Ambedkar University Delhi’s (AUD) decision to relieve their faculty member Lawrence Liang of his responsibilities as Dean of the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship after the Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment (CPSH) found him guilty of harassing a young scholar from another university has received mixed reactions. On the one hand, the committee’s decision to address a complaint by a scholar not enrolled in AUD, regarding incidents which took place off campus, has been welcomed as it recognises the wide spectrum of locations and contexts in which harassment occurs.
Moreover, the committee’s acknowledgement that complaints may often be delayed as “forms of gender violence and harassment are often identified as such not at the time of their occurrence” but after a lapse in time when victims begin to understand their experiences through “new frameworks of, for example, feminist understanding” is praiseworthy. These are important precedents for internal complaints committees (ICC) to learn from in future investigations of sexual harassment complaints.
On the other hand, the victim has argued the committee’s decision to bar Liang from holding administrative responsibilities for two years, while allowing him to continue teaching, indicates a limited recognition of the personal and professional consequences of her experience. Academics work in fairly small close-knit disciplines and even smaller fields of research. A young researcher is dependent on the generosity and support of well-established academics when accessing opportunities for publication and references for fellowships, jobs and promotions.
While one strongly hopes that there are senior academics and prospective employers who will respect the complainant’s courage in coming forward, it is highly likely that in making an official complaint against a popular and respected academic figure, she has earned the reputation of being “difficult” and “a trouble-maker”. It is for these reasons that complaints of this nature are few and far between.
Researchers and practitioners involved in investigating workplace harassment have long argued that reported complaints are but a small percentage of the actual numbers of sexual harassment incidents. Could the collective silence of victims be attributed to a culture of sexism which influences organisational life and therefore impacts both formal and informal responses to sexual harassment complaints?
Here are five common ways in which co-workers, managers (and poorly trained ICC members) invalidate women’s experiences of harassment and inadvertently silence them:
1. Victim blaming: what did you do/wear/say?
Victim blaming takes the focus away from the perpetrator ‘s behaviour towards that of the victim*. Within a work culture that values camaraderie, women are often caught between contradictory expectations of extroversion and “maintaining a healthy distance” from male colleagues as I found in my study of the IT industry. One human resources manager who I interviewed, repeatedly used the phrase “she was very outgoing” to describe a complainant, suggesting that her gregarious behaviour triggered the perpetrator’s actions.
Many organisations counsel women about appropriate dress and behaviour to “avoid harassment”; some even publish dress codes. Such counsel fails to recognise harassment as an act of power which has little to do with the victim’s behaviour. A more effective strategy would be for organisations to help men and women identify behaviours that are harassing.
2. Minimisation: I was only joking!
Until recently it was common to use the term “eve-teasing” for our experiences of being leered at, catcalled, flashed, stalked, groped and whistled at in public, implying that women pose a natural temptation to male harassers, whose response is one of light-hearted banter. Movements such as Blanknoise called out this form of minimisation by focussing on the threatening aspects of street sexual harassment.
In the case of workplace harassment, co-workers often minimise the victim’s experience by suggesting that the perpetrator’s intentions are frivolous rather than harmful. Nupur Preeti Alok discusses how phrases like “this is normal”, “don’t make a big deal out of it” and “don’t overreact” are used in this regard.
Minimisation is a common response to complaints of verbal harassment (such as sexist jokes and overly personal remarks). Women are told to “relax” or “chill” when they express discomfort or outrage at sexist humour, thereby belittling their feelings of hurt and anger. Similarly, when investigators describe a victim as aggravated, emotional or hysterical, they delegitimise her reaction to the humiliating behaviour that she has experienced.
3. Justification: he is like that only!
Many professions have traditionally functioned as a boys’ club and have begun to open up to women only in the late 20th and early 21st century. Consequently, the percentages of women in senior positions are limited. Sexist humour, bonding over alcohol after work and abusive language are part of the ‘bro culture’ of the workplace that often intimidates and isolates women. As Shruti Janardhan explains, it can limit their access to challenging opportunities at work.
Justifications can be highly creative, as Yogita (name changed) found when she protested a colleague’s sexist behaviour towards herself and others in a university setting. Her head of department explained that the colleague (who pursued art as a hobby) should be tolerated because he brought value to the organisation via his artistic talent and temperament.
When she refused to accept this explanation stating that she knew several artists with calm temperaments and egalitarian values, he pressurised her to overlook the incident in the interests of “team spirit”. Clearly, the perpetrator’s effect on team spirit was beyond question.
4. Sensationalisation: guess what I heard?
While ICCs’ investigations are confidential, the office grapevine often picks up on harassment incidents either because the perpetrator tries to influence public opinion, or because the victim unknowingly confides in a gossipy colleague. Rumour mongering by perpetrators and onlookers is a common way of silencing victims.
In recent research amongst ICCs members, I have found that victims often tend to resign without another job offer or accept poorly remunerated jobs in other organisations. Alternatively, they withdraw into themselves, completing assigned tasks but failing to take initiative or express their full potential at work – a loss to both themselves and their employers.
5. Deflection: have you seen her work?
Perpetrators often deflect blame by bringing up the victim’s poor performance at work, arguing that she is retaliating because she is dissatisfied with her performance review or because her work was criticised. Another common deflection practice is to suggest that the incident is not workplace harassment but a misunderstanding between colleagues. Reframing the victim’s experience as conflict rather than harassment is a form of gaslighting: manipulating someone to doubt their perception of reality.
Targets of harassment need a non-threatening and non-judgemental forum in which to recount experiences of harassment. Before making an official complaint, women usually discuss the experience informally with colleagues or managers. If the latter fail to respond supportively but engage in various forms of re-victimisation such as those discussed above, statistical data on workplace harassment will continue to obscure actual prevalence.**
* Although I acknowledge the denial of agency implied by the term ‘victim’, I believe that it has value in focussing attention on the personal and professional consequences of facing harassment and have therefore chosen to use it (with some reservations) over alternative terms such as ‘survivor’ or ‘target’ in this article.
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