Sexual harassment in workplaces is an expression of power and hostility. It should not be treated as an uncomfortable encounter, but a serious offense
Sexual harassment is not an issue to shy away from, and women’s movement around the world has been successful in garnering the much-needed attention toward this critically important issue. In the recent times, media has also become a vocal advocate of women’s rights. As a women’s rights activist, it is inspiring to see people speak about incidents of sexual violence that they have gone through without fear of being stigmatized. But as we discuss this pertinent issue, there is a chapter of sexual harassment that not many discuss and is often discarded: sexual harassment at workplaces. This happens in most work settings, by people who are identified as mentors, colleagues and supervisors.
As a ‘gender’ expert and trainer, I was interacting with a group of development practitioners about sexual harassment, when I noticed a few of male participants shrug in discomfort. I was quick to probe, and asked them, if the topic made them uncomfortable. One of them said: “Nowadays, men in the office feel unsafe because anyone in the work setting may place a sexual harassment charge against us out of clear bias.” This resonated with most men in the room. They nodded in support.
I was literally baffled as it made me realize that people often did not realize the gravity of sexual harassment, and its impact on people’s lives. The very thought that sexual harassment charges were used as a weapon of disguise to character assassinate people, and a tool to upstage people on the basis of bias, or fear of competition inside a workplace troubled me. The issue of sexual harassment is not only treated as an undertone, but is mostly considered from a point of organizational prestige, rather than staff safety, and dignity.
This is the reason many workplace sexual harassment charges are boxed as a “hush” affair, and treated with profound insensitivity which often harms the victim, and protects the culprit.
In my interaction with many survivors of workplace sexual violence, I sensed a common sentiment: “Power plays an influential role in workplace sexual harassment. Often mistaken as an act of sexual intention, if we critically analyze the root of it, it is the use of power that often defines the target of workplace harassment.”
I review the human resource handbooks of the organizations that I have worked with. They mention mandatory trainings on sexual harassment for the staffs, pro-employee legal procedures and laws, a systematic grievance handling procedure, and “do-no-harm” structures to protect the confidentiality and dignity of the victim. But despite such gate-keeping, the issue of workplace harassment is prevalent, and there’s a need for us to discuss the challenges, gaps, and further orient staffs on importance of the issue. Most importantly, there’s a need to discuss workplace sexual harassment from the point of view of safeguarding the rights of workers in the workplace.
Have we ever heard a high-level politician being harassed or groped? What about Justin Trudeau being catcalled while jogging? Has it ever happened why fewer men are being harassed? Evidence suggests that power dynamics play an important role, as it is power that is exercised as an act of sexual nature to demean someone less powerful and reinforce stereotypes by forcing them to be ‘sexual subordinates.’
The same theory may apply in a workplace. One needs to understand that when the predator in a workplace setting is powerful, then there’s no fear in them to enforce a hostile work environment, paving way for increased sexual comments, or inappropriate touch, and quid pro quo, which means, the use of power for sexual favor.
While decoding the nature of power in a workplace setting, one should observe power from a patriarchal lens. Power for the predators is considered a societal trait, or patriarchal privilege in the form of authority which is accepted culturally and socially. This is one of the prominent reasons why sexual harassment charges in a workplace towards powerholders is often quashed stating lack of evidence, and in most cases the victims often chose to remain silent due to fear of losing employment and stigmatization. The capitalist mode of economy is also to be blamed for the situation that keeps the victims silent. Without a job or a proper income it is difficult to survive in the changing times.
As I go through the organizational values introduced by some prominent organizations, I often ask myself, if the values of trust, protection, and welfare are merely words. While discussing cases of workplace sexual harassment, it’s also important to review organization’s culture.
Onus on organizations
I have handled cases of sexual harassment in which organization’s unclear stand on these issues often empowers the predator and further victimizes the survivor. This not only normalizes the culture of sexual harassment at workplace, but also devalues dignity of staff which results in underreporting of cases of sexual harassment because of shame, fear, and the organization norms which protect those in power.
There’s a need for accountability for organizational and institutional leadership to introduce stringent and effective mechanisms to protect and safeguard staff from such hostile behaviors. Policies on anti-sexual harassment should not only be limited to human resource policy books. There needs to be a strategic reinforcement, and orientation on the procedure, and process to report, investigate, and probe cases of workplace sexual harassment. Organizations can take a step forward and bring zero tolerance, and no-negotiation policy towards sexual harassment in workplace. This not only sensitizes the staff but also empowers them to report cases without fear of hostility. Sexual harassment in workplaces is an expression of power and hostility. Workplace harassment should not be treated as an uncomfortable encounter, but a serious offense.