Last week, the ‘Rang De Basanti’ actor Siddharth was embroiled in a social media storm for his “sexist” tweet response to ace shuttler Saina Nehwal.
As the 31-year-old badminton champion, in a tweet, raised concerns on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's security breach in Punjab, Siddharth, known for his outspokenness, responded: "Subtle cock champion of the world. Thank God we have protectors of India. Shame on you #Rihanna".
The actor's use of sexual innuendo in his sporting metaphor led to people calling him out. Siddharth later apologised, saying that the word was used to indicate the 'cock and bull' idiom, and had no sexually-explicit reference.
This episode concerned a celebrity, but there are many women being trolled, or abused, on social media, but no one steps forward to solve these issues, despite mental health being one of the most discussed topics in the past two years. Social-media bullying, which includes sexist comments and abusive language, affects women adversely, more than their male counterparts, to the extent that they find it hard to concentrate on work, hampering their performance at workplaces.
It is also challenging for companies to protect women employees from cyberbullying, but several people-first organisations are taking initiatives.
People Matters gathered views from several women professionals on how trolling of women on social media ends up affecting them at the workplace and what can help them overcome it.
Bullying is traumatic
A physically- or psychologically-abusive action, taken by one or several individuals against another person, who finds it difficult to defend him/herself, is termed as bullying. Bullying can take a number of forms, including verbal harassment, physical assault, spreading rumours about the person, and humiliation using technology, says Janvi Doshi Sutaria, psychologist and outreach associate, Mpower-The Centre, Mumbai.
Being bullied is a traumatic experience and the psychological results have been found to be life-altering for women, she noted, adding that those who indulge in it do not see this consequence.
Social-media bullying makes women doubt their capabilities
Social-media bullying is extremely serious and harsh, often resulting in psychological harm to women, says Khushboo Mattoo, a Jammu-based columnist and social activist.
“It makes us less confident and when someone is less confident, it reflects in their personal as well as professional space... nobody wants that. It makes you doubtful, makes you doubt your capabilities since you stop feeling good about yourself. Thin, fat, dark-skinned, or something else... every woman has been called something or the other at least once in their lifetime, including those whom we consider perfect by our standards. Be it actresses, political leaders, or anyone else, there is no one who can escape this 'judgement', based only on their looks and opinions,” she adds.
Unnecessary embarrassment at workplace
Social-media harassment can lead to emotional and mental anguish and depression. “At the workplace, this can lead to unnecessary embarrassment, and often women hesitate to build a stronger online presence,” says Meghna Krishna, chief revenue officer, Toch AI, a video-processing startup.
There is no clear process to address these situations and women can often be left feeling targeted. “The redressal mechanism to counter these attacks is not strong enough and access to recourse or remedial action is cumbersome and tedious. There is an urgent need for social platforms to put in more measures in place to ensure the safety of all users and also, for governmental agencies to form a more robust redressal mechanism,” she suggests.
Trolling erodes self-esteem, causes self-censorship
Social-media trolling erodes self-esteem and women start censoring themselves online and even offline. “We see online harassment and bullying happening without any major consequences for the offender because women often prefer to stay silent due to societal fears and judgment. We need more proactive redressal mechanisms from social media platforms to specifically deal with online gendered abuse,” says Rupali Kaul, Operational Head, Mumbai, Marching Sheep, an HR consultancy.
Nanda Padmanabhan, head of corporate communications at BankBazaar.com, says, “Most often, the strongest instinct is self-censorship. Women start censoring themselves online; some even leave the platform. From a professional perspective, this is extremely detrimental because you are giving up your space – a space you created and nurtured for yourself and is a reflection of yourself as a person and professional. There’s very little that you can do to replace it."
“There’s still no gender-segregated data on cybercrimes against women in India, making it difficult to understand how many cases were reported by women and in how many of those convictions were secured. Without active support from the social media platforms and the government, no amount of digital vigilance on the part of women can help,” she adds.
Bullying implications may last for years
Social-media bullying can lead to a detrimental state of mind with implications that might last for days, months and even years, says Kriti Aggarwal, co-founder, StoreHippo, an ecommerce platform.
“With the world becoming a common stage for freedom of expression, equally important is to be sensitive towards the impact that one’s opinion might have on others... Right assistance and counselling can really help mellow down the impact of such a situation on one’s performance at work. We pay due attention to our employees and ensure that any issues are timely reported and immediate measures are implemented. Boosting the morale might turn out to be an instant remedy,” she adds.
Social media a double-edged sword for women
Sanya Aeren, chief advisor, marketing & communications, at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Orenda India, says social media has become indispensable for women to use such a platform to voice their concerns, strengths and showcase their talents and achievements. However, it fails to protect women, who have to endure the worst brunt of patriarchal norms as well as sexism spilling from the real world to the virtual world.
“We have counselling sessions at our workplace for women to talk about any such harassment. In India, we lack such communities. When women with the same vulnerabilities get together, they feel stronger to report such issues. Companies should come together and use their collective voices to advocate and educate others, and help in making social media a more secure space for women,” she adds.
Blocking the Bully
Srinidhi Dasaka, HR head at Keka Technologies, says social-media bullying shatters the very core of the women who are at the receiving end and they find it hard to regain their regular pace or efficiency.
“Women have had to change accounts, jobs, homes, and even cities for that matter, to stay safe from these trollers. The options are to either defend yourself by arguing with the bully, ignore them completely, or take it to workplace managers, or even the authorities. Reporting and blocking the bully’s present and future accounts on social media is always the first step women take,” she adds.
Need for laws specific to cybercrimes against women
According to Prakriti Poddar, mental health expert and director at Poddar Wellness, perpetrators are able to access their targets on a broader scale and on multiple platforms, often with the advantage of anonymity.
“Cyberbullying can be anonymous, widespread, and permanently online. To tackle this, there must be dedicated policies for violence/abuse against women on social media platforms and they should also be available in local languages. Laws specific to cybercrimes against women should be implemented in letter and spirit,” adds Poddar.
A clear policy at workplace can help
The entire purpose of cyberbullying is to isolate and evoke shame in others, and lately, outspoken women have been viciously getting targeted, says Ruchira Bhardwaja, joint president and CHRO, Kotak Mahindra Life Insurance Company.
While one may not have control over the unnamed/faceless trolls, organisations would need to create an ecosystem that alleviates such actions, outlining not only what is not allowed, but also how a victim can be supported.
“Ensure the risk of being punished for bullying is so high that the likelihood of any associate indulging directly or indirectly in such acts/behaviour reduces. Train and create mental health champions who can work with both the members who have been cyberbullied to manage their anxiety levels, and also all other members of the company how not to be a mere apathetic bystander. Create communities who are trained on legal ramifications, and can support the victim with legal counsel, escalating the concerns to law-enforcement authorities, and helping in documenting the case and/or developing online allies/cyber communities. Most importantly, completely supporting the women for speaking out against trolling, against online abusers, and thus empowering them,” she adds.
Seek support from workplace managers or colleagues
Women need to understand their self-worth and a crucial source for this is to converse with offline friends and mentors, whether in the workplace or outside of it.
“Scheduling a fixed time for the virtual world and spending more time in the offline world, even via video chat, can reiterate positive perspectives from the inner circle in a woman’s real life and can serve to reduce the impact of online trolling. With an open and transparent work culture, it becomes easier for women to share these incidents with their workplace managers or colleagues, and seek their support,” says Shrijata Basu Saha, director, global HR, iMerit.