are made aware of instances where sexual harassment is taken seriously only when it’s violent in nature. Often subtle forms of sexual harassment are left unaddressed due to the stigma surrounding the issue, more of it gets reasoned down to the culture of “victim blaming”.

This is something common globally where you will often find the victim second guessing themselves to oblivion. Sadly the perpetrator behaves in a manner to lure the victim into believing that they perceived the situation wrongly. 

When we look at the academic society, a very frightening research shows the following result-

Research predicts the underreporting of sexual harassment in academy:

“Our results suggest that institutional and departmental barriers driven by power asymmetries play a large role in the underreporting sexual harassment among students—especially those in STEM disciplines.”

Furthermore, it states that

“Yet, despite the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in academic settings, evidence indicates that reporting rates in academe are generally low, potentially due to fear of retaliation—especially when the perpetrator is a prominent scientist [13]. Such examples signal the role of power imbalances between perpetrators and those whom they victimize. Undergraduate students, for example, report sexual harassment less often when the perpetrator is a faculty member vs. a fellow student [14], and also report sexual harassment less overall compared to their graduate student counterparts [3].”

Power dynamics often foster situations where the victim is gaslighted into questioning the perception of what they experienced. Such behaviour is often tolerated because standing up to the authorities figure is more likely to cause them distress. This is how the perpetrator gains the confidence to engage in such behaviour repeatedly.

It’s important to understand that sexual harassment doesn’t just mean molestation or physical abuses. There’s a Pandora’s box full of ways the perpetrator can mentally, emotionally and physically traumatise an individual by verbal, virtual or even gesture based form of sexual harassment.

Virtual world further changing dynamics of sexual harassment:

In the current world scenario, the pandemic has changed the way we interact at our workplaces. Virtual communication is one of the most effective ways to carry out business. It has also blurred the line surrounding professionalism. The anonymity and direct access that the virtual world provides has become the tool to engage in highly inappropriate behaviour and get away with it hiding under the cloak of it being subtle.

Co-workers interact with each other using social media platforms where access to the other person is almost just a message or click away. This virtual network catalysts opportunities for crossing personal boundaries and venturing into sexual harassment territory. The pandemic has interlinked the personal and professional life’s of the employees thus creating a situation where it’s difficult yet important to set boundaries. Social business networks also allow these inappropriate conversations to take place with more ease than in a four-walled office space. 

The accessibility of an individual to attain that reach into someone’s private space. Especially through video conferencing, when done in isolation is quite intimidating and threatening. Even with all its challenges the world has quickly become accustomed to video communication as the new mode of communication. For eg: A stranger who can be a client has access to the vendor in isolation without any check. This can also breed situations where harassment harbours.

This was also reported when teachers were taking online classes. Under the cloak of anonymity teachers were being regularly sexually harassed. While the medium of harassment stayed virtual the impact was traumatic on the victim.

Often these instances of sexual harassment don’t fall under the stereotype of the powerful male physically abusing the vulnerable female. Often such instances of sexual harassment aren’t violent or physical, yet they effect the victim and impact their life.

In such cases of sexual harassment which aren’t outrightly violent or physical. The victim often is in a dilemma on how to handle the situation. Often they feel that they might be second-guessing themselves, especially if an authority figure is involved. They could also feel more threatened and intimidated to report such a small incident.

Along with the fear of the consequences of filing their grievances, there is a perception that nothing would be done and of the possibility of negative repercussions, including social ostracism and retaliation. The society is seen only standing up when the situation of harassment turned outrightly brutal and yet sects of the society engage in victim blaming.

However the law states that an act to be considered sexual harassment, it matters what the person who’s being harassed experienced; It does not matter if the person who’s doing the harassment thinks it’s OK, harmless, not sexual, or welcome.

Firstly it’s important to understand the various subtle forms of sexual harassment. Some examples are :

  1. Unwelcome comments on how one looks or unwarranted questions about one’s personal life.
  2. Asking questions of a sexual nature or pointing conversations toward a sexual nature
  3. Unwanted touching such as a hug, tickling or hand to the knee or shoulder
  4. Inappropriately touching themselves in front of you.
  5. Late-night telephone calls.
  6. Social media stalking, sending unwelcome messages, comments etc.
  7. Unwelcome calls at odd hours
  8. Requests to meet in isolation 

These are some examples of subtle forms of sexual harassment. It becomes important to report this form of Sexual Harassment to the Internal Committee or to directly confront the harasser.

Reporting to authorities the way forward:

The law understands how a subtle instance of sexual harassment can impact a person, hence the Internal committee has the jurisdiction to investigate cases of subtle forms of sexual harassment. This further helps in stopping the harassment of the victim while establishing a statement that even the most subtle forms of sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Reporting such instances will help in eradicating such instances from our social interactions. It's important to speak up and use the resources at one's disposal.

It also becomes pertinent to acknowledge that the impact of a situation on the person, especially with sensitive cases like that of sexual harassment should be taken into account.

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Topics: Employee Relations, #GuestArticle, #PowerWomen

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