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Out of the closet

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

July 14th, 2011

Sexual harassment experienced by female journalists in the line of duty recently became a topic of discussion in Indian media circles, thanks largely to a newspaper article by television journalist and author Sunetra Choudhury, headlined “Pervy Politician needs to get his act together.”

She has been faulted by some for not naming the offending politician and lauded by others for bringing the issue out of the closet so that it can be recognised and perhaps even tackled. In an article on The Hoot (a mediawatch website) headlined “Harassed on assignment” fellow journalist Geeta Seshu has explained why Choudhury’s public testimony is an important step forward even if she has stopped short of identifying the culprit.

It is no secret that sexual harassment has been alive and well in Indian media workplaces as well as on assignment for many years. A senior journalist I interviewed for my book, Making News: Women in Journalism (originally published in 2000), had said, “Politicians, bureaucrats and police officers generally have three ways of dealing with women in the profession: they patronise you or push you around or lech at you.” Several women mentioned having to endure sexual banter or innuendo, being propositioned, etc., as occupational hazards. But most preferred to keep such experiences under wraps to avoid possible professional repercussions.

In a 2001 pilot study reported in the 2005 edition of Making News, which covered nearly 250 women journalists across India who voluntarily responded to the online questionnaire (i.e., a convenience sample), 8 per cent claimed to have faced sexual harassment, while another 7 per cent chose not to answer that particular question. Significantly, only 8 per cent reported the availability of in-house committees to deal with complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace (legally mandated by a 1997 judgement of the Supreme Court of India). Interestingly, this question had a high rate of ‘no response,’ which could be interpreted to mean that many women journalists were then unaware of whether or not such a committee existed in their media house (even though the judgement places the onus on employers to ensure that both male and female employees know what constitutes sexual harassment and what options are available to victims of such behaviour).

A survey conducted a couple of years later, which covered a convenience sample of 410 women across the country, found that sexual harassment was a major concern for most respondents, with nearly a quarter willing to state on the record that they had been sexually harassed either at the workplace or in connection with their work. An additional 8 per cent were unsure about whether or not their experience constituted sexual harassment. And, again, a number of respondents refused to respond to the question or comment on the issue.

Of those who admitted to having been sexually harassed, almost a third reported that the experience had ’seriously’ undermined their confidence and affected their work, while nearly a quarter said it had affected them ‘mildly,’ and a surprisingly large proportion (approximately 41 per cent) claimed that it had no effect on them. According to the authors of the survey report, the findings suggest that ’sexual harassment is part of the work culture in media organisations in India.’

This is further borne out by the fact that only around 15 per cent of women who had experienced sexual harassment had made a formal complaint about it. Of those who did not, over 10 per cent cited fear of intimidation, victimisation and/or job loss as the inhibiting factor. Significantly, a large number (about 40 per cent) said they did not complain because they felt sexual harassment was not taken seriously in their organisations and/or that their complaint would be seen as trivial or exaggerated. Nearly a quarter of all respondents reported feeling that sexual harassment is tolerated as an accepted part of the organisation’s culture. A disturbing 14 per cent said they had no confidence in the management’s willingness or ability to take action against such conduct. A couple of cases that came to light in the early 2000s unfortunately confirmed that such perceptions were not entirely unfounded.

Interestingly, in the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media recently released by the International Women’s Media Foundation, 82% of the Indian media houses covered by the study (a total of 17) claimed to have adopted specific policies on sexual harassment in the workplace. The report is based on information provided by news companies in 2009. It would be interesting to check how many of their employees are aware of such policies, if indeed they do exist.

Perhaps the recent fresh “outing” of the subject will catalyse more open debate and serious action on sexual harassment in media workplaces and on assignment in India.

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