Silence of the workplace

By doing nothing, institutions foster hostile sexual environments.

Once upon a time, facts amounting to sexual harassment did not socially "exist", let alone constitute a legal claim. Behaviour such as sexual innuendo, sexually offensive gestures, sexually explicit material, sexual expletives, hostile workplace environments, job-related decisions based on implied requests for sexual favours were, well, just the way things were — it was systemic in nature. These were common life experiences that our mothers, and perhaps their mothers, and yes, we too, simply "managed". When it did get legally recognised by the landmark Vishaka judgment in 1997, sexual harassment moved from the primitive language of "eve teasing", "outraging modesty", "light-hearted banter" to be framed in terms of a fundamental constitutional right to equality and dignity for women at work.

Vishaka envisaged that women might finally go to work with the legitimate expectation that their workplace would be free of any of the overt or implied sexual harms described above — that women would be accepted as colleagues and equals and not as sex objects in a context of unequal power. And that the responsibility for ensuring that women no longer have to dodge the offensive sexual proclivities of colleagues and bosses would lie with the employer or those in positions of responsibility. Or so it was thought.

Sixteen years later, those projecting themselves as the custodians of such basic and fundamental expectations, be it a Tehelka, the Supreme Court of India or even the state, have barely, if at all, complied with Vishaka. Had they done so, the law intern and the journalist would have entered a workplace that prioritised the prevention of workplace sexual harassment, encouraged its employees or members to speak up about it and cultivated an environment supportive of their claims. They would have been equipped with language that understood sexual harassment as a violation of constitutional equality at work and hailed leadership that promptly condemned sexually inappropriate behaviour (irrespective of the offender's status). As a last resort, they would have had access to a trained, skilled and capable complaints committee, with third party expertise, to hear their complaint empathetically and through an informed lens.

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