Do you think sexual harassment of women at workplace is committed by men only?
There are numerous cases in India which are examples of how women feel harassed at the workplace due to certain behaviour or verbal abuse by fellow women.
Whenever our legal advisors go for training employees of various corporates about Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (PoSH), a common query among women employees is whether only sexual harassment by men is covered in PoSH Act, 2013 or it covers harassment by female colleagues too.
Let us understand this Sexual harassment of women at the workplace by their female colleagues and understand the provisions PoSH law has for these offences.
Is Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace by Other Females a Myth?
However surprising it sounds, but many people working in corporates refuse to believe that the female to female form of sexual harassment of women at workplace exists. What starts like a playful jibe or an insulting comment on some colleagues could result in the filing of a complaint of sexual harassment. It could also be in the form of direct touch passed off as innocent bruising by female colleagues. There are other direct ways where women can feel violated by some woman at her workplace. Therefore, it becomes necessary that the female workforce should be aware of the provisions in the PoSH act regarding direct or indirect sexual harassment between women.
Here is what Miya Yamanouchi said in her book “Embrace Your Sexual Self: A Practical Guide for Women”:
“Self-respect by definition is a confidence and pride in knowing that your behaviour is both honourable and dignified. When you harass or vilify someone, you not only disrespect them, but yourself also. Street harassment, sexual violence, sexual harassment, gender-based violence and racism, are all acts committed by a person who in fact has no self-respect.
-Respect yourself by respecting others.”
The above quote is not specific to men. The thing that you should respect people’s dignity and self-worth to allow them to feel safe at work goes well for both genders. Although most of the unwelcome physical advances from a female colleague could be generally interpreted as an act of friendliness, it will be healthier for the workplace if women reported such acts if it makes them feel violated by any means.
When more women will bring the issue of women committing sexual harassment against other women into the light, the myth that sexual harassment of women at workplace is only committed by man will be busted.
Differentiation between Direct and Indirect Harassment
Female to female workplace harassment is underlined by the same standards set for the male to female sexual harassment. We have broadly categorized Sexual harassment of women at workplace in two categories: Direct Harassment and Indirect Harassment
Direct Sexual Harassment of Any Female by a Female
We can simply say that direct sexual harassment can mean making sexual advances, inappropriate touch, using sexual gestures, showing explicit content, and making sexually charged remarks to a female colleague that could lead to them feeling violated. If any of these things is done directly to any employee, then it is liable to implicated in the PoSH Act. It is advisable that if any woman feels that she has faced these things from her female colleagues and want any legal clarification on what she can do to counter this behaviour at the workplace or what are her rights under the PoSH Act, then she can contact our legal team.
Indirect Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace
This form of sexual harassment of women in workplace is quite common as it involves the office politics and power game of the corporates comes into the picture. Take this as an example.
There are four women working in the software development team of some organisation ABC. The team has a male manager who handles and allocate daily tasks for the team and keeps a record of the performance of every employee for annual appraisal. After a year, the manager promotes a female colleague due to her exceptional performance throughout the year. Now, if any other female colleague out of respite or jealousy starts spreading a rumour about the promoted woman having an affair with the male manager for the sake of promotion, then it will not only disparage the promoted woman’s hard work and reputation but also demeans the company’s management. This scenario will, of course, make the working environment hostile for the woman due to the rumour mongering.
Although the above scenario is hypothetical it is quite true in many corporates and becomes an easy tool for humiliating any woman who has worked hard throughout the year and got a well-deserved promotion. This part of office politics is quite common in India and is the reason for a lot of women leaving organisations due to the hostile working environment.
The scenario sometimes works in the opposite way as well. If the promoted woman starts using her senior position to harass a subordinate female employee or spread false rumours about her which are sexually demeaning, then this also comes in scrutiny for sexual harassment of woman in workplace under the PoSH Act. On similar case was noticed in case of the corporate THINX.
“In 2017, the CEO of the THINX, Miki Agrawal has to resign from her post due to allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour from her towards her subordinates. She was accused of inappropriately touching her female employees, showed them her nude pictures, made snide comments about the body of female subordinates. The row led to many female employees quitting the organisation suddenly raising questions about female to female workplace harassment”.
The above case is from a corporate located in the US, but similar examples can be found in corporate workplaces around the world. Even in India, harassment is used as a tool to gain revenge over someone or to score power points in office politics. The prevalence of politics in such matters leads to the creation of a hostile working environment at the workplace.
Why Female to Female Sexual Harassment Is Less Talked About?
