Strong laws fail to check sexual harassment at work

‘Can you better the condition of your women? Then there will be hope for your well-being. Otherwise you will remain as backward as you are now.’ – Swami Vivekananda

‘We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead.’ – Beyoncé

There is a dismal and rather unfortunate frequent occurrence – no prizes for guessing. It is about the increasing number of molestation and rape cases being reported every single day. Not all criminal deed is perpetrated by strangers on women.

Today, even a school is not safe for a girl child. Some principals, teachers and other staff, who should be protective like parents, have turned predators prowling on innocent girls. What comes to mind is that for every incident reported there may be several which go unreported.

Moreover, these inflictions are by unscrupulous anti-social elements. Though such incidents are rampant and highly reprehensible, there are also several incidents of harassment of women at workplace which go unreported. Here the perpetrators are male colleagues or superiors, known to the woman employee in question, at least professionally. Harassment, besides sexual, may assume numerous other forms as well. It assumes various forms like gender discrimination, chauvinism, ineptness to respect women and intolerance towards the success of smart women at work.

Women have stoically struggled to break the glass ceiling and have succeeded in various domains such as law, finance, sports, armed forces, entrepreneurship and many more. Indian women have a long way to go with less than 10% of them in leadership positions. On the one hand, we propound that women are relentlessly thriving professionally in diverse fields but we still find them fighting to break the glass ceiling.

The last few decades have seen rapid growth, increased job opportunities, more scope for startups and entrepreneurs, more assimilation with the world economy and increase in privatisation. However, Indian women continue to witness patriarchal stereotypes with rampant discrimination at work. We have laws which ensure equal pay for equal work in the form of Equal Remuneration Act 1976, which is to be implemented both at the Central and state level.

We have very effective and protective laws which, unfortunately, remain to a large extent on paper and lack enforcement. A research by BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management and conducted by Cambridge University's Judge Business School, states that, “a country’s collective values and beliefs about gender equality, humane orientation and assertiveness were bigger influencers on a woman’s economic power than were previously understood”.

Women are still the victims of societal norms assigning the burden of domestic tasks excessively on them. Men are acknowledged by companies to be more dependable than women, given the higher probability of taking a break for motherhood, considered as a career interruption.

Attitude of men is sometimes demeaning and prejudiced. In several cases, women are employed to enhance the glamour at workplace. Married working women find it challenging to balance professional and domestic life. New mothers find it challenging to report back to work as most work places lack nurseries or day care where mothers can tend to and regularly feed their newborns or infants.

There is a huge discrimination at work, including the gender wage gap, but that alone is not the hurdle for a woman to  climb up the corporate ladder. One third of women interviewed in a research admitted to having experienced harassment, although more than 60% do not report it. Prevalence of sexual harassments at work place is rampant and the deplorable part is that women are generally reluctant to talk about it.

It is a well-documented fact that sexual harassment at workplace results in infringement of fundamental rights like right of a woman to equality under Article 14 and Arti­cle 15 of the Constitution. It also interferes with her right to live a life of dignity, under Article 21. Moreover, her fundamental right under Article 19(1) (g) which assures her a right to practice any profession, occupation, trade or business, should logically include within its ambit a right to safe environment, free from sexual harassment.

Educated women

The irony is that educated women find themselves in a hapless situation and some even quit jobs as complaining about the culprit sometimes fall on deaf ears. Lack of collective support from colleagues and superiors leads to absenteeism, low turnover and job dissatisfaction and resignation.

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, is a powerful law which protects working women against sexual harassment. Despite such a strong law in force, there is no domain where women are free from sexual harassment. This ironically includes women police officers, women working as interns with judges, women lawyers, academicians and the like.

Some of the recent cases that merit mention are the startling revelations by Indira Jaisingh, India’s first woman additional solicitor general who claimed that she was sexually harassed in the precincts of the Supreme Court or the infamous cases of Tarun Tejpal, Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly or Rajendra Pachauri. The list is endless. Besides harassment, other issues include matrimonial pressures to manage domesticity vis-a-vis climbing the corporate ladder.

To face challenges successfully, women need to be self-assured. It is imperative to educate men and tell them to respect and revere women like they do those in their own family, true to the saying, “a man who treats his woman like a princess is proof that he has been born and raised in the arms of a queen.” Men should show progressiveness and flexibility in their thought process by accepting that women can accomplish as much as they do.

Balancing work and life with self assurance would ensure their women’s rightful place and break the stereotype of patriarchal and regressive mindsets that come in the way of gender equality at workplace.

(The writer is Director, Adarsh Institute of Management and Information Technology, Bengaluru)

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