The Spectre of Sexual Harassment


By: Kalpana Tatavarti

In the flurry of activity around implementing the mandates laid down by the Sexual Harassment Bill 2013, I hear some disquieting voices, which could be working against the very intent of the bill.

There is no doubt that this is a much needed bill; a safe and inclusive workplace free of uncomfortable overtures, offensive language, unsolicited propositions, ‘non vegetarian jokes’, (as we like to call them in India) etc, is absolutely essential for employees to thrive and grow in.

Which is the intent behind the 2013 Bill.

However, what we hear on the ground when we work with organizations is disquieting to say the least.

A senior group of managers at an offsite:

“If hiring women means so many hassles, maybe we should re visit our gender diversity agenda!”

A group of leaders who were undergoing a mentoring skills workshop for growing women leaders:

“If I have to work closely with women, give feedback, understand and mentor them, at the back of my mind is the niggling fear always, that they might misunderstand some of my words/gestures.”

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How can we address this fear psychosis, to enable all employees to understand and live the spirit of the law?

  1. Make it a culture agenda not a compliance agenda: The fear is more palpable, in my opinion, when organizations approach this as legal compliance. When it is projected and lived as a culture of respectfulness, it is seen in the overall perspective of inclusive cultures; and we actually begin to see support for the bill, since even many men are uncomfortable around these very same behaviors!
  2. Nip those ‘non veg’ jokes and uncomfortable behaviors in the bud: This is very critical; serious cases of sexual harassment, in most cases, begin with those ‘small’ behaviors, and if they are not nipped can embolden people to cross that line. As usual Managers & Leaders play a critical role here.
  3. Role model respectful behaviors: Of course, the most obvious, but seldom practised. I still remember, I was with some senior leaders finalizing the venue for our next conference and one of them cracked a joke about how the event organizer is ‘your girlfriend, man’ to another leader. Small stuff, big impact.
  4. Your Freedom Ends where Your Nose Ends: I do believe this is perhaps a little cultural. Helping employees understand that respecting each other’s boundaries means ‘Your Freedom End where your nose ends’ hits the nail on the head. Each of us has a different sense of what creates discomfort. The onus of understanding and respecting that vests with each one of us.
  5. Train the women to say no: Difficult one; especially when the unwelcome behaviors are exhibited by senior leaders. Women hesitate to articulate what makes them  uncomfortable, and in the Indian cultural context of gender socialization, it is a double whammy for women. But training helps; teaching them that they can stem this by using non verbals, and when necessary easy words can help.
  6. Make your organizational law inclusive: The law itself protects women; (note that is says Sexual Harassment of Women in Workplace Bill). However, when you make the policy in your organization, including both men and women under its ambit, adds to the spirit of safe and inclusive workplaces! Some organizations have made the bill most inclusive by even including same sex harassment under the ambit of the policy!

People are afraid the sexual harassment bill will be misused; I am afraid that it will derail what it seeks to support: more female talent in the workplaces! Organizations have to tread carefully here to ensure everyone benefits from the intent of the bill!

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