Every day I come across fresh news on women getting bested by the society’s beliefs on the inferiority and weakness of the said gender. It’s no surprise that gender disparity, gender-based discrimination, and associated forms of violence pervade all forms of human existence.
Whether it’s a woman travelling in a bus wearing a skirt, a woman travelling in a bus, a woman travelling, or a woman, none of us is oblivious to the threats looming above our heads.
That sexual assault is one of the most common forms of gender-based suppression and aggression is a fact known to all. But that it is far more common in workplaces than we know is a realisation that has far eluded us.
To make it simpler, let’s see what sexual assault entails – sexual assault is any forced physical act committed towards an unwilling person, and may include inappropriate touching, attempt to rape or rape, forced penetration or fondling, or any other forced physical actions deemed unfit by the victim.
When I went and looked up statistics on sexual assault in the workplace, I was baffled.
No, not by the number of instances that happen, but by the lack of reporting thereof. There are many reasons why sexual assault in the workplace goes unreported, and most of them form the basis for why an incident like this can pose a serious threat to a woman’s career.
Sexual harassment in the workplace: Statistics or stories?
According to a survey conducted in the US in 2019, over 23% women undergo sexual assault and 49% are subjected to an uncomfortable touch of some sort.
Another survey indicated that almost three-quarters of the workers were harassed by their immediate seniors, and 57% of these left their jobs immediately.
To no surprise, the numbers in India would be more gruesome, were they adequately reported.
As a first, when a woman goes through an experience like this, it is a direct attack on her self-confidence. It not only demoralises her, but also sets her back physically and mentally. According to reports, a victim of assault can go through forms of gynaecological, gastrointestinal, as well as cardiovascular disorders. Not to forget the indelible marks of injury that linger on for years. Add to that the mental trauma that she goes through, which can often lead to stress-induced anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s alarming to know that while so many women experience assault, very few of them are able to deal with the mental consequences of the same.
This can primarily be attributed to the lack of resources (especially financial) and lack of awareness, along with the social stigma attached to both – dealing with mental health as well as opening up about sexual abuse.
If you’re wondering how a working woman’s career bears the brunt of sexual assault at the workplace, here’s some food for thought
Fear of losing the job
A woman might not be able to report the assault for the fear of losing her job. This might especially be the case when the incident involves a superior or someone directly involved in her day-to-day operations.
If the perpetrator is an integral lever in the company, she might find her credibility weakened.
In a lot of companies where women are appointed to roles like working at the front desk or making sales calls, or others that are dispensable compared to men’s roles like accounting or management, there’s an invisible but obvious gap in the way the two genders are treated.
Inhibitions over losing promotion
If a woman is due for a promotion, she might feel the need to overlook an incident like this. This is mainly because speaking up about assault would feel like shaking things up at the wrong time, and might undermine her future prospects at the said company.
It’s not untrue that women who speak up at the workplace often pay the price with monumental opportunities.
Discomfort arising out of judgement
In many cases women who speak up find themselves enduring great discomfort in their workplace. This might be because of judgemental employees, lack of proper procedure by the company management, or even the presence of the abuser in the same environment. This can lead to women quitting their full-time jobs and settling for mediocre alternatives.
Career interruptions and gap years
Often times when a woman quits her job in these circumstances, she might find herself in a pickle. This is because at times there might not be another job available readily, leading to gap years in her career. Additionally, she might not be able to answer her future employers as to why she quit her job in a hurry.
She might also undergo a financial crunch which would force her to take up jobs that don’t justify her background or education.
At times, women with promising careers might not even go back to their jobs for the lack of security in the workspace. Till the time they find ways to cope with this obstruction, they either feel left behind compared to others their age or find the break years preventing them from taking up a good job.
Family pressure and apprehension
One of the main ways in which a woman’s career gets compromised because of assault is that their parents, partners, or kids can grow apprehensive of her working. Not that a woman requires anyone’s permission to take on a challenge, but in a situation like such, family pressure only serves to deter her self-belief further.
Migrating back to home
A lot of women who move to bigger cities in a bid to fly in their careers often have their wings chopped off even before a flight. A newcomer into a city might find themselves unwelcomed in an already alien setting.
This can force a lot of women to move back to the safe embrace of their parents’ home, to a city that treated them better.
So, they go from a lack of security in one city to a lack of sophisticated job options in the other.
Impact on mental and physical health
If we take due cognisance of the mental and physical effects of assault, it will become clearer how a woman who was at the receiving end of assault suffers in many ways. This becomes compounded by the lack of empathy and understanding of mental health issues.
Every April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is recognised globally in an attempt to make people more aware of the effects of the same.
But to limit this awareness to a month is where we fall short. We often ignore the obstacles a working woman faces; whether it’s unequal opportunities, casual sexist remarks, a gaping pay difference for the same roles, and other deterring forces including household pressure. The lack of surety that a woman is as safe in her working environment as a man is what holds us back. Every day we push through the pressures, but how far can we go is a question that won’t quit bugging us.
This could be just another article laying out the statistics on sexual assault, but we’ve all scrolled past those. Haven’t we?
If you're someone who has faced harassment, assault, or abuse of any form at your workplace, it is imperative to reach out to the right people about it. Before reaching out to your colleagues, you must report the matter to the HR head. If you're unsure about your next step, there's an array of organisations that lend unrelenting support to women.
The Complaints and Investigation Cell, National Commission for Women:
Sexual harassment of Women at workplace Prevention,Prohibition, and Redressal Act 2013 ensures that every woman works in an environment that is safe and conducive to growth by preventing or redressing such instances. According to this act, every company must have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to address the occurrence of sexual harassment and associated incidents at work.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development has formulated a panel of organisations and institutes that can aid the process of reporting and preventing sexual harassment at work:
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