Between law and practice

Published September 13, 2012

ENTER the second decade of the 21st century and one continues to speculate over the socially constructed notion of aspirational gender parity, which has existed across various cultures and societies.

In Pakistan, amongst other quarters, governments, academics and the private sector have for a long time debated the marginalised and hence unequal status of women. As Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Whether or not the US has achieved that exalted status remains a moot point. However, the ambition of the so-called ‘weaker sex’ seems to follow a similar trajectory.

Interestingly, though, Pakistan is for once not a solo runner; harassment at the workplace is a growing concern for several countries across the globe, including the UK and India. As a result, there is enhanced focus on equal opportunity, meritocracy, diversity, respect and the appreciation of differences at the workplace.

In such a context, has the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010, been effective in Pakistan? That begs the question: how many professional women are even aware that such a law exists and what its tenets mean to them from a career standpoint?

A law such as this is yet another feather in the cap of decision-makers aiming to showcase the efforts being made to reduce the gender gap in the country. Whilst many organisations may have informed their employees of the existence of such an avenue of legal recourse for women, others may have dismissed its formulation by simply restricting communication. Beyond that, the wording of the tenets is vague. If, in certain cases, an incident of harassment does get reported, its practical resolution via legal recourse is considerably unlikely as is a concrete outcome.

In addition to this law, however, some corporations and in particular multinationals also have stringent global policies and ethical standards to comply with as part of their employee code of conduct, including the threat of disciplinary action being taken to deal with cases of harassment. However, here is where the cleavage between reality and praxis plays a pivotal role: in practical terms, how many women would actually report an incident of harassment?

The fear of being blamed or becoming a victim of ensuing discrimination often overshadows the reporting process. In cases where the accused is one’s own boss, the predicament worsens manifold. In many situations, if even reported, the case is derisively dismissed by both male and female employees at the workplace. Some organisations may even go to the extent of concluding that the woman might have been a ‘willing accomplice’ for the matter to have arisen in the first place.

Examples of such instances are rampant in the country. There are banks that in practice exclude women from competing for equal opportunity by ensuring that their senior management teams are constituted solely of men. In this way, women are excluded from the decision-making process. In the case of Islamic banks, this is yet another demonstration of religion being employed euphemistically to justify a fundamentally discriminatory stance.

Further, there are public- and private-sector organisations that exhibit prejudice during year-end appraisals and evaluations against working mothers and also against women who take maternity leave. Does that constitute harassment and discrimination as well?

Exacerbating the predicament is the somewhat more challenging issue of what defines harassment: subtle inferences, inappropriate jokes, remarks or gestures. What falls within the ambit of harassment is a fairly subjective aspect, which the law does not clearly indicate. In many multinational organisations and other private-sector entities as well as the medical profession, there are several instances where men, under the garb of over-friendliness, will communicate with female colleagues in ways that may well fall within the ambit of harassment, albeit subtle.

Interestingly, harassment does not constrict itself to any level of management. In fact, it exists across various levels of the organisation. In some cases, men in senior positions feel more empowered to harass their female subordinates or other colleagues without the fear of accountability. This points towards the direction of hierarchies that are present at the workplace, often creating barriers to the effectiveness of this law and to fostering an open, transparent culture of diversity and inclusion.

The law for the protection of women against harassment at the workplace may be a deterrent to some extent in Pakistan. However, the actual wording and terms of the law do not encompass any concrete measures or ramifications, resulting in its ineffectiveness. Most importantly, the law alone cannot be held responsible for improving the workplace environment for both genders.

Legal recourse has to go hand in hand with a socially transformative agenda of impacting the mindsets of both men and women. Foremost is the importance of not simply having an equal-opportunities-employer policy in place, one which clearly defines harassment, but also ensuring that employees are well aware of these policies, their tenets and the consequences of harassment at the workplace.

Also, if employees are regularly reminded of this policy, in addition to the law, and if management is successful in demonstrating its own commitment to ensuring that all employees are treated with respect and dignity, especially through setting the right precedence, the possibility of harassment may decline.

The yearning for equality of the sexes, though, always brings to mind one paradoxical notion: by aspiring to become equal to men, are we — women — ceding to them superiority?

The writer is an anthropologist from the University of Oxford.


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