Monday, March 29, 2010

Working Women's Woes

Women’s human rights deserve more importance than they are accorded in many societies. Every woman deserves her dignity and respect at home and in the workplace as much as any man – if not more.

The term, ‘Human rights’ refers to the basic rights to which all human beings are entitled. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), states that all human beings are… “ endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Ours is a world that is evolving and changing in ways which effect traditions, cultures and peoples across the globe. For women, emancipation and empowerment seem to be the order of the day. The only route leading to that goal is through economic independence. More and more women are looking for work outside the home with the aim to share the burden of financial responsibilities as well as to gain some measure of control over their own lives. But all good things come with a price.

An estimated 1.2 billion women worldwide constitute a part of the international work force. In Asia, almost 74% women are employed. Yet, owing to gender discrimination, almost 60% of the world’s working poor are women. Trend analyses across a wide range of studies indicate that many women are now marrying late and postponing childbearing – as observed in Japan and Singapore – in order to establish themselves in their respective fields. The factors responsible for this trend may be economic or personal. In Malaysia, about 70% of university students are women. These women want to bring about a change in an organized manner. Women belonging to the marginalized sections are also gathering courage to stand up for their rights in the society and the workplace, demanding an end to all forms of discrimination.

According to the Government of Pakistan (GoP) figures, there are 14% working women in the country. They are competing and succeeding in diverse fields and making an important contribution to the struggling economy. In all socio-economic groups and educationally-advantaged as well as disadvantaged sections of the Pakistani society, the concept of women working outside the home has gained popularity over the years despite widespread gender bias and discrimination, and pressure from religious fundamentalists. Though reasons vary for women of different backgrounds for rejecting their traditionally accepted roles, the resulting exposure provides an increased level of awareness of their rights and responsibilities – besides a heavy burden of accompanying physical and verbal abuse. For these working women, workplace harassment is a reality none can deny.

Worldwide, harassment is considered to be widespread and requires strict monitoring and legislation in order to develop effective strategies for dealing and coping with it. Although men can be victims of harassment, women constitute a major part of the group vulnerable to it.

Harassment has many subtle and covert forms as well as more aggressive and overt ones. The subtle forms of harassment include disinformation, spreading scurrilous stories about colleagues, disrupting their schedules, withholding important information etc. – all done to affect the victim’s work performance and make her look incompetent. These seemingly harmless and subtle forms have a devastating affect on the victim’s life, threatening her physical and psychological well being.

The other and more serious form of workplace harassment is ‘sexual harassment’, which is defined as unwelcome physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace. It may include crude jokes, vulgar language, suggestive gestures, inappropriate physical touching or contact. For reasons of clarity, sexual harassment may be divided into two types which include: ‘quid pro quo’ and a ‘sexually hostile environment’.

Quid pro quo (Latin for ‘this for that’) harassment refers to conditions involving exchange of economic benefit for sexual favours, while a sexually hostile environment would be one where a frequent repetitive pattern of sexual innuendos, jokes, or sex-role stereotyping is carried out by co-workers or boss. Although both forms are in theory distinct claims, the thin line between the two is many a time unambiguous and the two forms often occur together, one being the natural outcome of the other.

In Pakistan religion plays a pivotal role in everyday life. Unfortunately, it is a version of religion interpreted by a small group of people who are self-proclaimed authority-figures on matters spanning various spheres of social co-existence. These conservatives urge women to continue to play traditional roles of housekeeping and child-rearing, and not be influenced by western women whom they see as too liberal-minded, aggressive and unfeminine - a challenge to the accepted social hierarchy.

It is interesting to note that these same men who cite the Holy Quran as their source whenever urging women to observe ‘purdah’, completely ignore the same Book’s instructions where men are strictly told not to ogle and ‘cast down’ their eyes in the company of women.. Women who are educated and seek personal satisfaction or economic independence, or for those who are compelled to work because of economic constraints, the work environment is made uncomfortable by their male colleagues. Due to strict gender segregation practiced and advocated in many eastern/Muslim societies, men generally have less gender sensitivity and view women as objects of desire rather than as equal co-workers.

On another level, their competence and unbending independence frightens them and challenges their male chauvinistic instincts. Sometimes, a feeling of insecurity upon their failure to interact with intelligent women on an equal intellectual level compels them to embark on such ego-salvaging endeavours. They subject their female colleagues or subordinates to lewd, rude stares, suggestive gestures, offensive touching and even demand favours of sexual nature openly. Due to the power exerted by the harasser – power of position at the workplace or by virtue of the concept of socially-accepted male superiority - the sexually harassed woman is generally unlikely to complain. Studies have shown that only 10 to 15% women actually go ahead and report their abuse. Factors like economic dependence or sense of humiliation play an important part in compelling them to remain quiet. Many women fail to bring charges because of the fear of retaliation from the person in authority, or because they do not have enough trust in legal recourse.

The effects of harassment are devastating. Victims suffer psychological distress in the form of humiliation and loss of dignity. There is also damage to professional reputation and career when they are forced to choose between their self respect and their job. In some cases even their personal safety is compromised. Abuse of women’s human rights is generally the most socially tolerated form of abuse in a society such as ours. Sexual harassment, like most other forms of abuse, is also considered to be the woman’s fault, and accepted by the victims as the price they have to pay for leaving the protected environment of their home

Many developed Western nations have managed to put in place a robust infrastructure to deal with harassment, and a gradual process of cultural change is bringing about the necessary deeper attitudinal change. The US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission actively engages in imparting training to educate employees and employers about their rights and responsibilities under the EEO statutes.

Employers are expected to create a work environment where employees are aware that any unpleasant conduct that falls in the category of sexual harassment will not be tolerated and could result in the aggressor’s discharge from service. Preventive measures are encouraged and maintaining confidentiality stressed. Employers are made aware that failure to adopt a pro-active stance on this issue can result not only in costly lawsuits, but also in a decline in employee morale and productivity, and spoiling the company's image. The employees, for their part, are expected to report abuse in time using any grievance system available.

The important steps to be taken in order to discourage harassment of women in the workplace start with establishing preventive measures, maintaining confidentiality of the complainant’s identity, and supplemented by remedial measures in the form of drafting strict legislation and it’s enforcement. Although cultural attitudes take a long time to change, determination of the affected women to stand up for their rights in the workplace and refusal to tolerate or comply with this social injustice will go a long way in bringing about this change. Educated, sensitive and sensible men can also play an important part in making the workplace a professionally satisfying and socially comfortable environment for their female colleagues.

Pubished in SouthAsia Magazine
Available at : NDU Library
Sept, 2007.

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