Getting unwarranted video call requests at odd hours and being talked down to during virtual meetings were among the complaints about sexual harassment from women working from home during the nationwide lockdown, according to experts working in the field.
The coronavirus-triggered lockdown has posed a lot of challenges for many women professionals who have been working from home for such a long period, even as they struggle to manage the work-life balance.
Many women had approached the experts for guidance as they were unsure of how to raise complaints of sexual harassment while working from home.
“There are no clear guidelines by companies on how work from home should function in an organisation and that confuses women. I have been receiving 4-5 such complaints of harassment every day ever since the lockdown was imposed,” said Akancha Srivastava, who runs the foundation Akancha Against Harassment, India’s largest social impact against cyber harassment initiative.
However, the number of complaints received by the National Commission for Women has been low since the lockdown began but the experts say that could be because many women do not want to officially complain and prefer to consult what they can do in the matter.
“During the lockdown, many women are worried about their job security so they are not sure if they should speak up or not. They face a constant dilemma that they should not be looked upon as troublemakers,” Srivastava said.
She said work from home means there are going to be some disruptions that one must respectfully accept, but that is not happening and it is causing even more stress to women.
“Since we have never experienced absolute work from home before, women are always second-guessing if it was harassment, where does one draw the line, how does one define the body language as offensive or indecent?
“Male colleagues are stalking them on social media or sending friend requests, commenting on their pictures when they are not even friends.
“They are made to feel guilty about any home responsibility they might have. Women are being asked to come online at odd hours. They are being talked down to if the environment is not to their liking. These are very subtle ways of sexually harassing women,” she said.
Giving examples, Srivastava said one woman had recently received a video call request from her boss at 11 pm for an “urgent matter” which turned out to be something that, on a regular day, could have been easily taken care of over email.
In another case, a woman was asked by her boss over video call if she was capable of handling work assigned to her as she seemed “distracted” because of her children who were playing in the background.
Some women have also complained that they find their colleagues inappropriately dressed during virtual meetings and that made them uncomfortable.
The Prohibition of Sexual Harassment Act 2013 (or POSH) was enacted to ensure safe working spaces for women and to build enabling work environments that respect the rights of working women to equality of status and opportunity.
It defined a ‘workplace’ as ‘any place visited by employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such a journey’.
An expert at InfoSec Girls, an organisation educating women in cyber security, said that while many women don’t report such issues, they wish to discuss what they do in such scenarios.
The expert added that, a number of times, it has been seen people do not realise there are women on the call as well and intentionally or unintentionally pass inappropriate comments.
When everyone is home, people call at any time and schedule meetings at any time. This can make women uncomfortable. Besides, they also need to handle their family responsibilities, she said.
“When women raise these kinds of concerns or discuss them, we suggest that if they feel uncomfortable with any discussion or comment, they should raise the concern then and there on call so it does not happen again.
“If that makes them uncomfortable, then discuss it with the leadership or raise it via the organisation reporting channel,” she said.
“Every organisation has set policies on harassment. There is a proper council that addresses all these concerns.
“Women can anonymously report the concerns and discuss the whole story.
“The council discusses the same with the concerned person and addresses it on time to make it happen again.
“In case these options don’t work, they should report to local authorities,” the expert said.