"My male colleague persistently calls me in the name of connecting for work, even at night."
"My boss insists on video calls, even during odd hours."*
These are some of the messages received over the past year on the chat helpline of Sheroes, a social networking platform exclusively for women. (*Following principles of counselling, the messages have been re-worded by Sheroes and are not verbatim)
Even as several companies moved their employees to a work-from-home model since the start of the pandemic last year, it has not meant an end to the sensitive issue of workplace sexual harassment, of which women are more often the victims.
"Sexual harassment doesn't necessarily mean physical harassment. In fact, workplace harassment usually isn't physical,' said Rekha Sharma, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women.
"Sexual harassment could be in the form of inappropriate remarks or gestures to make a woman feel uncomfortable. With several employees now working from home, there seems to be a thin line between cyber harassment and sexual harassment. Calling at odd times seems to be a common problem now, while other cases also include putting up inappropriate pictures in the background during a video call," she added.
As per the Vishaka guidelines formulated by the Supreme Court in 1997, ‘Sexual Harassment’ includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; Sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature.
The Vishakha guidelines became the foundation for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and made it mandatory for companies to put in place measures to prevent and redress sexual harassment in the workplace (POSH Rules).
According to the database of the National Commission of Women, 125 complaints of sexual harassment of women at the workplace were received in 2021 so far. In 2020, NCW received 201 such complaints. This is lower than the 330 such complaints received in 2019, a year when most employees were still in their offices.
On the Sheroes helpline too there has been a drop in workplace sexual harassment-related complaints. Earlier about 20 percent of the overall daily messages would be about the issue, but over the past year, that number is under 5 percent, according to founder Sairee Chahal.
While the number of cases may have dropped from the previous years, the problem still persists, and the nature of workplace sexual harassment may have become more difficult for women to identify or report, according to Shakun Vijay, Head of the Ask Sheroes Helpline.
"The signs can be subtle and many times women may not be able to identify sexual harassment or may not know how to report it when they are working remotely," Vijay said.
While many industries in the essential services sector still had a lot of their staff reporting to offices during the pandemic, several corporates, especially those in the tech space, were able to transition most employees to work from home.
For example, IT companies moved nearly 90 percent of their employees to work from home since the beginning of the pandemic.
But even then these companies reported cases of workplace sexual harassment in FY21, though there has been a drop as compared to the previous year.
TCS, which employed nearly 5 lakh people as of FY21, received 27 complaints of sexual harassment in the fiscal as per the annual report as compared to 86 such cases in FY20.
The annual report shows that out of the 27 complaints in FY21, 19 complaints have been resolved with appropriate action taken and 8 complaints remained pending as of March 31, 2021.
Infosys reported 25 workplace sexual harassment cases in FY21, as per the annual report, down from 88 in FY20.
Wipro's Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Saurabh Govil recently said that the company was working to create awareness on sexual harassment, especially as the nature of such harassment is changing.
"There is a clear shift in the nature of workplace harassment. People expect others to be on videos at odd hours. We have instituted awareness training on sexual harassment for employees in this context because new ways of working bring up new issues," Govil said during Microsoft's ExpertSpeak sessions on July 20, in response to a question from CNBC-TV18.
Wipro had reported 43 complaints regarding sexual harassment of women at the workplace during FY21. In FY20, the company had seen 125 such complaints.
It is important to note that not all employees and staff had the privilege to work from home. All essential services sectors continued to work out of physical locations through the pandemic and that meant regular shifts at the office.
E-grocery platform BigBasket continued to offer delivery of groceries and other products during the pandemic, which required roughly 27,000 of its workers at the warehouses and for deliveries to come in daily. The company reported 8 cases under Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) in FY21, most of which were reported from the company's warehouses. This compares to 14 cases the previous year.
"There has been no change in the nature of sexual harassment. All cases that were reported involved in-person interactions. Most cases reported in the past, and now, continue to be in our physical warehouses and dark stores," said TN Hari, the Head of HR at BigBasket.
Hari said BigBasket has taken steps to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace through "education and awareness among employees, including those on contract, on their rights and recourse, active internal complaints committees across all locations, bringing external women members of repute to aid and assist in the investigations, ensuring speedy, and fair investigations, and exemplary action in cases where sexual harassment is established irrespective of immediate consequences on the business."
Under the “POSH Rules”, any company with over 10 employees must set up an internal committee that can address grievances of employees on sexual harassment complaints.
False Reporting, Misreporting Persists
Another issue that persists is the identification of a sexual harassment case as distinct from other issues such as discrimination and sexism.
"Gender discrimination cases are also being filed as sexual harassment complaints since there is no other avenue,' NCW's Sharma said. "We should have a gender discrimination policy for workplaces," she added.
Sharma said that there are also multiple cases of false reporting, especially when some form of action is taken against a woman employee.
However, industry members said false reporting is usually a small part of the number of complaints, and that it was an encouraging sign that women are raising other workplace issues as well.
"Women are showing the courage to report even small incidents, some which don't fall under the purview of sexual harassment and may be better classified as general harassment, sexism, misogyny, bad leadership, poor awareness of the nuances of what constitutes personal space etc. And we see this as a great sign, and an opportunity to further refine the vocabulary and help everyone understand the +nuances better and nip them in the bud," BigBasket's HR Head Hari said.
Domestic Violence Cases Rises
Another grave concern has been rising complaints of domestic violence cases that have shot up over the past year and a half.
Domestic violence complaints received by NCW nearly doubled from 2,960 complaints in 2019 to 5,297 in 2020.
In 2021 so far, NCW has already received over 3000 complaints of domestic violence.
"During the lockdown, domestic violence cases had increased sharply, especially since women were stuck at home with their abusers and could not go out to families, or even the police," Sharma said.
On the Sheroes' helpline, 30 percent of the queries are now around domestic violence issues, which is double from the previous years, Chahal said.
"We are now seeing many cases of domestic violence being reported from smaller towns, and many even from abroad,' Vijay said.
Domestic violence could be physical, financial, verbal, or emotional, Vijay explained.