Am I Being Sexually Harassed at Work? Here Are 8 Signs to Look Out For

Suffering and Healing | | , Content Strategist & Blogger
Updated On: July 17, 2023
signs of sexual harassment
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Am I being sexually harassed at work? Well, if you are asking this question, there’s a high possibility that you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment at work. Sexual harassment is not an alien term in today’s times. If you ask any woman, they will tell you their stories of missed promotions, changed departments or loss of employment, just because they did not comply to the demands of their bosses and colleagues, who were sexually harassing them.

Millions of conversations around ‘#MeToo’ and ‘No Means No’ campaigns are proof that women are not ready to ‘let it go’ and suffer in silence. But what is sexual harassment at work and what is not? Long before the #MeToo movement started in the country, the Vishaka Guidelines were instituted by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 to clearly define what constitutes harassment in the workplace and how to protect women at work.

According to the guidelines, harassment at workplace included physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favors, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography, and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. The Vishaka Guidelines eventually became the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. This a law that women can use to complain against any kind of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

If we look at statistics published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, then we will see that there has been a 54% increase (from 371 cases in 2014 to 533 cases in 2018) in the reporting of sexual harassment cases within office premises of India. This means that an increasing number of women are coming forward to report the harassment they have been facing at work.

What Is Sexual Harassment At Work?

How to know if you’re being sexually harassed? If you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Was I sexually harassed?’, know that sexual harassment at work can take many forms. It may start with gender-biased comments, obscene remarks or jokes, and sexual advances. Monica Ray (name changed) says what started as innocuous, funny online jokes sent by a colleague, soon became sexual in nature followed by implicit cartoons and pictures.

“I felt uncomfortable but I couldn’t confront him. I started asking myself, ‘Am I being sexually harassed at work?’ Then I realised that whenever I opened the mails sent to me, there were smirks and whispers among my male colleagues, making it obvious that they were doing it on purpose,” said Monica.

Sexual harassment at work is more common than you think. Every professional setup has its own can of worms when it comes to offensive sexual advances. Who hasn’t heard of Harvey Weinstein’s inappropriate sexual advances toward the top-notch leading ladies of Hollywood? In India, high profile cases have been in the news for all the wrong reasons too.

Large media houses, big offices and corporates, start-ups, multinationals, banks, schools, colleges and even the legal framework of our country – all are exposed to the impending dangers of sexual harassment. The worst thing is most often it takes months for women to realize that the discomfort and discrimination they have been facing are nothing but signs of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Related Reading: Consensual Love In The Workplace: You Could Be Disregarding Consent Without Even Knowing It

Talking of gender harassment examples, journalist Elena Decker (name changed) says, “I covered a case where this lady working in a government organisation had complained against her boss. This was around 15 years back. Her complaint was addressed by demoting her and changing her department. Her boss was given a promotion and transferred to New York.

“In fact, in the newspaper office I worked in, there was a girl who complained against a senior who would always touch her when standing behind her while checking the headlines. She eventually had to leave the job and the senior went on to become the editor.”

Boss touching female employee
Unwanted touch is sexual harassment

Earlier women avoided talking about sexual harassment in the workplace because they felt that while the guilty would go scot free, the consequences had to be faced by them. But, in recent times, companies in India have become more stringent about implementing the sexual harassment law and address a complaint immediately and impartially.

There are solutions to harassment in the workplace. If you feel that the sexual harassment signs are there or you feel like you are a victim of harassment at work, then you should be fearless in tackling it. We understand it is easier said than done but if we want this menace to stop, then it is upon us to take that first step.

8 Signs To Watch Out For Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

What are the signs someone is harassing you? How to know if you’ve been sexually harassed? What are the symptoms of harassment? Well, sexual harassment in the workplace can take a subtle form but turn out to be traumatic. You start living in fear, the harassment starts nibbling at your self-esteem and you are unable to concentrate on your work and career.

