Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sex and the workplace

Two months ago, 31-year-old Manika Madhok quit her job with a multi-national corporation (MNC) in Gurgaon. For more than a year, she had been receiving sexually suggestive photographs and lewd emails on her official mail ID, but despite repeated discussions with the company's human resources (HR)
executives, her stalker remained anonymous.

'Flirting at work alleviates boredom'

Finally, Madhok filed a complaint with Delhi's Cyber Crime cell. "Within a week, they told me that the person sending the mails was from my office, and asked to get in touch with our IT head. Between them, they realised the culprit was a guy from the IT department,” she says. "When they confronted him, he told them it was my ‘suggestive dressing' that gave him dirty thoughts. I was appalled at the way he pinned his behaviour on me.”

In 1997, for the first time, the Supreme Court recognised sexual harassment at the workplace as a problem for women, and set out detailed guidelines for its prevention and redress. The National Commission for Women later formulated the guidelines into a Code of Conduct for employers.

As with other crimes against women in India, sexual harassment has been a concern for a while, but official steps have been relatively slow in coming. As the recent David Davidar saga shows, there is still a degree of ambiguity regarding what constitutes sexual harassment, as opposed to ‘consensual flirting', and the extent to which it can be, or is, punished.

However, the process of awareness and protection is likely to be further streamlined if, as has been reported, the government tables the Protection Against Sexual Harassment Of Women Bill — which draws on the 1997 judgment — at the monsoon session of Parliament, which begins on July 26.

As a Hindustan Times-C fore survey shows, a large part of the problem is how ordinary Indians approach the issue. Conducted among 1,045 office goers in NCR (Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida) and Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkata, the survey reveals that 39 per cent of respondents feel that flirting at the workplace ‘alleviates boredom in life', and 48 per cent would decide their response to unsolicited attention from someone of the other gender based ‘on the age and looks of the person'.

Cultural differences sometimes cause misunderstandings about how far flirting can go. A spokesperson of a Bangalore-based IT company describes the case of a 25-year-old man who persistently stalked a female colleague because he "was unable to accept refusal”. The man was subsequently admonished and provided professional counselling. "Sometimes, people who come from semi-urban spaces may misread certain signals,” he says.

There is also the question of whether the notion of ‘harassment' can be stretched too far. In Davidar's case, he claimed that his accuser Lisa Rundle and he shared a "consensual, flirtatious relationship that grew out of close friendship”.

Kimberly Jane Thomas, 31, a voice and accent trainer in the BPO sector in Gurgaon, recalls a case from 2003-04 when she was operations manager at a call centre. A female colleague, 23, was "hounded” by a process manager in his 30s and went along with his advances, supposedly lured by the promise of a promotion. After six months of an apparently physically abusive relationship, the woman complained, the perpetrator had to resign, and was blacklisted. The woman, too, lost her job, but was not blacklisted.

Which is not to say that clear-cut cases of sexual abuse are hard to find. Ruth Dhanaraj, 31, a journalist, describes how a loading agent at the airport assaulted her sister, working for a major private Indian airline, when she resisted his advances, as a result of which she suffered physical injuries. The airline was supportive of the victim, and the man was fired, though the case was settled out of court.

These cases may lead one to think that sexual harassment of women at the workplace is on the rise. "But the number of women has also increased in workplaces. A decade ago, you'd see only a sprinkling of working women. Today, the number has not only trebled, but is increasing every quarter,” says S. Raahul Sridhar, who is working on a dissertation on women and sexual harassment at University of Madras.

Could it be that more cases have been reported in the last few years? A spokesperson for Infosys says, "We definitely see empowerment... People are willing to make use of company policy to report sexual harassment. We see this as a positive sign.”

The other question that arises is, are women the only ones in need of protection? For Kolkata-based consultant psychiatrist Shiladitya Ray, of all the cases he gets every month, "four to six per cent” are sexually harassed women. "Compared to that, the number of men is almost nil,” he says. He does add, however, that women may sometimes ‘invite' harassment by "dressing or behaving provocatively”.

That may sound offensive to some, but 29-year-old Batool Mangeshkar, who works in the sales department of a private bank, wouldn't be surprised. "It's fine to discuss policy, but if something really happens, HR is the first to laugh it off by saying things like, ‘Yeh sab toh hoti rahti hai'. Only when you take up the issue in writing are steps taken,” she says. Thomas has, on occasion, told off trainees for being ‘improperly attired'. Most HR policies specify a dress code, but Thomas feels HR managers are the ones who need training. "They have no people management skills... Forget about dealing with harassment cases,” she says.

Given the lack of clarity regarding what is evidently a widespread problem, one of the principal tasks of the new bill — which caters to casual labourers as well as the mainstream workforce — could well be to educate us on what constitutes sexual harassment. It ought to at least mark the start of a long-term battle.

Inputs from Satarupa Basu & Ratnalekha Mazumdar in Kolkata
New Delhi, July 17, 2010First Published: 22:59 IST(17/7/2010)Ruchira Hoon and Nivriti Butalia in New Delhi, Neha Dara in Mumbai, Hindustan Times

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