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The misconceptions that employees hold about sexual harassment, have got them into trouble legally, professionally and personally. The tenet these employees who landed in trouble failed to understand was that ‘the perception of the victim overrides the intent of the alleged harasser’.
In a heated argument, a famous personality in India is supposed to have told an airline ground staff: ‘Mumbai pahunchne de, teri chaddi nahi utaari toh mera naam X nahi’ (Let me reach Mumbai. If I don’t strip you, then my name is not X).
This common threat used in India is suffused with sexual undertones. The callousness of it, reveals the general approach towards sexual harassment (SH) across the country.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development through the ‘Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013’ declared SH at the workplace a crime. This welcome legality also mandates that corporates provide awareness training on the prevention of SH at the workplace to employees.
Despite the training organizations provide its employees, there exists a huge number of misconceptions around SH. Take a look at the top few misconceptions that employees hold, that have landed them in trouble legally, professionally and personally.
She accepted his personal gifts, laughed at his jokes, went out for long drives with him or even accepted his invite for catching up over coffee outside the office. Several believe this was how the victim led them on. The misconception is that by going out for long drives or accepting gifts it indicates interest in a sexual relationship.
The victim may not have perceived the gifts and the coffee invites as a quid pro quo to a sexual relationship. The alleged harasser may have misread the situation. One of the tenets of proving SH is the perception of the victim and not the intent of the harasser.
When he rearranged the seats on an official flight to ensure that she sat next to him, or when he caressed her she never stopped him. The misconception is that the victim wanted to go on with it by not asking the harasser to ‘stop it’.
In reality, most victims believe that they do not have an option except to put up with the behaviour of a harasser especially if he is professionally powerful. Standing up to him may hamper their career.
The Hollywood media mogul – Harvey Weinstein has been accused by several women of SH. He is alleged to have promised them opportunities, in return for sexual favours. Victims accept any behaviour from powerful men as otherwise, it would harm their career.
Most victims freeze from the traumatic experience of being sexually harassed. They do not react normally because they are in shock that it happened to them. They are also bound by societal pressures to keep quiet about it. They fear that they will face a backlash or not be believed if they spoke up. They try to stay away from the perpetrator and quit rather than report it.
The misconception that the victim never complained about it later does not mean that it wasn’t sexual harassment. A victim could complain several years after an incident when she is emboldened to talk about it physically and mentally.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has after several years come out to speak against the sexual harassment she suffered as a kid, from the media mogul Harvey Weinstein. She believed that when she refused his advances, he was going to fire her. Even powerful people can be victims who go through similar reactions.
Researchers1 from the Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project state that ‘52% of women experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes’.
The misconception that it is considered harassment only when sexual and physical in nature leads many harassers to continue with their obscene remarks towards women, showing obscene content to the victims etc.
KelpHR’s survey2 states that ‘5% men face sexual harassment at the workplace and 60% of these instances are same-sex harassment’. The misconception that any behaviour towards male employees is acceptable will lead the harasser to perpetrate further crimes against men.
The corporate world comprises of employees from diverse backgrounds. It becomes even more important to be conscious of how one’s signals are being read by others.
We need to be aware of the common misconceptions around sexual harassment to ensure we don’t fall into its trap. Misconceptions can cost an employee his job, his reputation and even land him with a lengthy and expensive legal case against him.