Sexual harassment is not an alien term these days. If you ask any woman they would tell you their stories of missed promotions, changed departments or job loss, because they did not comply to the demands of 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 India, way back in 1997 the Vishaka Guidelines were instituted by the Supreme Court of India to give a clear definition of what constitutes harassment in the workplace (physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favors, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature) and to protect women when they are at work.
The Vishaka Guidline 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 Ministry of Women and Child Development, then we will see that there has been a 54% increase in reporting of sexual harassment cases within office premises of India. From 371 cases in 2014 it went up to 533 cases in 2018. Which means more women are coming forward to report the issues they are facing.
What Is Sexual Harassment At Work?
Monica Ray (name changed) says what started as innocuous, funny online jokes sent by a colleague, soon became sexual in nature that were followed by implicit cartoons and pictures.
“I felt uncomfortable but I couldn’t confront him. I started asking myself, ‘Am I being sexually harassed?’ 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 can take so many forms. It may start with gender-biased comments, obscene remarks or jokes, and sexual advances.
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 towards 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.
And the worst thing is most often it takes months for women to realise that the discomfort they are feeling and the discrimination they are facing are nothing but signs of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Talking of gender harassment examples, journalist Ritwika Das 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 Mumbai.
“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.”
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.
So there are solutions to harassment in the workplace. If you feel that the signs are there that you are facing workplace harassment you should be fearless in tackling it.
8 Signs To Watch Out For Sexual Harassment In The Workplace
Sexual harassment in the workplace can take a subtle form but can turn out to be traumatic. You start living in a kind of fear, the harassment starts nibbling at your self-esteem and you are unable to concentrate on your work and career.
There are multiple ways in which harassment is perpetrated in the workplace but how can you look out for the signs of sexual harassment in the workplace? Let us tell you.
1. Hostile workplace environment
Men clearly dominate women in the strong media landscape with 4:1 workforce representation. This male domination, many times, make the workplace hostile. Usually, these organisations advocate open communication between the genders.
But under the garb of this, the majority of men laugh at sexual jokes and initiate unwanted sexual teasing in the presence of a woman. They cross that thin line between open communication and suggestive interactions, and as a result, make working uncomfortable and difficult for a woman.
So next time, if your superiors show inappropriate images or illustrations and laugh in front of you, it is definitely a starting point of sexual harassment.
Also, ganging up together is another way of perpetrating hostility. Some men can be in it together and intimidate you when you try to tell them that you are not comfortable with their behaviour. But there are steps you can take if you are sexually harassed.
What should you do? 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
Even while 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 job-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 utilise 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 counts 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 you cannot stay on beyond it.
Related Reading: Pooja Bedi wants to start a #Men Too movement
3. Strange sexual innuendos at work
Every woman deserves a dignified and quality career which is possible only if workplaces are comfortable for them to explore their professional pursuits creatively. But when a woman suffers through strange sexual innuendos, it may discourage her from pursuing her career goals.
Regressive male attitudes could be one of the potential reasons for which women often abandon their career goals 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 coloured remarks at work quite often, then this is suggestive of sexual harassment.
This may go to extremes when the harasser may turn regular work discussions into sexual debates, or ask you questions about your active social or sexual life.
“Your boss can make or break you,” says Namita Agarwal, 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 was an extremely personal question he was asking, he would tell me very subtly 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 it had been now I would have definitely complained against him,” said Namita.
Recently, the CEO of a premier Web channel used such comments to harass a woman employee. Later, he had to resign from the post after being slapped with sexual harassment charges.
What should you do? Warn your harasser a couple of times. If he doesn’t listen file a complaint against him.
4. Continuous ‘harmless’ flirting
Harmless, healthy flirting is what he might be calling it when you tell him to stop! But every time he starts his flirting process it stays anything but harmless and quickly crosses the line making you uncomfortable and irate. This is an absolute sign of sexual harassment in the workplace.
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.
One lady 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 say this kind of things in front of others. No one had a clue what he was doing to me. He wanted to imply he was genuinely interested in me that was why he was flirting so intensely. But I found him 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“
Additional work projects come with additional job responsibilities. Female interns see it as an opportunity to prove their talent and skills, but our Bonobology experts warn you to watch out for such signs.
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 beyond the office barriers.
“We were going on a project to Bangalore from Delhi 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 Aleena Shivan, a 26-year-old digital marketing specialist.
What should you do? Keep your eyes and ears open. Because you might be led into tricky situations and then blamed for seducing the boss.
Related Reading: How To Tell If Your Boss Likes You Romantically?
6. Gifts come with a “danger sign”
Gifts are OK if they are a part of your office tradition on Diwali or Christmas. But if your boss is too generous to shower you with precious gifts, then this is an attempt to woo you and express his interest in getting ‘something more’ from you.
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 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? 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. It won’t take long for the smileys to turn into hugs and kisses and if you return it then you are making a grave mistake. These are signs of sexual harassment that you should be able to understand.
If a colleague or a senior company manager messages you some outrageous text, sexual jokes or image via WhatsApp and then apologises 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 want only 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.
8. Seeking sexual favours in exchange of job promotion
In other words, ‘quid pro quo’ is one of the prominent forms of harassment by a boss. Usually, it is translated as ‘this for that’ where a woman employee can receive employment benefits like favourable performance recommendations, promotions, salary increments, or a prestigious project against sexual favours.
Related Reading: She was his boss and was now asking him out on a date
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.
Bollywood’s infamous ‘casting couch’ scandals are one such example, where many actresses have opened up against such advances and the consequent harm, including loss of movie projects.
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 woman in India and the world.