“I don’t want to mentor a woman,” confessed a senior leader at a corporate I was working with for a coaching and mentoring program.” I support women and all that but these days. I just don’t want to be in a situation where it might get uncomfortable,” he added, looking a little embarrassed while admitting to his potential discomfort.
“Women these days are too sensitive,” declared a senior woman at an FMCG company. “When I started out in sales, the men would abuse and swear in front of me. You just have to toughen up and become strong. You can’t be crying sexual harassment for every inappropriate word the men say.”
A Human Resources head bemoaned the fact that the number of job applications from women were dropping. It was affecting the Diversity targets.
A friend joked that he had stopped complimenting the women at his workplace. You never know when you might offend someone.
Harassment as a social behaviour is a not a new phenomenon in the world. For centuries the powerful have exploited the weak. In India, the upper castes have harassed the lower castes in the name of tradition, the rich have perennially harassed the poor in the name of progress, the evil boss harasses all minions in the name of productivity and generations of roadside Romeos have harassed or ‘eve teased’ passing girls in the name of romance. The most pernicious form of harassment is sexual harassment since it is physically, emotionally and mentally intrusive and damages the most sensitive part of our personhood.
The Handbook on Sexual Harassment published by the Women and Child Development ministry says “unwelcome behaviour” is experienced when the victim feels bad or powerless; it causes anger/sadness or negative self-esteem. It adds that unwelcome behaviour is one which is “illegal, demeaning, invading, one-sided and power based”.
The #MeToo movement and the current dialogue around sexual harassment at workplaces have served to highlight serious issues that have been brushed aside or swept under the carpet for too long. It is heartening to see many women muster the courage to speak up about unpleasant situations. It is encouraging that men in power have been exposed for their transgressions. It is about time that we admitted the existence of the casting couch or cubicle instead of dismissing it as a myth.
It is encouraging that men in power have been exposed for their transgressions. It is about time that we admitted the existence of the casting couch or cubicle instead of dismissing it as a myth.
However, the movement has also polarized women against men and women against women. It is driving a wedge between coworkers and creating an atmosphere of distrust and divisiveness. There is a danger of perpetually labelling Man as Sexual Predator and Woman as Oppressed Victim. Instead of promoting collaboration and connection, we seem to be caught up in proving right and wrong.
We know that this is a problem. But where do we go after the naming and shaming? What do we do to manage the damage?
Ideally, we should dismantle the system of patriarchy and establish a more equitable and just society. The Supreme Court laid down Vishaka Guidelines in 1997. The Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act was passed in 2013. The law should have been a deterrent.
But for now, we need to realize that the main issue at hand is not about men demanding sexual favours from women. As long as we see it only as a woman’s issue or a part of the feminist agenda, we will not be able to gather momentum for significant change.
This is about every person’s right to a safe and respectful workplace. This is about every person’s right to be treated with dignity and respect.
We should focus now on how organisations, associations and industrial bodies create an environment where harassment of all kind can be prevented. This is not just about enforcing a guideline or rule of law, it is about widespread behaviour change.
Start at the top
The most important job of a leader is to be a good role model. Just as kids pick up what the parents do rather than just what they say, employees take their cue from the leaders. The senior leaders need to show dignity and respect in every interaction they have with others. Unfortunately, we have seen instances of absolute power corrupting the most powerful to the extent that some become megalomaniacs who believe that they can do no wrong. The #MeToo has turned the spotlight on some of these powerful men and shown that no one is too rich or too famous to be brought down because of bad behaviour. Seniors need to speak up and call out issues so that the others feel encouraged to do the same. If leaders behave disrespectfully, the same behaviour becomes a part of the culture.
The #MeToo has turned the spotlight on some of these powerful men and shown that no one is too rich or too famous to be brought down because of bad behaviour.
Reward Behavior not just Performance
Many organisations tolerate bad attitude from ‘good’ performers who bring in the business. We know of institutions where the Stars can get away with anything because of their contribution to the bottom line or box office earnings. While every organisation has Values and Code of Conduct posters on the wall, the actual implementation of these is a grey area. Unless behaviours and adherence to values is observed, rewarded or bad behaviour punished consistently, we cannot have an environment which is pleasant and productive.
Unless behaviours and adherence to values is observed, rewarded or bad behaviour punished consistently, we cannot have an environment which is pleasant and productive.
Nip it in the bud
One of the issues of dissent in the current discussions on sexual harassment is the reason why the women didn’t speak up earlier. Why did they put up with it silently? Why did they allow it to go on for such a long time? It is usually because the person was scared and afraid of consequences – loss of a job, loss of face, loss of peace of mind. Much easier to swallow it and let it slide. After all, nothing much has happened. No one wants to be seen as the oversensitive troublemaker.
So, the boss always says, ‘You guys,’ to the team even though you are a woman. So he uses four letter words liberally during team meetings. It is not a big deal. But you feel invisible and diminished among the guys. You feel uncomfortable with the swearing. But if you speak up, the boss will think you are making a fuss. Your appraisal may not be as good as that of the guys. So, just stay quiet and pretend you are cool with it.
Bad behaviour will continue if not nipped in the bud. It is important to speak up even if the issue seems like a minor one. State the issue by mentioning how you feel and make an honest request for a behaviour change. Do this a couple of times, firmly and steadily not as a victim but as someone entitled to respect. Speaking up is the first sign of protest and not the last resort.
Speaking up is the first sign of protest and not the last resort.
Every issue does not have to be taken to the ombudsman or POSH committee. Create small groups or support circles where employees can talk freely and share their issues. These can be for mixed gender groups or gender specific groups. This is a forum for collaborative conversations, for listening to each other without judgement or fear of consequences. This allows employees to bring up issues before it snowballs into a major incident. Ideally, these can be facilitated by a neutral third party or self-managed and not seen as tokenism. Suppressed voices become explosive. We all need a space to let off steam and seek solutions.
We need to seize the opportunity to create positive change in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Else, it could be just another social media campaign that fades in time. This movement can be the start of a new way of connecting with each other, a better way to build trust and the beginning of truly open and equitable workplaces.
Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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