Plagued by the ‘am I being sexually harassed at work’ dilemma? Allow us to help you. There are multiple ways in which harassment is perpetrated in the workplace but how to know if you’re being sexually harassed at work? These 8 signs can help you understand:

1. Hostile workplace environment

How to recognize sexual harassment signs? Sometimes, under the garb of advocating open communication between genders, many tend to make and laugh at sexual jokes and initiate unwanted sexual teasing making the environment at work hostile. They cross that thin line between open communication and suggestive interactions, and as a result, make working uncomfortable and difficult for several colleagues.

So next time, if your colleagues or superiors show inappropriate images or illustrations and laugh in front of you, know that it is definitely a starting point of sexual harassment. Also, ganging up against one person is another way of perpetrating hostility. Some colleagues may come together to intimidate you when you try to tell them that you are not comfortable with their behavior. But there are steps you can take if you are sexually harassed at work.

What should you do: Your confidence, attitude and body language can make a huge difference in how you are perceived by your colleagues at work. Make it clear from day one that you are not scared of them. Put your foot down and stay fearless.

2. Suffer gender disparity at work

This is another sign that you are a victim of harassment. Even while the professional female workforce in India is increasing day-by-day, ‘gender disparity’ is still at an all-time high. Be it low pay packages as compared to men, fewer leadership roles or no job permanency, the female working population is always exposed to unequal gender practices.

Statistics reveal that women below the age of 30 earned 23.07% less than men. This wide wage gap puts men in an advantageous position and entitles them to play the power game confidently with women professionals. Sometimes, senior company managers utilize these power dynamics and make working conditions even more difficult for women. Late work assignments, forging deadlines to stay in office beyond work hours or passing your opportunities to the opposite sex count as gender disparity at work.

What should you do? Speak up! If you feel that your boss is keeping you late at work intentionally, just make it clear that you will finish work during office hours and that you cannot stay beyond it.

3. Strange sexual innuendos at work

Every individual deserves a dignified and quality career, which is possible only if workplaces are comfortable enough for them to explore and pursue their professional ambitions and goals. But when they suffer through strange sexual innuendos, it may discourage them from pursuing their career goals.

Regressive attitudes could be one of the potential reasons colleagues, especially women, often abandon or cannot thrive in their careers. ‘Hey, sexy! Your makeup is on-point today.’ ‘Babe, you look pretty curvy in red.’ If you hear these sexually colored remarks at work quite often, know that you are a victim of sexual abuse or harassment. This may go to extremes if the harasser turns regular work discussions into sexual debates or asks you questions about your active social or sex life.

Worried woman at office
Sexual harassment in the workplace can be traumatic

“Your boss can make or break you,” says Kate Wilson (name changed), a VP in a well-known ad agency. “When I started working, I was 22 and my boss would take me out for coffee and ask me if I was a virgin. When I told him that he was asking an extremely personal question, he would reply very subtly saying that my promotion was in his hands.

“Yes, he ensured I did not get a promotion because I always stayed stern with his advances. I moved jobs and my career soared, but if such a situation had arisen in today’s times, I would have definitely complained against him,” Kate concluded.

Recently, the CEO of a premier web channel used such comments to harass a female employee. Later, he had to resign from the post after being slapped with sexual harassment charges.

What should you do? If you see such sexual harassment signs, speak up. We know it is difficult but you will have to find the courage to stand up for yourself. Warn your harasser a couple of times. If they don’t listen, file a complaint against them.

4. Continuous ‘harmless’ flirting

Harmless, healthy flirting is what your harasser might be calling it when you tell them to stop! But every time they start their flirting process, it stays anything but harmless and quickly crosses the line making you uncomfortable and irate. If you’re still dealing with the ‘am I being sexually harassed at work’ dilemma, understand that this is an absolute sign. 

Being at work calls for a professional code of conduct and formality. Any kind of unwanted flirting during or after work hours is counted as unethical and unprofessional. If you’re still trying to figure out how to know you’re being sexually harassed, this is one sure shot sign.

A woman, who filed a sexual harassment case against her boss, told us: “He would say things like, ‘I wish I was the file you are carrying with you. I would stay pressed to your bosom then’. He would never make such statements in front of others. No one had a clue what he was doing to me. He wanted to imply that he was genuinely interested in me which is why he was flirting so intensely. But I found him to be an absolute creep.”