The confusion about what leads to female to female sexual harassment in the society exposes the assumptions we have made about female friendships, power dynamics of modern corporates, and appropriate work behaviour. First, we must be clear that female to female workplace harassment does exist and the PoSH law has provisions to prevent it.
The abundance of Male to Female Cases
The fact that there are different types of sexual harassment at the workplace is often neglected due to the abundance of male to female sexual harassment cases. The staggering numbers of male to female harassments undermines the importance of talking about other forms of sexual harassment at the work. Sadly, due to the large scale of male to female sexual harassment cases, people and society tend to take the female to female and female to male form of sexual harassment for granted.
Lack of Case studies on Female to Female Cases of Harassment
Another possible reason why we do not know or hear much about female to female workplace harassment or other forms of sexual harassment of women at work is because of how we study the workplace sexual harassment generally. A lot of open cases and case studies are available to decode sexual harassment of women at workplace by men. Therefore, the number of discussions on this topic in day to day life is also huge. This has led to increased awareness among the general population about sexual harassment of women at workplace by men. But, what about other cases of harassment?
The authors of the famous book “Sexual Victimization: Then and Now” point out that “there are no well-validated instruments specifically designed to measure women’s experiences of female on female harassment”
Lack of validated instruments to create stats for the female to female workplace harassment and lower case studies available for it are a few reasons for lower awareness. However, we must understand what role does power game plays in such cases? According to Teresa Fitzsimmons, director of workplace dynamics at Lausanne Business Solutions quoted:
“Sexual harassment, while sexual, is less about sex and more about power. Sexual harassment is a signal of an individual having a lack of respect for another. It can signal that there are deeper interpersonal issues at play. The bottom line is that sexual harassment evolves out of disrespect and asymmetric power.”
The Queen Bee Syndrome
Another way of learning the role of power dynamics in understanding female to female sexual harassment is what termed by people as the “Queen Bee Syndrome.” This concept states that “professionally women who tend to bully their subordinates or try to sabotage the careers of other women at their same level is because they feel threatened by them. They do this to maintain their superiority over others by spreading rumours about them or undermining their efforts.” And in the opinion of some people, this is termed as the probable reason for many cases of indirect female to female cases of sexual harassment. However, the Queen Bee Theory has been widely regarded as sexist and as it is inconclusive that this theory can be applied to every workplace or scenario around the world.
Society’s Understanding of Roots of harassment
There is a common myth in the society that all the cases of sexual harassment are rooted within the sexual desires of the perpetrator. Therefore, it is believed that same-sex harassment cases are related to the homosexuality of the accused. But this is partially true as sometimes all these sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or sexual rumour mongering is aimed at interfering with the work performance of the victim by creating a hostile work environment. The indirect form of a female to female sexual harassment works in the same way as it is aimed at humiliating the female employee by character assassination. In the cases of female to female sexual harassment, our understanding of female homosociality is at fault too. Often, we tend to associate aggressive, sexually questionable, and boundary-crossing behaviour with men only. This thought process prevents us from believing that even females can be the harassers. The result is a lack of focus on reducing female to female or female to male workplace harassment.
Poor Workplace Boundaries
Poor workplace boundaries with your colleagues or seniors could also be the reason for less acknowledgement of female to female sexual harassment cases. Most of the times, the behaviour that can make a woman feel uncomfortable, or seem like crossing boundaries is masqueraded as being “friendly”. The women are so told to normalize the uncomforting behaviour from any other female as being friendly and innocent. However, the women should know that if by any chance these behaviours seem alarming or discomforting then the ideal way to go about it is by taking appropriate action against the harasser. Do not let them get away with it easily as that will only aggravate their offensive behaviours.
Actions You Can Take When Harassed by a Female Colleague
The crux of the issue is inappropriate behaviour or harassment of any kind motivated by jealousy or a threat to position in corporate structure ends up only harming the employees and hence should be controlled by taking appropriate actions. If reading the above instances and quotes has made you rethink about the behaviour of your colleague. And if that behaviour seems offensive to you or makes you feel unsafe, then we would advise you to address the situation without any further delay.
- You can complain about the sexual misconduct to the internal complaints committee of your organisation. Constitution of an internal complaints committee is mandatory for organisations with more than 10 members.
- It is advisable to file the complaint or speak up the first time such instance happened. This could be really difficult as there are chances of some misunderstanding, in that case, talk to the person clearly to let them know how you felt. If their behaviour continues the same way, then it is better to file a complaint about your peace of mind.
