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Building better workplaces

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A practical guide on moving beyond basic legal compliance efforts to make workplaces more gender-inclusive.

One in three women face physical sexual violence in their lifetime. (UN Women)

The #MeToo movement gave voice to the existing pandemic of sexual violence globally, especially against women. Sexual violence against women was (and is) being perpetrated in every space–our homes, the streets, and the workplace. 

While there have been seismic shifts in the conversations around sexual harassment and violence against women, active change has been slow. Corporate workplaces may lag behind in creating safe spaces and inclusive cultures to prevent sexual harassment, but workplaces in the development sector aren’t doing any better. 

Here’s a short guide to how your workplace can do better.

Legal compliance

India has a distinctive law addressing sexual harassment at the workplace. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 read with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013 lays down the basic steps an organisation must take to ensure preventive and redressal measures against sexual harassment at the workplace. Some key elements include:

  • drafting an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy and ensuring its adoption and dissemination amongst all stakeholders;
  • setting up and training the Internal Complaints Committee; and
  • sharing information about sexual harassment, and building a workplace culture where complaints are met with integrity and no retaliation. 

While legal compliance is an important first step, it does not resolve the problem. Deeper reflection is needed on what can make workplaces safer. Some additional elements that companies need to include alongside legal compliance measures are:

1. Training for behavioural change 

Most training focuses on informing employees of what the law says but doesn’t address individual biases, or build gender sensitivity. Training is primarily undertaken as a box-ticking exercise, rather than an effective tool for individual and organisational behavioural change. 

Organisations must undertake regular training that targets behavioural change and develops an understanding of key gender justice concepts; for example, rape culture, consent, and power dynamics. Additionally, organisations must internally create spaces to promote conversations on related issues, in order to facilitate a deeper understanding of systemic factors that perpetuate workplace sexual harassment. 

2. Integration across policies and processes 

While organisations adopt the anti-sexual harassment policy as a legal requirement, the values that should be driving this policy are not reflected in other areas. For example, organisations do not devolve enough power and decision making authority in their hierarchical structures to people at different levels; this delays the process of justice and automatically affects the values underpinning such a policy.  

3. Community guidelines 

Every verbal or non-verbal interaction will not necessarily fall under the legal ambit of sexual harassment. Over time there is learnt institutional knowledge of what interactions often make others uncomfortable but aren’t defined as sexual harassment. Organisations can be proactive by drafting community guidelines that ensure behaviour that everyone is comfortable with. This can be done through an organisation-wide consultation and review process. Here, it’s imperative to ensure that all voices are heard and that community guidelines do not end up harming particular communities or individuals. 

Stack of books_Raw Pixel_Sexual harassment at the workplaceOrganisations can be proactive by drafting community guidelines that ensure behaviour that everyone is comfortable with. | Photo courtesy : RawPixel

4. Gender neutrality

While the law recognises people of all genders as possible perpetrators in cases of sexual violence at the workplace, it only recognises women as possible victims (survivors). However, organisations can adopt an additional policy internally that applies the existing law in the exact same manner to all genders.

5. Anonymous reporting option 

While anonymous reporting means that the case would not be heard formally, creating mechanisms like anonymous grievance redressal forms (that cannot track users) or anonymous helpline numbers, allows survivors to share their stories. This also allows organisations and Internal Complaints Committees to keep a check on internal workplace culture, and address repeated patterns, by recommending larger measures to shift unhealthy or toxic work cultures. 

6. Organisational liability

The law doesn’t place much financial liability on the company. The company is only directly financially liable for support measures and in cases where it has actively prevented justice from happening or has enabled the perpetrator. Legally, monetary compensation can only be given after a formal investigation and after keeping in mind the financial status of the accused, amongst other things. This often results in survivors not getting compensated adequately for the losses they may have suffered. 

Where possible, organisations need to take on this responsibility and create a corpus to financially compensate survivors. 

7. Support facilities 

Beyond making provisions for monetary compensation, organisations need to ensure that they have ready referral pathways and internal systems that are able to provide the necessary mental healthcare, as well as medical and legal support. 

