In the latest Netflix show Bombay Begums, the storyline addresses the issue surrounding sexual harassment and the gaps in the redressal structures. The show portrays the challenge a female employee faces when filing a complaint against a ‘superstar employee’. In one of the scenes, the complainant tears the IC committee posters in the office bathrooms due to the company seniors blaming her for accusing a ‘family man’ of harassment. The halo effect of a ‘high performing employee’, ‘an older man’ ‘a family person’ often leads to the victims being questioned. The past laurels of the harasser are often used as a testimony against the victim’s claim.
Post the #metoo movement in India, the conversation surrounding the plights of the urban working woman has been amplified through its representation in films, articles, and of course through social media. According to the study conducted by the Indian national bar association, it was found that almost 37.8% of people reported their workspaces to be the most sexually aggressive places in their lives and had faced harassment there. The millennial generation triggered this discussion of workplace harassment and brought to light the issue of “victim silencing”. It has been observed that women who were the first-generation workers, only earning members, ambitious women looking to build a career, women from traditional households were often reluctant to report sexual harassment.
In accordance with the finding of the study, it was realized that most women chose not to report sexual harassment to management because of stigma, fear of retribution, embarrassment, lack of awareness of reporting policies, or lack of confidence in the complaints mechanism. The fear of losing work would also mean the loss of their freedom to move out of their houses or the freedom to even choose to work. It’s important to realize that even today there are many women who have to receive permission to leave their houses for work. The privilege and freedom that these women achieve by being able to earn, allows them to change their situation. Now if these women face sexual harassment in the workplace they will likely have little support from their families and the situation will result in victim-blaming and loss of work avenues.
With the entire culture surrounding how cases of sexual harassment are handled worldwide. It’s seen that there is a lot of onus placed upon the victim to stand up and fight the sexual harassment. Even as the #metoo movement demonstrated many women found themselves fighting alone after they called out the sexual harassment they had faced. Instead of legal and moral support from family and other institutions, many of these women found their character and choices questioned by society. One study reported that “In approximately seven out of 10 cases, victims said they did not complain, as they fear retaliation and social stigma attached to cases of sexual harassment.”
The social stigma attached to sexual harassment is very prevalent and has its roots even in most developed countries. Reporting of such cases often costs the victims more than the perpetrators. Female employees see such behavior as unfair and deeply disturbing, but inevitable as an extension of the ‘normal’ behavior they experience on an everyday basis. They feel ashamed and embarrassed, often keep silent for fear of making things worse, risking their reputations, or damaging their marriage prospects.
There also exists a fear of facing disbelief, inaction, blame, or retaliation. It could also result in hostility from supervisors, a bad reference to future employers, or the loss of job opportunities. There is often the fear of being termed as ‘a troublemaker’ leading to a negative impact on future employment. Women in the urban workspace are expected to put a brave face on while dealing with sexual harassment while crushing the glass ceiling and colluding with the corporate work culture. Often victims of sexual harassment do not realize what they are experiencing, and when they do they have to weigh their losses if they choose the route of justice.
How can HR, leaders, and Internal Committee (IC) members make a difference?
An important role of the Internal Committee, HR, and leadership is to recognize that the workplace culture is a reflection of society. To build accessible and effective reporting and redressal mechanisms, these leaders must first understand the factors that prevent a victim from reporting sexual harassment.
The manner in which cases of sexual harassment are heard and handled can have a lasting impact on not just the victim, but also the entire company culture. A best practice would be to implement the mandates of the law like policy drafting, training, and a redressal mechanism with the utmost empathy and ensure that these are accessible to employees across the organization -support staff, those in a factory or on-site, those working at the headquarters and so on.
It’s pertinent that the companies make this process of grievance redressal a safe and friendly space. Often the management and the workplace have more men than women. It’s very difficult for a woman to talk to a male figure /colleagues let alone report sexual harassment. There’s a disproportionate number of women that are employed in certain industries, departments, and blue collared jobs. The lack of women being employed in authoritative positions at workspaces results in women imitating submissive roles, depriving them of the opportunity to aspire for leadership roles.
The second step to effective redressal is building trust in the intention and expertise of the committee. Here the everyday communication from the committee and leadership is crucial. Managers should be trained on first response to these sensitive conversations and should also be reminded of the company’s value for employee wellbeing and zero tolerance to bullying and harassment. Employees should be equipped with the right tools to be active bystanders rather than passive witnesses. When an employee recognizes that the system is supportive they are more likely to reach out and access the redressal processes.