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Remote work in India leads to rise in online sexual harassment

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Indian employers are being urged to educate their staff about acceptable online behaviour, following a surge of complaints about online sexual harassment during remote working.


In February this year when journalist Priya Ramani was acquitted by a Delhi court on charges of criminal defamation for accusing former editor-turned-politician MJ Akbar of sexual harassment in 2018, many thought it was a watershed moment in the history of women’s rights for equality and dignity in the workplace.

“The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades,” said Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey in his judgment acquitting Ramani of defamation.

Ramani had alleged that in 1993, Akbar had called her to his hotel room and had tried to sexually harass her during a job interview.

Photograph: Istock. Credit: SoumenNath

“Women can’t be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse,” the court said, adding that “right of reputation” – a reference to MJ Akbar’s suit – “cannot be protected at the cost of right to dignity”.

Ramani’s testimony, and the judgment, underscored several aspects of workplace sexual harassment, ranging from how it is not always physical, but also verbal, to the absence of strong institutional redressal mechanisms to support and empower women.

The judge also observed that at the time in 1993, Ramani had no avenues to seek redressal for her alleged harassment, as India formulated the Vishaka Guidelines to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, and provide women a forum to complain to, only in 1997. The guidelines evolved, 16 years later, into the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, or the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act.

While Ramani’s acquittal was viewed as a good precedent for women’s rights and dignity at work, the verdict in the Tejpal case a few months later shocked many.

In May, a trial court in the coastal state of Goa acquitted Tarun Tejpal, the former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, of sexually assaulting a junior woman colleague twice, in elevators of a five-star hotel in the state.

The high-profile case has its origins in November 2013, when Tejpal’s company organised a festival in Goa called THINK fest, which also had Hollywood actor Robert De Niro as a guest.

The young complainant was a journalist at Tehelka and had been given the job of chaperoning De Niro and his daughter. The first sexual assault allegedly took place on 7 November and the second allegedly the next day.

The complainant did not immediately raise the matter with the management of Tehelka but on 18 November sent a detailed account of the incidents to the managing director, Shoma Chaudhary.

Following this, Tejpal apologised to the survivor in an email for his behaviour and described the event as a “lapse of judgement” and an “unfortunate incident”.

However, in his final court statements, Tejpal, who has maintained he was falsely implicated in the case, described the incident as “drunken banter”.

Tejpal was arrested on 30 November 2013 and spent several months in jail before being granted bail by the Supreme Court.

But the Goa court gave the benefit of the doubt to Tejpal while acquitting him in the rape case and observed that there was no evidence to support the allegations made by the complainant woman.

Women’s rights’ activists said the court’s verdict would deter other women from coming forward to report cases of sexual assault and abuse, and the Network of Women in Media said Tejpal’s acquittal was a “massive setback” to the safety of working women in the country.

“The rape survivor’s struggle has been the struggle of every woman facing sexual harassment and sexual violence at the workplace,” the journalists’ group said. “It has been a conversation starter in newsrooms to better understand gender-based violations and has given courage to women to jettison shame and speak out about workplace harassment and violence.”

Online harassment
While the Tejpal case predates the Covid-19 pandemic, in the new normal, even as businesses embrace working from home, sexual harassment is now occurring in a virtual, online form. The only change remote working has brought is that sexual harassment looks different now.

“When everything in our world has changed over the last year-and-a-half, so there’s no reason to think sexual harassment hasn’t changed too,” says a Hyderabad-based IT employee whose manager took screenshots of her and her female colleagues during Zoom meetings and circulated them among his friends, pairing them with offensive sexual comments.

Another 28-year-old woman, whose senior colleague never missed an opportunity to comment on her appearance during online meetings, said that she had complained to the company’s human resources (HR) department about his behaviour. However, no action was taken against him.

HR consultants are of the view that HR teams in most organisations are not up-to-speed with how online forms of misconduct and harassment look and feel like, and there is a lack of formal policies on what behaviour is acceptable.

The National Commission for Women in India recently revealed that cases of online sexual harassment had seen an upsurge by five times since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“While earlier we would record 300 complaints of online harassment, this shot up to 1,500 post the Covid-19 pandemic,” NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma said in January this year. She added that the lack of “etiquettes of online working” need to be taught.

