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Are you being sexually harrassed at work?
Seema Goswami
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January 31, 2007

Life as a working woman is tough, says Seema Goswami, author of Woman On TopHow To Get Ahead At Work.

You have to work harder than most men and still be the one who runs the show at home.

You will be judged by your performance, and your looks.

And you will, at some point, bump your head against the proverbial glass ceiling.

In this excerpt from Woman On Top, Seema suggests how you can tackle the hazard of sexual harrassment at work.

An office romance can be a bit of a hazard, but it is far more dangerous being the object of unwanted attention at work. It could be the colleague who slips his arm around your waist every chance he gets, the senior who is always making sexual innuendos or -- more explicitly -- the boss who threatens you if you don't give into his demands.

Sexual harassment is an elusive beast and in most cases you will probably dismiss your feelings of discomfort unless things become really serious.

But it's not all in your head; never mind what anyone else may say. In the office -- as anywhere else in the world -- you are best off trusting your own instincts. And once these instincts kick into place, don't ignore them. Speak up, make your feelings clear, find out what your rights are, and be prepared to fight for them. If it looks like sexual harassment, if it feels like sexual harassment, then it is sexual harassment.

Discomfort zone

But how do you define sexual harassment? And, more importantly, what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace? There are no easy answers to these questions. In fact, you could say that there are no right answers to these questions. Every man who takes an interest in you, asks you out for a meal or a movie, compliments you on your new hairstyle is not a sexual harasser. No, it all depends on nuances, on circumstances, and on your own comfort levels.

You may happily accept a slap on the back from one co-worker because he gives off an asexual, non-threatening vibe. But you cringe if another even looks over your shoulder to check what's on your computer because you are convinced he is peering down your cleavage (and you know what -- he probably is).

A lunch invitation from a senior colleague will not send any danger signals, because you know that it's just that -- an invitation to lunch. But you will find a thousand different excuses to postpone coffee with somebody else because you have a gut feeling that he will hit on you even before the foam has subsided in your cappuccino. You will have no compunctions about car pooling with one male colleague but fight shy of being the last one to be dropped off when another is driving the car.

Women develop an in-built radar for unwanted attention as they grow up. And by the time they are ready to join the work force, it is so well-honed that they can spot a sexual harasser even before he's finished mentally undressing them. But don't confuse an expression of sexual interest with harassment.

Let's say someone above you in the food chain asks you out. You refuse. He backs off. And nothing more is heard of the subject again. Is that harassment, given that he asked you out and thus expressed sexual interest in you? No , it's not. But say, your boss keeps asking you out despite your persistent refusals and you then get a bad grade in your assessment report. Is that sexual harassment? Most certainly, even if you can't prove it. And then, there's the cut-and-dried case of someone asking for sexual favours in return for 'helping' with your career.

When can you justifiably complain that you are being sexually harassed at the workplace? At the most basic level, if you feel that your workplace has been sexualised to the extent that it makes you uncomfortable to work there, you are a victim of sexual harassment. If your colleagues display pornography, pass around dirty pictures, crack sexually explicit jokes around you, then you can complain of harassment even if you are not being actively targeted. It is your comfort or discomfort levels that are the deciding factor, so don't be afraid to speak up.

It is harassment if someone invades your personal space, either literally or metaphorically. If someone brushes against you persistently, touches you inappropriately, crowds you in your work space then you have legitimate cause to complain. It is harassment when someone displays too much personal interest in you or your sex life, even after you have indicated your discomfort. If somebody makes comments about your appearance, asks you when you lost your virginity, whether you and your boyfriend go all the way, then you have adequate grounds to complain, even if no actual sexual proposition has been made. The fact that you privacy is being invaded by sexual innuendo is grounds enough to prove harassment.

But at what stage should you escalate matters? When should you go from making your displeasure known to registering an official complaint? Well, that really depends on your tolerance levels. Some women consider themselves quite capable of dealing with the occasional sexual advance on their own, thank you very much. And on most occasions, a stinging retort does tend to serve the purpose. But there are others who don't believe in ignoring the slightest indiscretion. And they are well within their rights to go to the authorities at the first sign of trouble.

That said, don't treat every invitation, every compliment, every flirty remark as if it were a precursor of harassment. Treat it at face value, laugh it off, or if it makes you feel genuinely uncomfortable, make your feelings known. But don't cry sexual harassment at the slightest provocation, or you will end up as the little girl who cried 'wolf' too often. And when and if the serious stuff really happens, nobody will take you seriously.

You are being sexually harassed

Tomorrow: Speak out and speak up

Excerpted from Woman On Top: How To Get Ahead At Work by Seema Goswami, published by Random House India, Rs 235, with the publisher's permission.

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