The word “threshold” means brink or starting point for something or the level for a person. And generally associated with the onset of some stage. Using this word to associate with sexual harassment at the workplace may seem a little out of place but nonetheless is very apt also.
Sexual harassment at workplace may not be very openly discussed but the thought of using threshold to analyze our understanding of sexual harassment at workplace occurred to me after watching an episode from the legal drama series Boston Legal, where the character of Lori Colson nearly files a sexual harassment case against senior partner Denny Crane. Denny had always been shown as pompous and over the top and a womanizer. Being a senior partner his behavior was always accepted as normal and tolerated. But its not the case with Lori Colson. But eventually Lori withdraws her complaint under pressure from another senior partner at the firm.
My analysis of reports on the corporate world (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2013/oct/23/sexual-harassment-workplace-endemic-women) and discussions with friends who work with women based NGOs made me realize that there are many shades and levels of harassment that we are not able to feel the existence of. We take many aspects of behaviors for granted and tolerate them just because we have been doing so. It’s not about the male gaze as such. When we don’t have specific female role models or mentors we don’t instinctively realize many things that happen to us until after many years of maturity.
Especially now when we have developed an obsession with youth and looks and achievements and women have more opportunities open to them. There is no stigma attached to women delaying marriage and children. Nonetheless, there is still a subtle yet insidious way in which the harassment continues and somehow its all the more demeaning. The old demarcations have definitely faded away but in its place we have the liberated young woman who can be approached and taken to be a willing partner in exploring more than just the job.
When one of my friends approached a senior manager from another team in her organization for a role in his team she was met with a surprising answer. She was clearly told that she wasn’t “visible” to him as she wasn’t taking pains to message, call and “whatsapp” him and clearly there were many others who did that very often. He also implied that he wasn’t sure if he could go ahead and call her on weekends if he wanted to and hence the positions were getting closed with other people. There can be two sets to female responses to this experience. One, where the woman just ignores it because no comments were passed on her, he had not approached for any sexual favors in return for the job and because he was plainly trying to be funny and friendly. But then, there could be some like Lori, which in my case my friend was, and could see the blatant way in which he was suggesting that he needed that something to consider her for the role whereas he could have just said that she didn’t fit the bill.
But are we as women always ready to take every situation head on and deal with it? In most cases there would be no reaction but feigning of ignorance. And also acceptance of the same “ sexual harassment is endemic” and we cant do much about it response.. The point to understand is that harassment has always been about exercising your power over the other and its mostly gender based (male over female) but the outcomes should not be allowed to pass. With IT companies being so gender sensitive nowadays, sexual harassment should never be tolerated and nor should there be accepted patterns of behavior which are blatantly sexual and vicious in nature but tolerated or normalized. Many of us as women unconsciously adopt the female pattern of growth in our organizations- accept the motherhood and gender (inferior) effect consciously or unconsciously and hence don’t question our situation and corresponding growth prospects. The way out is to speak up and fight against the stereotypes that are bound to come our way. It should never be a case of- why didn’t she protest when it was happening with her”? Or as my friend quipped-“ it should never be a case of – she never told me that she didn’t want it””. So lets not let that excuse make people in positions of power get away. If just protesting or rather speaking out our feelings helps then so be it. We will start from there. That may be my threshold of a complaint.