Tackling sexual harassment at the workplace

The majority of men are not sexual predators, but a corrosive, significant minority are. While it is not the complete solution, they have to be confronted everywhere

In over a hundred towns across the seven states that we work, we run teacher learning centres (TLC). These are run-in rooms stocked neatly with books, educational kits and other material that is relevant for teachers. The rooms are clean and well-lit places, nice for groups of teachers to sit and chat. TLCs are run by our teams, in collaboration with local teachers, and that is what makes them work.

Locating a site for a TLC is not easy. Since TLC is often used after work hours, in the evening and on Sundays, its ease of access to the teachers (for example, being near the vegetable market) is an important factor. The room needs to be about 500 sq. ft, which is hard to find in small towns. There are other considerations for choosing a site. One of them is the treatment of women in such public spaces, including their safety.

This is not about the danger of possible assault, which also has to be always guarded against, but the pernicious lingering looks and presences, like a constant background threat of sexual harassment. Seemingly impossible to call out, but all too real to the woman. And always a slip away from overt sexual harassment. The streets and malls of Bengaluru and Delhi are no different in this regard.

With over 25% of our more than 1,200 employees being women, as are a large proportion of the teachers who come to TLCs, this is the most important consideration in the choice and operation of TLCs. Our attempt is to minimize the risk of this by the choice of location, for example, TLC must be in a busy area or a populated residential area, and it must not be away from the main street. Some operating methods also help, for example, a TLC team should have one man along with a woman. And if the woman is alone on any particular evening, she should lock up before dark.

Since a woman is known to be permanently located at TLC, it is a sort of focal point for this threat, needing extra care. However, women face these risks in our society everywhere. And so an attempt to minimize these risks influences all our operating considerations, for example, how to travel, when to travel, where to travel, where to stay.

Unlike the background threat, it is quite clear how overt sexual harassment can be tackled. It has to be confronted head on, and the law enables this. Such overt sexual harassment within the organization can be dealt with swiftly and decisively, so long as there is genuine intent for, and not mere lip service to, the safety of women.

The same law enables actions in cases of sexual harassment across organizations. We have faced such situations a few times, and most of the time the other organization has responded. To the surprise of many of us, the swiftest response has often come from governments, when the perpetrator has been their employee.

While it’s never easy or simple to tackle, these situations of overt harassment are certainly clearer. And if the organization acts consistently, it helps with a more basic matter: It empowers and enables women to speak up.

Even in an organization like ours, where, by the very nature of the work, the women who join are gutsy and confident, it has taken sustained effort to develop a culture of speaking up, and we have to keep at it. Tolerance and silent suffering of sexual predation of all kinds is so deeply ingrained through our culture across the country, that often women don’t even imagine that they can speak up; many of them are astonished when asked to do so. The culture of silence is pervasive.

In the worst cases, organizations are complicit in these culturally ingrained silences. But even organizations which have zero tolerance for such predatory behaviour fall short, unless they emphatically and actively support women to speak up.

So how can the background threat of sexual harassment be tackled? Let me just share what we have learnt from our experience and that of others, without suggesting that this is some kind of a formula. First, it is about best efforts to minimize the risk of this happening. Second, is to support women in recognizing it as something that must not be tolerated, and then to enable them to speak about it. Third, is to confront it head on if it happens.

This is much like what one would do in cases of overt sexual harassment. How to confront it head on is never clear, but it’s clear that it must be confronted. This approach may seem like overzealous paternalism to some, but the extent and perversity of this background threat is such that most women find it empowering and comforting.

The majority of men are not sexual predators, but a corrosive, significant minority are. While it is not the complete solution, they have to be confronted everywhere. And organizations have a central role to play.

Even organizations such as ours, which are driven by a social cause, are no different. We are not naturally cleansed of this malady within, nor does it make our external environment different. But some of us tend to live with an illusion of difference.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/othersphere