As more and more women enter professional fields, there is a vital need for more gender sensitisation programmes...

The last three decades or so have seen large numbers of empowered women entering the contemporary urban work space in the country. As a result, even hitherto male-dominated industries have been forced to gird their collective loins and work out new ways and means of dealing with opposite-gender co-workers. This has not been an easy transition to make for both genders, since it has come in the wake of extraordinary change in Indian society's mores on a variety of parameters relating to lifestyles, gender role redefinition, economic liberalisation, increasing choices, progressive urbanisation and the like. I don't propose to examine in this piece all of these or the essential differences between the ways in which men and women function in the workplace. For the interested reader, I would recommend John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Workplace which does precisely this, and more. I will confine myself to exploring the dynamics that result in one of the most visible aspects of gender differences in contemporary workspaces: sexual harassment.

At ease

As a rule of thumb, people who have been educated in co-educational schools do have an easier time of it, for, they tend to be less self-conscious and more at ease in the presence of the opposite gender in the work environment. They also find it easier to establish, at the very least, working relationships, even if not civil ones, with the opposite gender. In this effort, they are ably supported by the managements of multinational as well as larger Indian business corporations, who conduct ‘gender diversity' interventions like seminars and workshops or ‘gender sensitisation' programmes, all geared to enhancing mutual tolerance and better team work regardless of one's co-worker's gender. However, as most managements realise, any process that denies the reality of the essential differences between genders and attempts to create a ‘neutered' kind of environment at the workplace is doomed to eventual failure, for, la différence is bound to assert itself sooner than later.

But the key question is, how can one create an environment where gender differences are, even if not actually celebrated, paid adequate attention to, without creating self-consciousness between the genders? Some managements attempt to toy around with the physical environment, making it most unromantic and banal in the hope that sexual tension will be denied an opportunity to make its unwelcome appearance. However, as experience has shown, even the most ‘de-sexed' of work environments fails miserably to achieve this object. And the reason for this is that sex and sexuality play only very small roles in creating predators in the work place. Although repressed sexuality (a national malady) does play a more significant role in our country than in many others, ‘patriarchy' and ‘control' are the more important phenomena at work. It all boils down to whether men have genuine respect for their women colleagues and whether women respond to a lack of respect with meekness, assertiveness or blatant aggressiveness.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been in the forefront of management consciousness and many companies, even those that vehemently deny ever having any form of sexual harassment in their rarefied work environments, have, as a matter of abundant caution, set up gender sensitisation interventions, sexual harassment committees and so forth to ensure that the ogre of sexual harassment doesn't visit them. However, it takes just one ogre (or sometimes, ogress) to set off the landmines. Although mutual sexual back-scratching does happen every now and again, it is more customary to see sexual tensions result in sexual harassment in modern corporate life, where the one with ‘power' relates to the victim primarily as a sexual object. The ‘power' can be derived from hierarchical position, the patriarchal belief in the superiority of the male gender, or from the stereotyped, though certainly not extinct, femme fatale. Sexual harassment, like sexual abuse, has to be treated with a zero-tolerance policy if we are to make any inroads into managing this menace. Internal systems and processes to check sexual harassment of any sort have been established by many forward-thinking companies and these must be allowed to function without fear or favour if they are to achieve their objective, even if every now and again, as with most systems, they do tend to be abused by disgruntled subordinates.

Defining boundaries

At the best of times and in the best of contexts, man-woman relationships can be quite a handful to manage, but in the workplace, they can be potential minefields, if one does not approach them consciously and with discipline and understanding. If both genders got in touch with their own respective issues in dealing with opposite gender equations, one can certainly prevent unconscious dynamics taking over such relationships and ruining them. In such a situation decisive boundaries can be better defined and everyone can be clear that office flirtations can lead as likely to dalliances as to sexual harassment. Also, if one confines the quest for emotional fulfilment to personal relationships, therefore committing more time and energy to these than to office relationships, then the workplace can remain just a place of work, and not become a potential arena for the expression of unfulfilled intimacies.

The writer is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com