Around a year ago one of the richest business conglomerates in the world, Sweetie Pie*, called me for a discussion about Sexual Harassment at the workplace. Although the text of the discussions was great and all the right words, “women must feel safe”, “It’s our primary duty to ensure their safety”, were being officiously articulated, yet I left the office knowing that nothing concrete would materialise out of the discussion. About two months after the meeting, Sweetie Pie was in the news because they were murmurs of a sexual harassment case that one of the employees had filed against the company. After this incident, they called me frantically to be a part of their Internal Complaint Committee at the workplace, as mandated by law.
4. Constitution of Internal Complaints Committee. — (1) Every employer of a workplace shall, by an order in writing, constitute a Committee to be known as the “Internal Complaints Committee”:
Provided that where the offices or administrative units of the workplace are located at different places or divisional or sub-divisional level, the Internal Committee shall be constituted at all administrative units or offices.
(2) The Internal Committees shall consist of the following members to be nominated by the employer, namely:
(a) a Presiding Officer who shall be a woman employed at a senior level at workplace from amongst the employees: Provided that in case a senior level woman employee is not available, the Presiding Officer shall be nominated from other offices or administrative units of the workplace referred to in sub-section(1):
Provided further that in case the other offices or administrative units of the workplace do not have a senior level woman employee, the Presiding Officer shall be nominated from any other workplace of the same employer or other department or organisation;
(b) not less than two Members from amongst employees preferably committed to the cause of women or who have had experience in social work or have legal knowledge;
(c) one member from amongst non-governmental organisations or associations committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment: Provided that at least one-half of the total Members so nominated shall be women.
(3) The Presiding Officer and every Member of the Internal Committee shall hold office for such period, not exceeding three years, from the date of their nomination as may be specified by the employer.
(4) The Member appointed from amongst the non-governmental organisations or associations shall be paid such fees or allowances for holding the proceedings of the Internal Committee, by the employer, as may be prescribed.
(5) Where the Presiding Officer or any Member of the Internal Committee, —
(a) contravenes the provisions of section 16; or
(b) has been convicted for an offence or an inquiry into an offence under any law for the time being in force is pending against him; or
(c) he has been found guilty in any disciplinary proceedings or a disciplinary proceeding is pending against him; or
(d) has so abused his position as to render his continuance in office prejudicial to the public interest, such Presiding Officer or Member, as the case may be, shall be removed from the Committee and the vacancy so created or any casual vacancy shall be filled by fresh nomination in accordance with the provisions of this section.
If we read the section carefully, we will understand that the law has left no loopholes in protecting women at their workplace, including laying down the composition of the ICC to review complaints about sexual harassment. I was excited to be a part of the committee and to share my expertise on a subject that I am passionate about. But yet again, nothing materialised out of these discussions because of a huge disparity in their words and their actions. Either the timing wasn’t right, or the salary offered was a pittance, or their bosses who were the decision makers were unavailable. Basically, all the reasons proffered had a ‘dog ate my homework quality’ to them, but the underlying subtext was clear: Prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace just isn’t a priority.
That’s the real issue with Sexual Harassment at workplace-everyone believes that it doesn’t exist, except the woman who is at the receiving end. So not only does she have to battle through the scepticism each time she even dares to bring it up, she also has to go through the entire journey of recounting the horrific experience only to face the aftermath of the negative repercussions in most cases. Dealing with sexual harassment is tough.
Even when extremely powerful women like Angelina Jolie who, besides being an A List Hollywood actress is also a UNHCR special envoy, found it hard to speak up against sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein, think of the challenges faced by an average career woman to speak out. We tend to forget that it takes a lot of guts for a woman to come forward and even take the first tiny step towards even speaking about being sexually harassed and how do we react? Usually by punishing her with either loss of face or ridicule. Or as in Rosanna Arquette’s case who got passed over by Harvey Weinstein for roles in his movies because she didn’t succumb to his advances.
We tend to forget that it takes a lot of guts for a woman to come forward and even take the first tiny step towards even speaking about being sexually harassed.
Although we don’t need a definition of sexual harassment because we all know what exactly it is, yet when it happen we turn a blind eye to it and pretend all is hunky dory and men take it for granted that it’s part of the women’s job to service them and the company. If her skill sets are better than yours and she has succeeded in life it doesn’t mean that she has slept her way to the top and if sleeping around was the way to the top then the poor helpless sex workers would perhaps have been the President of the United States (maybe they would have done a better job than Trump).
It’s not the laws that are insufficient but our mindset that makes the laws against sexual harassment at the workplace fail miserably. When companies like Sweetie Pie, amongst many others, take responsibility and don’t shove the issues related to sexual harassment on the back burner only then there will be a socio-legal implementation of laws related to prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. Otherwise, some brave women will continue to speak up, but they have a tough job ahead of them, initially, after which the companies will pay a heavy price like the Harvey Weinstein Company.
P.S. At the time of going to press, the Oscar Board, has expelled Harvey Weinstein from its committee.
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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.in