During a discussion on the PoSH act, someone asked a question ‘How will there be friendships at the workplace, if we can’t share fun videos with each other, and have conversations the way friends do?’
Women’s safety at work became a pressing concern only after sexual harassment and gangrape of Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman employed by the Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Programme in 1992. Similarly, before the PoSH act, when Vishakha Guidelines came into existence at the workplace, many were concerned about whether they would be able to even speak to women at the workplace now, or how even joking with a female colleague would now be impossible? The Vishakha guidelines were binding and became the foundation of the PoSH act, which came into existence in 2013. PoSh act brought sexual safety of women at the workplace, at forefront, defining sexual harassment, laying down the procedures for a complaint and inquiry, and the action to be taken.
The PoSH act, defined unwelcome sexual behavior either directly or by implication, as sexual harassment. Safety of women therefore remains at the heart of the PoSH act. But why is it so difficult to accept NO from a woman, whether she says so verbally, or does not want to take things someone else’s way? Her discomfort, backing off, and not enthusiastically being in for what might seem okay for the other? Is it because as societies, we still readily accept gender roles, where a woman speaking up, and saying no is something still unconsciously unacceptable? At least 140 countries have legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace, however enforcing them often remains a challenge.
Everyday consent: respecting boundaries
Do we respect consent otherwise, from others too? A guest requesting us not to over feed them, do we let them decide what/how much they want to eat while we host? Do we ask children before hugging them, if that is okay? Do we ask, even our close friends, co-workers, if they do have time and mental space to hear out our concerns, before we unload on them? Do we ask people permission before clicking their pictures, or sharing pictures online, if they would be alright with that? What makes respecting consent, and boundaries less important in friendships and relationships? Do boundaries not exist in friendships, and if not, shouldn’t they?
The idea of boundaries becomes even more important at workplaces, for we all have varieties of understanding of how we want our workplace experiences to be. For some, a workplace might be an extension of their personalities, they may seek friendships and even be more outgoing than others. Whereas some may like to draw a stricter demarcation between their personal and professional space. Their demeanor, body language, and definitions of how they view their workplace, would be very different. These are not just personality spectrums, as people can have both these traits, with their own preferences and expectations. However, it is difficult to always be able to express that. Add to that the asymmetry of gender, authority, position and role, and it becomes tougher to tell people to stop crossing boundaries. Respectful behavior, that is mindful of others’ space, not only creates a less stressful work atmosphere, but also enhances collaboration and productivity.
Consent is important not only in the sexual context
Here, the idea is that consent is not only sexual. Consent, basically means respecting someone else’s space, the way they would like you to. Also, keep in mind not everyone would be able to express their discomfort outrightly, or say no emphatically, but assuming consent is never right. So, someone’s clothes, drinking, smoking or partying with you, does not amount to them consenting.
Someone’s friendliness is not consent.
Someone accepting your social media friend request, is not consent.
Saying no, and someone’s being uncomfortable by your behavior might be expressed nonverbally too, considering so much of human interaction is non-verbal. They may not respond, or respond after a long time, or after you have reminded them to respond. It means they are not as enthusiastic about it as you assume them to be. Accepting and respecting others’ boundaries and personal space goes a long way in creating safe workplaces, not just for women but for others, like individuals from marginalized and other sexual identities, people who are not very assertive in expression and so on. It creates safe workplaces where everyone is assured of sexual, physical, emotional and psychological safety, and be themselves.