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What Ankita Bhandari’s death reveals about patriarchy in the workplace

The ease with which sexual favours are asked for and advances made reeks of entitlement and impunity guaranteed to men by the patriarchal society

Garhwal Sabha and Pahadi Mahaa Sabha members stage a protest over Ankita murder case, in Haridwar, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (PTI Photo)

Written by Somaya Gupta

The brutal truth of gendered power dynamics has resurfaced in the short-lived public memory with the murder of 19-year-old receptionist Ankita Bhandari for allegedly refusing to provide “special services” to hotel guests. Brutal — not because of the extraordinariness of retaliation to a refusal by a woman to do what was “expected” out of her, but because of how rampant, mostly invisible and commonly delegitimised, such experiences are at the workplace and outside.

The normalisation of certain expectations from women in our caste-patriarchal society that starts with the “right to expect” of a husband arresting the bodily autonomy of a woman, pervades every part of both the private and public sphere. There is constant expectation from women at the workplace to be polite, poised, obedient, ever-smiling, never-assertive, never-aggressive and confident only to the extent that is palatable to their men colleagues. Enmeshed in power dynamics of several kinds — job-profile based hierarchy, gender, caste, class, region, sexual identity — the higher the person on the power ladder, the more the authority and entitlement; the lower the person, the more the exploitation and discrimination. Fulfilling expectations of subservience based on myriad social hierarchies becomes the code of conduct at workplaces and any deviation becomes misconduct that obviously invites punishment. I remember being faced with 15 odd men from my batch in the first month of law school, being threatened with dire consequences because I had dared to hurt a “man’s ego” by calling out his misogynistic comments on our class WhatsApp group. This fear psychosis ensures compliance and conformity with the hierarchical order.

Professional/work spaces often become disciplining regimes — regulating behaviour, dress codes, interactions – to keep societal power structures intact. Those trying to transgress, resist or subvert are mostly outrightly victimised or subtly villianised in relatively progressive spaces. For women navigating the workplace includes dealing with an ever-present boys club, opportunity barriers, feelings of alienation, additional pressure to prove merit, lower pay, the constant feeling of underconfidence/invalidation and the burden of seeming “neutral/objective”. Applauding “neutral” opinions which are, in fact, status quoist is the most common ploy to invalidate both experiences and assertions by women in workplaces. The obsession with neutrality and objectivity, imposed by others and the self, strangulates the subjectivity of experiences of discrimination that ought to be central to harbour best practices for inclusivity at workplaces. “Letting it pass” or second-guessing one’s experience of an unwelcomed gesture by women is a product of environments fuelling the men-victims-of-false-cases bandwagon instead of encouraging empathy, belief and attempts to forge support systems.

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Sexual harassment at the workplace, more particularly, is a facet of gender-based discrimination. The ease with which sexual favours are asked for and advances made reeks of the entitlement and impunity guaranteed to men by the patriarchal society. In the context of the law on sexual harassment at the workplace, there is a disproportionate emphasis on the “sexual” for an action to qualify as “sexual harassment”. The public imagination of the “sexual” in harassment at the workplace is of a typically lecherous-absolutely-bad touch on a sexualised body part of a woman. Further, the yardstick of violation of dignity and personhood of a woman is indexed on an average man’s perspective. This extinguishes the possibility to enlarge the scope of understanding not only to the various subtle ways in which workplaces become hostile but also the complex gender-based discrimination which perpetuates unsafe workplaces.

The POSH Act 2013 was a step toward recognition of a victim-friendly support system and redressal mechanism that attempted to bring the subjective experience of the aggrieved to the centre. However, there remains low reporting of cases of sexual harassment at workplaces, complainants are often victimised and the ICCs tend to tilt in favour of the organisational hierarchy. The institutional obstructions of dysfunctional Local Complaints Committees and unresponsive police are far greater and more complex in the informal and unorganised sector, where the majority of women are employed. A woman worker’s experience in spaces with none to a low number of women, lack of support systems and inaccessibility of redressal mechanisms along with the marginalities of caste, class, religion, region, disability, gender and sexual identity constitute multiple layers of vulnerability.

As women at the helm of affairs share their experiences of sexism, if not sexual harassment, one can only imagine, if not live, the horrors of a young working woman. A hostile work environment may not always be overt so as to shake the public conscience. The misogyny in subtly questioning the work calibre of a woman, the assumption of authority by a man colleague over a woman co-worker or senior, conspiracy theories about every sexual harassment complainant, aggressors claiming victimhood, dismissal of lived experiences with humour, demanding “evidence” for sexism etc. are the pillars for instances which invite public outrage. It is impossible to understand and fight against gendered retaliatory brutalities without addressing everyday sexism in the workplace. Building sensitive, victim-centred and subversive institutionalised mechanisms by the state, private employers, co-workers and support systems founded on empathy and shared experience both inside and outside the workplace is uncompromisable so that women do not find themselves at the crossroads of justice and job security, physical safety, mental well-being and social acceptance.

The writer is a lawyer

First published on: 28-09-2022 at 17:33 IST
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