As increasing numbers of women enter the workforce across the world, various cases of sexual harassment have come to light in the past decade or so. On August 12, 1999, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sacked a senior manager after 11 women filed complaints of sexual harassment. In 1996, Asma Siddiqi, who worked at Pakistan’s largest pharmaceutical company, accused her supervisor of harassment. However, a subsequent inquiry held by the company judged her claims unfounded.
In developed and the developing countries such as India and the Philippines, sexual harassment is legally defined as any action, conduct or behaviour – verbal, physical or visual – that is sexual in nature and unwelcome to the receiver. This includes – but is not limited to – sexual jokes, innuendos, requests or pressure for dates and sexual favours.
Included in the definition of sexual harassment are touching, cornering, suggestive letters, calls, looks and gestures. Commonly, however, sexual harassment is confused with gender discrimination. The latter is a case where an employer gives preference to one gender in appointing, employing, promoting or awarding professional benefits. Other forms of gender discrimination are where, on the basis of gender, an employee is excluded from group tasks such as meetings, where the individual’s workload is inconsistent with one’s caliber or where the employer uses bullying tactics against an employee of the gender discriminated against.
Women who have the courage to object to sexual harassment often find themselves in a no-win situation, where they are stigmatised as ‘troublemakers’ not only by their male colleagues but surprisingly enough, by female colleagues as well.
When Samina, for example, discussed her experience with her female colleagues, she was told that she was imagining things. Since then, their attitude towards Samina has changed. “They have become indifferent and avoid me,” she muses. “I think they fear that I’ll get them into trouble.”
As Shell’s Human Resources (HR) Manager, Leon Menezes stresses, “Such behaviour ought not occur. If it does, there must be a remedy. No one should be intimidated.” However, Menezes points out that the ability to accuse a colleague of inappropriate behaviour can “become a double-edged sword. Anyone can claim to be a victim in order to victimise a colleague.”
At Shell, therefore, a neutral board –the ethics committee – deals with such problems. Similarly, HR Manager Geo Television Network Zulfikar Ali explains that his organisation has a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual harassment or intimidation. “We have removed five or six people, from coordinators to departmental heads, because of this complaint,” he says. Last year we initiated a poster campaign against sexual harassment within the office and are relaunching it this month. The situation has improved in the past year and a half.”
While large companies may have well defined harassment and conduct policies, the most vulnerable are often those that are the least protected. Waitresses, air hostesses, nurses and junior level staff are often victimised. Harassment policies are an alien concept in workplaces such as hospitals, retail outlets and eateries. All too often, the women working there have not even signed a contract. As Josephine Peter, a nurse at a Karachi hospital says, “A girl is harassed in her student life and then in her professional life. You can either be uptight about it or laugh it off. Either way, there is a lot at stake.”