Forms of harassment
Anjana Sharma, a Supreme Court lawyer and founder of Anjana Law Offices, says online sexual harassment takes a variety of forms. This includes receiving unwarranted video call requests or demands to come online at odd hours; working women being made to feel guilty for fulfilling their home responsibilities during working hours; male colleagues dressing inappropriately during virtual meetings, which makes female colleagues uncomfortable; and intentionally or unintentionally passing inappropriate comments during online conference calls.

Last December, there were reports of how websites offering consultations with doctors 24/7 have become a platform for sexual harassment of women doctors, with patients flashing, masturbating or making lewd conversation under the pretext of seeking consultation.

Shivangi Prasad, a lawyer and the founder partner of POSH at Work, a company that helps organisations comply with workplace sexual harassment laws, recalls an incident where she received a complaint from a female professional about a male colleague who used Zoom’s screen-sharing feature to broadcast porn during a meeting.

She also points out how women who lost their jobs during the pandemic were harassed by fraudulent people pretending to be recruiters on online job portals.

There were also instances of male team members exposing themselves during Zoom meetings, thinking their video was muted. “In such cases it is difficult to ascertain whether it was deliberate or not,” adds Prasad.

There were also complaints about offensive posters in the background during video meetings while some women spoke out about people conducting meetings from their bedrooms.

“This is why custom backgrounds were introduced by platforms like Microsoft Teams. It’s all about enabling everyone to work productively, collaboratively and with everyone’s well-being in mind,” said Prasad.

“Sexual harassment incidents are mostly taking place over the virtual platform currently,” says Dr Ishani Roy, founder of Serein Inc., a diversity and inclusion consulting company.

“In this regard, email, phone, chat and video calls are all extended workplaces, and any uncomfortable incident on these platforms, with not just colleagues but also clients and partners, can be reported as sexual harassment under the PoSH Act,” she explained.

The sexual harassment incidents take both verbal and non-verbal forms – for example, in the shape of memes or jokes sent over WhatsApp and cyber stalking on social media.

“The PoSH Act had always incorporated the virtual environment as part of any employee’s workplace,” says Dr Roy. “In recent times, while employees have started working from home, companies have reinforced that any incident that occurs on virtual platforms also fall under the jurisdiction of the PoSH Act and can be taken up by the internal complaints committee.”

Dr Roy adds that such incidents have also made it more important for organisations to meet their legal and moral obligations to ensure the safety of employees in the virtual workplace.

The PoSH law stipulates that an organisation that has 10 or more employees must constitute an internal committee to receive and redress complaints on sexual harassment at the workplace.

However, the changing times require organisations to revisit their anti-harassment policies and check whether they need to be updated and expanded to ensure women employees feel safe from harassment while working from home.

Experts believe that in many situations women might not understand how to draw the line about what is offensive or indecent in the digital world. Harassment is still seen as a physical thing, although is no longer the case.

“It is the responsibility of the organisations to build a stringent model for the reporting and handling of such cases,” stated Janini Somiah in an article entitled 'India: Extension of the Workplace to the ‘Home’ and Sexual Harassment'. 

She added: “In addition, and more importantly, employees should be sensitised to the current situation and educated on the various aspects of such anti-harassment policies and its applicability to them.”

Clear guidelines for homeworking
To avoid online sexual harassment, Anjana Sharma from Anjana Law Offices says companies should set clear guidelines on how work from home should function in an organisation. She also supported the recent decision of the National Commission for Women (NCW) to instruct companies and organisations to implement suitable guidelines on home working and the prevention of sexual harassment.

The diversity at work consultancy Serein Inc helps businesses to implement policies and procedures to prevent and deal with cases of sexual harassment. This includes empowering a company’s Internal Complaints Committee (as required by the PoSH Act), to act as a proactive and empathetic entity, helping employees with grievances related to physical, verbal as well as non-verbal sexual harassment incidents. This obviously extends to the virtual workplace as well, says Dr Roy from Serein Inc.

Presently, the focus of PoSH at Work, the firm that helps organisations comply with the workplace sexual harassment law, is on electronic communication – highlighting the do’s and don’ts while working from home.

The company is finding creative and engaging ways to educate organisations about how the concept of the workplace is evolving, while training employees to understand what unacceptable conduct on online platforms looks like, says Shivangi Prasad, the founder of PoSH at Work.

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