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Keshav Khanna

IWB Blogger

Pallavi Pareek Of Ungender Helps Us Unpack ‘SHE-Box,’ The Portal For Sexual Harassment Complaints

  • IWB Post
  •  November 8, 2017

Sexual Harassment in the workplace is omnipresent.It can be anything from the overly sexualized compliments to the uncomfortable shoulder touch. It is an appalling misuse of power and position which has plagued women all around the world for decades.

Sometimes the employee calls out the harasser. Often, they aren’t able to. This can be perhaps because the person in question is their boss, or maybe they are afraid that there might be inaction or worse, the ramifications of the fall-out. So they keep shut, ignore the problem. That confined working space keeps becoming smaller and more suffocating as the harasser becomes more and more emboldened to continue his abuses. Often, they decide to quit, or in some cases take their own lives.

Many women just don’t know what platform to take to address this issue. They might decide against making a media circus of their lives by going to the press. And often companies themselves lack the necessary resources and institutions to address concerns and complaints of sexual harassment.

Thankfully, there has been an awakening in the law in the recent times. Thanks in part to the women themselves taking action. But also in part to both Government and Non-Government Organisations. A few months ago, the Union Government launched a portal for government employees to register sexual-harassment complaints online. On Tuesday (November 7th), Union Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, extended this service to all private sector employees as well.

Through this website, women can now file their complaints with the click of a button. It is easy yet comprehensive, to avoid issues of misuse. We talked to Pallavi Pareek, the managing partner at UnGender. For years now, she has been advising over 100 firms and 30,000 individuals on how to build a safe space and gender diverse workplace. She tells us about the processes and needs for a strong organic company culture that encourages employees to report sexual harassment. We also learn more about the government’s new online Sexual Harassment Electronic Box, also called SHE-Box.

Do you think the need for this portal was because employees often aren’t able to report to the company’s HR department due to external pressures?

Pallavi: The thing is that the Human Resource Department is no longer eligible or authorized to investigate or register cases of sexual harassment in a workplace. The Sexual Harassment At Workplace Act of 2013 has authorized the Internal Complaints Committee or ICC to investigate such matters. The problem is many companies often lack the ICC itself. This means there isn’t an authorizing body to keep a check on such crimes. That is why there was a need for a government portal.

Has the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act of 2013 had the effect to ensure safety in the workplace as it was intended to?

Pallavi: Oh, certainly! The reason we’re able to have these conversations is that of the strength of that law. Irrespective of the industry a woman is employed in, she faces some form of sexual harassment. What the law does is that it ensures the safety of the women in the workplace, as it passes the responsibility of their safety on the employer. For things like staying-in late, traveling, overtime, career progression, traveling for work, etc. women had to often take a backseat for issues like time and safety. This meant that they weren’t able to get that promotion or move up in their respective fields. But now the safety of the employees is the obligation of the organization. And all their grievances are to be addressed by the Internal Complaint Commission.

But simply setting up a body called the ICC isn’t enough. There need to be capable, trained and eligible people working in it to ensure safety and security.

 

Is the process of registering a complaint with the ICC of a company cumbersome? Will this make it simpler?

Pallavi: I think it’ll be easier to understand if we take 3 scenarios,

Scenario 1, where the company in question has an ICC. So here it is very simple. The concerned employee would likely approach the ICC with her grievance or send in an email. It doesn’t allow for anonymous complaints so as to prevent the misuse of the law so you must give your name. That’s all that needs to be done. After that, the ICC takes over.

Scenario 2, where the company in question doesn’t have an ICC. Here the concerned employee is supposed to approach the management and request for the formation of the ICC. She can write a letter or an email. If that doesn’t happen she may contact the local complaint commission. Otherwise, she may approach the court.

Scenario 3, where the concerned employee uses the online portal. It is a simple alternative and a recourse when ICC isn’t available. If the ICC is available, that would be the most preferable.

What else must be done to necessitate an environment where employees feel comfortable to report crimes of a sexual nature in the workplace?

Pallavi: First and Foremost, it is important that employees are made to feel that it is the primary mandate of the management to keep them safe. The ICC and sexual harassment complaints mustn’t be seen as an HR exercise. What we’ve seen is that there is never any management led communication to the employee. So it seems like the management doesn’t care about this issue.

Secondly, the ICC should become the primary and only source of contact for a complainant. In many companies, the HR continues to play an important role in these cases. The problem is there is no mandatory training for HR as there is for the ICC. So HR is not very well equipped to handle such cases. As per the law, even the smallest cases of sexual harassment must be handled with the most seriousness. ICC is the best equipped to tackle these matters.

Thirdly, there must be an alignment of words spoken and actions taken. The management may be very proactive verbally, but if there aren’t concrete steps undertaken, it’s all an exercise in futility. The culture, infrastructure, and behaviour of the company must reflect.

Finally, the Culture of companies must be altered. I know that seems rather difficult but it is of the essence. Even today companies are full of double-meaning jokes, insensitivities which must be questioned.

Organisations must address not just structural lapses but also behavioural traits.

According to a survey by the Indian Bar Association, about 70% of working women do not report sexual harassment at work, why is that the case?

Pallavi: I’ll need to check those numbers, but to answer the question, why don’t women report sexual harassment cases – most of the time it is the fact that women don’t know if it really is sexual harassment. We have had many sessions with women where they didn’t know what exactly constituted sexual harassment. Then there’s also the reason that often women have to juggle a lot of different things and personal issues. So they tend to ignore sexual harassment and push on with their work.

Also, there are certain organizations that are reluctant or hesitant to hire women workers. So women employees here feel that perhaps if they started to complain and confront men in the company, they’d be seen as troublemakers. If they point out the things that make them uncomfortable, like the casual sexism, or the offhanded touch, they’d be giving the management an opportunity to reconsider their employment. Which they want to avoid.

It’s not all doom and gloom, many organizations are doing a fabulous job in keeping women’s safety at the workplace as an important issue. These organizations talk to the women working for them, look internally to try and understand the issues women face. Women are also increasingly demanding a safer and more holistic environment to work in, which is progress.

What must be done to extend services like these to women working in the unorganized sectors, considering a majority of women work there?

Pallavi: Unfortunately, right now, there’s no avenue for women employed in the unorganized sector. We’re hoping that that would be the next front for implementing sexual harassment laws. We’re attempting to reach out to more women. Even the She-Box portal is aiming to reach the panchayat level. They want to set up One-Stop Centres in villages that can address this issue. But that is a bridge left to be crossed.

The case that brought to light the rampant criminality of the toxic masculinity of the workplace was the case of Vishakha vs the State of Rajasthan. Also known as the Bhanwri Devi Case. The honorable Supreme Court stated that

International Conventions and norms are significant for the purpose of interpretation of the guarantee of gender equality, right to work with human dignity in Articles 14, 15 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Constitution and the safeguards against sexual harassment implicit therein.”

Thereby guaranteeing that every woman employed in the workforce, regardless of the industry of work, deserves the human dignity of labor. And that sexual harassment went against that principle. The Sexual Harassment Act of 2013 went a step further to say that safety of the employee at the workplace was the responsibility of the employer.

It is imperative for us to remember that just because sexual harassment is accepted, doesn’t mean it is acceptable. The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Fundamental Rights all guarantee women freedom from any form of sexual harassment. Let’s stand up and reclaim it. Let us all call out harassers and form a workplace that is gender diverse and safe for everyone to be their productive best.

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