It’s important to ensure that these services do not re-victimise or re-traumatise survivors, and that they provide care and support with empathy. 

Keeping these additional measures in mind improves the effectiveness of the legal policy. It ensures a buy-in from the organisation’s stakeholders and a heightened understanding and empathy towards the need for such measures. It helps translate policy from mere words to a living culture and way of working.

Changing company cultures 

Effectively addressing workplace sexual harassment requires changing internal cultures and systems that enable such violence to continue. We have highlighted the need to transcend simple legal compliance and create shifts in workplace culture. Simultaneously, macro-level changes are also required to make workplaces safe and nurturing. 

1. Building feminist leadership 

Feminist leadership means two things. While it is conventionally understood as increasing the number of women in leadership positions, we also need to have more non-cis-gender leaders, i.e., people whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. Increasingly, data shows that women in leadership positions have the potential to transform how companies function, directly affecting innovation, impact, and bottom lines.

We need to build systems which are rooted in eradicating traditional masculine systems of power; this may involve adopting what are seen as ‘feminine’ values. | Photo courtesy: RawPixel

The other aspect of feminist leadership, often less understood, is re-imagining how we view power, respect, and leadership. Organisations (even those in the development sector), replicate the exact same patriarchal leadership styles that have oppressed and marginalised communities for centuries‒often because we have internalised these structures.

“Women leaders are better because they are women, not despite being women.”

Women leaders are better because they are women, not despite being women. We need to build systems that sustain new leadership models, which are rooted in eradicating traditional masculine systems of power; this may involve adopting what are seen as ‘feminine’ values.

Feminist leadership doesn’t mean that women cannot be toxic leaders. It means embracing leadership frameworks that are driven by values of intersectional feminism. This would ensure better support for survivors of sexual violence at the workplace, along with acting as a preventive measure. 

This resource toolkit by CREA on “Achieving Transformative Feminist Leadership: A Toolkit for Organisations and Movements” is a great starting guide. 

2. Putting values to work 

Developing and implementing new leadership models also involves adopting a values-based approach to work. While it’s easy to create a list of values important to an organisation, actioning them is where we fail.  

Our policies, infrastructure, programmes, and communications need to embody our values. For example, if an organisation values compassion, does that translate into a mental health leave policy? If inclusion is a key value, does that mean the organisation’s anti-sexual harassment policies are gender neutral?

Values need to find translation in actionable measures for them to effect any change. Taking steps to achieve this assists in culturally transforming the workplace, automatically making it safer and more inclusive. 

3. Psychological safety 

While strongly linked to feminist leadership and value-driven cultural changes, psychological safety measures for survivors need to be thought of and implemented as separate efforts. 

Companies must lay out, in writing, their no retaliation policy for those who file a sexual harassment complaint, with specific consequences for scenarios where the survivor may face any form of direct or indirect retaliation by any person at the organisation.

4. Radical transparency and accountability 

A key part of creating a safe workplace involves principles of radical transparency and accountability. In practice, this means that there is complete honesty and openness in all communication, regarding policies, vision, strategy, and the organisation’s stand on various issues. Integrating this with feminist leadership values would inherently mean that all such systems and processes are co-created in an environment that shares decision making and power. 

5. Responsibility for correction

A future looking question that organisations and entire ecosystems must ask themselves is, “Who is responsible for correction?” With increasing digital media attention to cases of sexual harassment, at the workplace and otherwise, organisations often act to protect their brand value; not to effect actual justice. Suspending or terminating the guilty party is an easy measure, but doesn’t correct the behaviour, or its underlying causes. No one currently takes the onus of correcting such behaviours to prevent a repetition, nor to bring in cultural changes in the organisation and society. 

To truly build a workplace culture that prevents and addresses sexual harassment adequately, it’s important that the values we ascribe to as aspirational, accommodate newer ways of thinking and doing, accompanied with greater responsibility on organisations to prevent and correct such behaviour. 

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