What should you do? Assert your ‘no’ strongly and raise your voice at the right time to nip the harassment in the bud.

5. Watch out for “special assignments”

What is abuse or harassment at work? Additional work projects come with additional job responsibilities. Interns or freshers, especially, see it as an opportunity to prove their talent and skills, but our Bonobology experts warn you to watch out for such sexual harassment signs. 

Asking yourself ‘am I being sexually harassed at work’? Well, any work assignment that calls you to stay in the office alone for late shifts could be a potential trap. The same rule applies to projects that require travelling to a different city or a country. This might be your superior’s chance to make physical advances toward you beyond the office barriers.

“We were travelling from New York to California for a project and my superior kept saying he wanted to stay in the same room with me. I got so scared that I opted out of the assignment citing health issues. It was so harrowing,” said Chloe Smith (name changed), a 26-year-old digital marketing specialist.

What should you do? Keep your eyes and ears open. Notice your superior’s body language and way of talking. Stay alert and observant at all times because you might be led into tricky situations and then blamed for seducing the boss.

6. Gifts come with a “danger sign”

How to know if you’ve been sexually harassed at work? Watch out for the ‘special gifts’. Gifts are OK if they are a part of your office tradition on Diwali, Christmas, Thanksgiving or any other festival. But if your boss is too generous to shower you with precious gifts, then it is probably an attempt to woo you and express his interest in getting ‘something more’ from you.

This is a symptom of harassment. Denying such gifts directly will make you potentially safe from such sexual advances. Yes, there is no denying the fact that it could make him angry and he could take it out on you professionally. But small gifts could lead to bigger expectations and situations that you might not be able to handle later. Also, the need for a meeting alone with you outside the office over coffee or a drink, is best avoided.

What should you do? There is no other way out of this really than to make it clear from the very beginning that you will not accept any gifts.

7. Take note of any ‘unwanted’ online communication

Staying connected to colleagues 24x7x365 might be the need of the competitive professional culture, but don’t let it become a fertile ground for sexual harassment online. Beware if a colleague or a boss is sending you emojis on WhatsApp, especially at odd hours. It won’t take long for the smileys to turn into hugs and kisses and, if you return it, then you might just be making a grave mistake. 

These are symptoms of harassment that you should be able to recognize and understand. If a colleague or a senior company manager messages you some outrageous text, sexual jokes or image via WhatsApp and then apologizes for the ‘mistaken forward’, don’t take it lightly. If he sends you a friend request on Facebook, or Instagram follow, ignore it.

This would be a clear signal that you only want a professional association with your superior and you could fortify yourself against sexual harassment online.

What should you do? Ensure you remain professional in all your texts and emails. If you feel the emails and texts from your colleague or superior are getting too casual, informal or personal, make it a point to let them know that you would like to keep the conversation strictly professional.

Related Reading: How To Tell If Your Boss Likes You Romantically?

8. Seeking sexual favours in exchange of job promotion

Still wondering ‘was I sexually harassed’? Well, if you were asked for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or positive recommendation, then yes, it’s a major symptom of harassment. In other words, ‘quid pro quo’ is one of the most prominent forms of harassment by a boss. 

Usually, it is translated as ‘this for that’ where an employee can receive employment benefits like favorable performance recommendations, promotions, salary increments, or a prestigious project in exchange for sexual favors. Denial of such sexual stimulus may mean loss of job, aggressive workplace bullying or bad performance reviews. 

These are absolute signs someone is harassing you. This is one of the extremes in workplace sexual harassment that must be brought to the notice of your office’s internal complaints committee as soon as possible. If you’re thinking how to know if you’re being sexually harassed, this is one signal you just cannot ignore.

What should you do? Gather enough evidence and complain immediately.

Once you are sure of sexual harassment at work, don’t keep quiet fearing the repercussions of speaking up. Don’t be embarrassed to file a complaint. Open up, lead your battles against sexual harassment and do your bit to make the professional world safer for every individual in India and the world. It’s not an easy task but one that is of utmost importance.

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