Students boycott classes to protest against no action taken against a Delhi University vice-principal accused of sexual harassment. Last week, an ‘unofficial’ ministry inquiry into complaints of sexual harassment against the Unicef head in Delhi found him prima facie guilty. Yet, Unicef’s internal inquiry committee had absolved him of any misconduct and the complainant’s contract was terminated. A week before that, a senior executive of a multinational in Mumbai went on television to talk about the indignity she faced at her workplace — made worse by the fact that the charges against her seniors were not taken sufficient note of. A serious problem, sexual harassment is also one of the least understood and least resolved issues.
Two common threads run through most cases. One, the reluctance, even diffidence, with which organisations address the matter. Two, the lack of empathy in redressal committees, something that has forced the victim to quit or go to the courts for justice. This, when the organised sector is duty-bound to rectify the damage in the immediate workplace. But legislation, however limited, is only a small part of the problem. The far larger issue is that organisations would much rather disengage from any such case, for fear of damaging the company’s reputation and the toll such publicity might take on business. Sexual harassment policies and the mandatory committee, then, become the instruments to talk a complainant out of pursuing justice. Work environments are often hostile to even lodging a complaint and out-of-court and out-of-office settlements become the preferred ‘solution’. The result is that the case is given a quiet burial, and if the offender is a star performer, that much easier to deny that there is any dilemma over what is to be done.
In terms of legislation, sexual harassment has been elaborated for employers and employees. But before work cultures can begin to imbibe good practices in terms of gender interaction, it is an organisation’s top brass that has to demonstrate its commitment to creating an enabling work environment.