Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for August, 2021 is Digital Realities. We invite submissions on the many layers of experiences from the virtual world throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
As the world has shifted to online workspaces, instances of sexual harassment have assumed new layers for women. Though misogyny, cyber sexism and harassment are unfortunately not new phenomenon, the pandemic induced work from scenarios have manifested them into an everyday, household experience for most women.
This makes it necessary for us to delve into what constitutes harassment in a digital context and how to navigate instances such as these. When they happen in work related online scenarios, the desperation to not lose the job also adds to the stress and suppressed agony of the survivors.
Last year during the pandemic, a young woman who uploaded a video lecture on youtube was responded to with disgusting, sexual comments. The woman, who was teaching class 9 geometry, was bombarded with inappropriate comments objectifying her body and physical form.
Similarly, in Kerala, a government school teacher was objectified and cyber sexualised after a video of her academic session was aired online. The incident led to the formation of an objectionable, lewd virtual fan base for the teacher, who used screengrabs of her video for physical objectification. The cyber trolls called themselves the “blue saree teacher army“.
We might feel that the pandemic induced work from home will prevent workplace harassment and protect women, but in reality, harassment at workplace is pervasive and more layered than that. Sexism persists even within the work from home scenario. Many women have stepped forward and opened up about the uncomfortable advances they face during their virtual work meetings. The mannerisms of some of their male colleagues during the meetings, and their so called casual attires also make women employees feel extremely vulnerable and anxious.
Women are also forced to be online at hours that may be a stretch for them, considering that they also manage gendered tasks within the house like cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.
They are often talked down to, with no acknowledgement of their responsibilities at home and tis causes a sense of incompetence and mental stress in female employees. These are very subtle ways of harassing women that are not takes as seriously as they should be.
Recently, a woman reportedly received a video call request from her boss at roughly 11:00 pm at night for an “important issue” that needed her immediate attention. When she answered the video call, it turned out to be for somethin extremely negligible that could have easily been taken care of over an email the next day.
In another instance, a female employee was asked by her boss over a video call if she was capable of handling the work assigned to her as she seemed “distracted” because of her children who were playing in the background and that they might cause a hindrance to her performance. Women often refrain from protesting such sexist remarks out of the fear of being fired.
There was a recent survey asking women to describe the kinds of workplace harassment they encounter. The survey sampled around 2,000 employees who worked from physical offices but have been working from home during the pandemic. “It was hoped that HR (Human Resources) departments would see a dramatic decline in reports of sexist behaviour as offices closed down across the country,” the report said.
However, the survey noted that “sexism has instead found new and insidious ways to thrive online“. The report finds that 34 per cent of the female employees were asked to wear more make-up or work on their hair while 27 per cent were told they should “dress more sexy“.
Women, even amidst work from home commitments, are expected take care of their domestic chores along with maintaining their professional life. They never get a break and end up feeling stressed out. Globally, girls and women on average do three times more unpaid care work than men, a number that is likely to skyrocket as all household chores have to be managed at home in the pandemic propelled situation where homes double up as offices.
The home is not a neutral place: it is doused with sexist expectations that family members have from women. When this same domestic space also becomes an office, women are exposed to harassment of new kinds. There is a lot of ambiguity on the applicability of the laws on workplace sexual harassment to virtual workspaces, and we must address this.
Sexual harassment is nuanced and rooted in the patriarchal, misogynistic attitudes we have towards women and their bodies. This is what gets reflected in the work from home scenarios as breached boundaries and violation of personal space. This issue needs comprehensive acknowledgement and solution.
Trandali is an avid teenager who is currently preparing for her boards. She believes that a good novel and a bowl of maggi can always uplift one’s mood.
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India