- Do not feel embarrassed to before filing the complaint as the PoSH acts state that the investigation will be conducted while maintaining the confidentiality of the complainant and so, you do not need to worry about the what people have to as it is a matter of your dignity.
- Keep calm and cooperate with the internal complaints committee that handles cases of sexual harassment of women at workplace. You will get full support from them and they must ensure a safe working environment for you immediately.
- Do not refrain from taking any legal help if you feel your case is not being investigated properly or the investigating team is acting with a certain bias towards the accused. If you do not have any knowledge about your rights imparted by PoSH law or how to file complaints, etc then, you must consult a suitable legal adviser for help. Going with your legal team to show your side of the story is favourable these days as even courts are stricter on the PoSH complaints.
- Recollect all the details about the alleged incident and give names of all witnesses to the investigating team to tell your side of the story.
- Ensure that your side of the story is clearly heard by the internal complaints committee and all the norms of natural justice are followed by the complaints committee during investigation and hearing.
- Here are some of the common lines you can use to communicate your side of the story in a lucid manner for clearing any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of behaviour.
“When I worry about my safety all my energy, I’m focused on protecting myself versus doing the job I need to do.”
“When I am uncomfortable then I can’t concentrate.”
“When you make a joke like that, it makes me feel really uncomfortable.”
“When you make those kinds of advances, then I worry about my safety.”
Responsibility of Employers
1. Take Disciplinary Action
If the misconduct by any female or male employee against a female is covered under disciplinary actions suggested in the relevant service rules, then appropriate disciplinary action should be initiated against the employees by the organisation following the rules.
2. Make a Smooth Complaint Redressal System
It doesn’t matter if the complaint of misconduct against an employee constitutes a breach of the service rules or an offence under the law, appropriate complaint mechanism should be created in the organization for timely redressal of all the sexual harassment complaints made by the victims. The complaint mechanism should also ensure time-bound completion of investigation and resolution of complaints. The complaint mechanism should maintain the confidentiality of the parties involved, provide norms to set up a complaints committee, and support to the victim.
3. Creating an Internal Complaints Committee
According to Provisions of the PoSH act, the internal complaints committee should be headed by a woman working at senior level and not less than half the members should be women. To prevent the possibility any outside influence form management or senior-level officials of the organisation, the ICC should also involve a third-party member, preferably from an NGO or any other such organisation working towards the prevention of sexual harassment of women in the workplace.
The company must prepare an annual compliance report of PoSH complaints handled by the internal complaints committee throughout the year. The report indicating actions taken by the complaints committee should be sent to the concerned government department annually.
4. Conducting Criminal Proceedings if Necessary
If any of the misconduct from the perpetrator is an offence under the IPC or any other law, then the company must act on it according to the current system of law. The employer needs to file a complaint with the related government authority to address the issue. The employer needs to ensure that the victim is not discriminated or victimized while handling of such complaints.
5. Organising Awareness Drives for Employees
The employer should create awareness among the workforce regarding the PoSH act by supplying them with detailed behaviour guidelines and information about the rights mandated by the law. The employer should organize regular awareness drives for their employees to train them about various rules and regulations of the PoSH Act. The drives should involve a trained and experienced legal team that can clear all the myths of female employees regarding the PoSH law and make them understand their rights.
6. Give Healthy Work Environment to Employees
Maintenance of appropriate work environment is necessary for the employer to create a harmonious workplace. Promoting values like respecting a colleague, or being aware of the kind of language and tone to be used in the premises of the company should be a priority. The companies should also train their employees to avoid any misinterpretations or filing any false complaints.
How We Can Help?
We at Muds Management Consultancy Firm are a team of experts who specialise in PoSH Act. Our team of experts can help you in dealing with any act of sexual misconduct or inappropriate behaviour from any of your colleague or your senior. We will help you in the whole process of filing the PoSH complaint and other legalities of the concerned matter. We provide complete legal support to our clients and ensure that they get to work again with the same sense of dignity.
We also work with corporates to create awareness among their workforce about PoSH Act 2013 via Offline and Online Training. We also help corporates in the management of sexual harassment policies like
- Training of the members of their internal complaints committee
- Assistance in preparing statutory records and filings
- Creating a Healthy and harassment-free environment to Work
- E-learning modules for PoSH training covering all aspects of the Act in a lucid manner for all employees to understand.
At MUDS, we also offer services like Conciliation, Mediation services, Counselling, and assistance services to female employees in cases of sexual harassment at work. You can contact our legal experts on +91 9599672352 to get a free consultation about PoSH compliance or any legal help with complaints or cases.