Office grievances are a bane of any corporate existence. Thankfully, most of the problems can be worked around. However, when male counterparts substitute office humour and etiquette for unadulterated sexual harassment, then it’s something that’s hard to overlook.
Most men profess to indulge in it unknowingly. Even then, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), an organisation based in Singapore, conducted a survey on sexual harassment where of 500 respondents 54 per cent claimed to have faced some form of sexual harassment. As this issue gains prominence, the numbers may have gone down but the act hasn’t stopped. There are just newer forms of the same thing.
Remember the staring contest some of us indulge in? Well, it’s not a contest, it’s harassment. Some people find it alright to stare at a face for as long as they please.
You will impress no one in this manner. But since this isn’t “Dating for Creeps”, we’ll just advice to cut down on the stares. And this advice is not just gender-specific, however it is the women who have to face the brunt of it.
“You can see them undressing you in their minds,” laments Tahia Kabir* a 22 year old working at a renowned ad agency. Although staring itself is considered indecent, the way many men do it is lewd on a different level altogether.
This brings up another question, as to what is sexual harassment and where the boundary lies in this respect. And as work becomes more competitive and workers become more invested in the company, private and work life begin to merge.
Your privacy begins to be invaded and sub-consciously you allow it. However, a line needs to be drawn here as well. Two female corporate executives interviewed for this write up, on the condition of anonymity, gave an instance of colleagues crossing the boundaries.
“I was once stopped by the guard on my way down from work because he was hell-bent on knowing whether it was my boyfriend or husband who came to drop me and pick me up from work,” said one of the female interviewees.
“I remember one of my senior colleagues actually sitting me down, asking me all about my family and even questioning whether I smoke at home or not,” the second one added. These two instances though can be deemed actions out of curiosity, actually breach sexual harassment laws as understood by the International Labour Organisation, which considers any act that attempts to treat one unfairly because of one’s gender as sexual harassment.
Thus, since a male counterpart would not be queried on whether he smokes at home or is married to the woman he is seen with, it would be unfair to ask the same of female workers. This establishes the act as one of sexual harassment.
Even though confusion arises as to what classifies as harassment, the truth of the matter is that the office pervert knows exactly what he is up to. Comments on what dress one is wearing, subtle brushing of one’s hand against another’s body part and actually following a pretty face at any given opportunity are other complaints that arose.
The office pervert, usually in a position of some standing, does not need to disguise his actions, because he knows he won’t be tattled on. But the behaviour should be discouraged and the lines must be drawn.
Businesses are now encouraged to draft a clear policy on the issue which should serve as a guide for office etiquette, since there remains such widespread misunderstanding. All of it stems from the fact that people continually fail to distinguish between friendliness and down-right ‘stalkerish’ behaviour.
Augmenting the problem is the rise of social networking, which really invites another person into your daily life. This is an open invitation to invade privacy and soon isn’t confined to the virtual world of the worldwide web.
Sexual harassment in the work place remains an important issue and thus needs to be properly addressed. The era of Mad Men may have ended but the new breed isn’t different, politely using the excuse of subtlety for their excesses.
By Osama Rahman
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.