Why workplace sexual harassment is about power

As sexual harassment is a result of unchecked power, TNM examines the modes of power and privilege in the Indian workplace.
Why workplace sexual harassment is about power
Why workplace sexual harassment is about power
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A common myth about sexual harassment at the workplace, like other forms of sexual violence, is that it is an act of lust or love. Feminist research has shown that sexual harassment is about power and that it is an iteration of power over others. As Anita Hill, who famously spoke out publicly about sexual harassment at the workplace, says, it is an abuse of power and should be treated as such. It is used as a tool to control and sustain power inequalities. Changing social relations and workplace dynamics demand that dominant or privileged identities must make space for historically excluded and oppressed groups. One of the ways to resist inclusion and maintain the status quo is sexual harassment. As sexual harassment is a result of unchecked power, let us examine a few modes of power and privilege in the Indian workplace.

Sexual harassment and power in Bhanwari Devi’s Landmark Case

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is rooted in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Vishaka Guidelines of 1997. The Vishaka judgement was a result of the alleged brutal retaliation that Bhanwari Devi faced for doing her job. Five men from the dominant Gujar community in Bhateri, Rajasthan gang-raped her for attempting to stop a child-marriage between two powerful Gujar families. It was part of her job, as a sathin under the Women Development Programme, to deter child marriages in her community. The incident of Bhanwari Devi reflects various intersections of power; she was a woman of an oppressed caste and she was gaining power in her community. It was an expression of power against her caste and gender identity. Rape was used as a retaliatory measure for daring to challenge both a strongly held belief and a powerful family.

Power inequality in society

According to sociological and psychological research, sexual harassment is a result of unequal power structures. In awareness workshops, I always get asked “Why does the law only protect women?” As sexual harassment is a result of power imbalances, in society we see that power is unevenly distributed amongst men and women. Because of this, perpetrators often tend to be men and survivors often tend to be women or gender non-conforming individuals. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but data and research shows that women are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment at workplaces. While a gender-neutral law would be more reflective of various gender identities and inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community’s experiences, it is also specifically aimed to rebalance a patriarchal inequality.  For example, Jackson Katz’s viral chart about the precautions men and women take every day against sexual assault revealed the pervasive disparity that exists between men and women’s daily lives.

Intersection of social inequalities and workplace dynamics

When we enter the workplace, we often unwittingly reproduce societal inequalities. Even today, workplaces and institutions tend to be largely homogenous. Not only do workplaces lack diversity, but senior leadership is also overwhelmingly homogenous; last year India ranked fifth lowest in the number of women in leadership positions. Caste, class, gender and sexual identity are some other diversity markers that are poorly represented in workplaces. Lack of representation in senior leadership, combined with a lack of diversity in workforces reinforces skewed power relations. According to Professor Ben Voyer, research shows that who are already predisposed to committing sexual harassment are further emboldened by power. In a recent article exploring the link between #MeToo and the workplace gender pay gap, the author asserts that “management experts and executives say, harassment can be a direct side effect of a workplace that slights women on everything from pay to promotions, especially when the perception is that men run the show and women can’t speak up.”

Culture of Deference 

Another unique aspect of the Indian workplace is the culture of deference. We are taught as children to defer to authority and to never talk back. This manifests in deeply hierarchical organisations, and feeds into impunity for those in power. It creates what is known as a “power gap,” defined by Sam Adeyami as “the power gap created by hierarchical leadership [that] results in followers not providing feedback or questioning the leader.” In the context of sexual harassment, wide power gaps could lead to hostile work environments that begin at the top and trickle down to the entire work culture. What Susan Fowler described in her workplace at Uber is a classic example of this. It is important to create appropriate checks and balances for leadership and to encourage respectful dissent. Large power gaps make perpetrators feel like they can get away with their actions and people will feel like they cannot speak up. 

What can we do?

As organisations, it is important to address sexual harassment holistically. One way to do this is by mitigating power inequalities. Here are some steps organisations can take:

Actively discuss power inequalities in awareness sessions about sexual harassment

Awareness sessions should not just cover the legal compliances but also address the social elements inherent in sexual harassment. Facilitators should ensure they sensitively articulate the role of power in sexual harassment. 

Conduct senior leadership conversations

It is important for senior leadership to understand their responsibility in creating a healthy workplace culture. Further, they must understand the impact of their own power.

Hold manager sensitisations

It is equally important for managers to understand their role in ensuring there is a culture of respect at the workplace. For instance, when giving negative feedback, using professional rather than personal language goes a long way in demonstrating respect.

Create flatter organisational structures to reduce the power gap

Organisations that do not create rigid boundaries and hierarchies tend to have a healthier workplace culture. Policies such as ensuring that employees get the same hotel accommodation while travelling for work, regardless of their tenure or role, help dismantle hierarchies.

Have discussions about consent and power

It is important that institutions, workplaces and colleges have open and honest conversations about consent and power. There is tendency to brush under the rug what makes us uncomfortable, but employees should be facilitated to engage with this discomfort to create change.

Abhaya Tatavarti is the lead consultant for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Parity Consulting in Bengaluru.

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