Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill – 23 Nov 2010

The Union Cabinet last week finally approved the introduction of the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010 in Parliament. Hopefully it will be passed soon by both the houses in spite of the opposition by sections of society. As we understand the bill seeks to ensure protection of women against sexual harassment at the workplace, both in public and private sectors whether organised or unorganized. The bill expands the scope to include students and research scholars in colleges/ uni versities and to patients in hospitals. It also covers any woman who enters the workplace as a client, customer, apprentice, and daily wageworker or in ad-hoc capacity. Sexual Harassment infringes the fundamental right of a woman to gender equality under Article 14 of the Constitution of India and her right to life and live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution which includes a right to a safe environment free from sexual harassment.

It was a long pending demand of women and we wondered what could be the cause for delay. It was surprisingly shameful that there was no Act under which women could complain in case of sexual harassment at workplaces which is a fact not unknown to all. A woman had no forum to seek justice and hence had to become a victim and suffer in silence. This bill brings the issue of ‘sexual harassment’ out in the open thus bringing awareness to the masses. It is important for people to understand the definitions of the term sexual harassment and it is equally important for working women to know their rights and for men in workplaces to know their limitations and liberties with their female colleagues.

As the workplace opens up dramatically for women workers and as their numbers go up significantly the socio- cultural atmosphere in general is undergoing a drastic transformation to the discomfit of many. It’s like a revolution taking place. It is a cause of a major shakeup in the mind-sets of people which is proving to be a source of stress. Women are developing a different consciousness of themselves as they become assertive about their rights and their careers. With their sense of self worth going up tremendously they demand respect and a life of dignity at work and at home. As they hone their skills, compete in the open market (not get jobs through reservations) and focus on quality performance they would like to be treated as equals to male counterparts. They would want promotions and positions according to their talent and abilities and not by exploitation of their physical assets.

The problem lies with the attitudes of men towards women in general, towards working women in particular and towards competent working women in specific! The attitudes and emotions they harbour for the above three categories of women are different. Men generally treat women as inferior to them or superior to them but never as equals. There is a fair amount of contempt for the female sex in the subconscious minds of men as they consider her an inferior being and never an equal. The contempt shows in their humour, ridicule and sarcasm. Besides this, there is fear in their minds of the competent female colleague who could possibly overtake them and supersede them in power and position. There is jealousy, back biting and politics to pull her down instead of appreciation and regard. Besides all these attitudes and negative emotions, the sexual angle cannot be ignored. For many men women are sexual objects for pleasure and every woman has ample experience in this regard! The experience begins when you reach your teens and in public places you start taking precautions with your body getting brushed, pushed or pinched in the wrong places. This precautionary stance has to be taken till your death so to say, for mature women are not spared too from the onslaught! Every woman in her normal senses learns to discriminate a bad touch from a good touch of a male. Such male attitudes definitely show up at the workplace too sometimes in a gross manner and sometimes in subtle manners.

Under the bill women can now complain against harassment ranging from physical contact, demand or requests for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks or showing pornography. Additionally it recognises the promise or threat to a woman’s employment prospects or creation of hostile work environment as ‘sexual harassment’ at workplace and expressly seeks to prohibit such acts. This addition addresses the invisible glass ceiling that many competent high achievement oriented women experience. I know organisations where highly competent women are promoted only till the second level management and never to the top level, as part of well planned but unwritten policies. Now on the basis of ‘sexual harassment’ it can be challenged. Actually the term here should be ‘gender discrimination’ and not ‘sexual harassment’ as that becomes a misnomer. Gender biases are also there in many other forms such as disparity in wages, job profile, besides promotion policies. I wonder whether all these issues can be addressed through this bill.

Opposition to the bill has already begun by male lobbies. The cry is about the likelihood of it being more abused than used judiciously. But that is one side of the story. As women get empowered with such laws men would learn to behave in just and professional ways. It’s time they changed their negative attitudes and learnt to accept women as responsible bread winners, decision makers, equal team members, independent thinkers, mangers and able leaders. And not just good home makers.

Published in The Hitavada – Future 23 Nov 2010

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