A day after India’s Independence Day on 15 August 2023, the Supreme Court of India released its Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes. I read the Handbook right away, intermittently laughing aloud and cheering and shaking my head in disbelief at some of the cases cited, a few of which I had read in law school and others that I may have forgotten but which came up in the Handbook.
As Chief Justice Chandrachud explains in the foreword:
One of the main points I speak about in my Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) (‘POSH’) Act trainings for Internal Committee members is the need to avoid stereotyping and bias. To see the Handbook deal head-on with these aspects gives me such joy – and many aspects of the guidelines are as relevant to employers on DEI measures as they are to the courts and the legal profession.
The Handbook contains glossaries of incorrect and preferred language concerning the characteristics, status and behaviour of women and transgender individuals. It also contains information about different categories of incorrect stereotypes. Here are some of the most important in the context of an employer-employee relationship.
Stereotypes based on the so-called ‘inherent characteristics’ of women: A stereotype that women are overly emotional, illogical, and incapable of taking decisions. Reality is stated: ‘A person’s gender does not determine or influence their capacity for rational thought.’
‘All women want to have children’: This is relevant from a maternity benefits law perspective. The Handbook mentions that ‘[a]ll women do not want to have children. Deciding to become a parent is an individual choice that every person takes based on a variety of circumstances’. Hiring managers and colleagues need to be aware of this, with no questions raised on a female candidate’s marital status or whether she has (or plans on having) a child or children.
Stereotypes based on gender roles: Even where male and female employees are of the same designation, a female employee may be tasked with administrative duties such as organising office-events or buying stationery, while male employees are exempted from such tasks. While the Equal Remuneration Act requires an employer not to discriminate between male and female employees while recruiting for the same type of work or in employment conditions (which the Code of Wages has further made gender neutral), gender-based perceptions and discrimination issues continue at the Indian workplace and a call-out like this is necessary.
Stereotypes concerning sex and sexual violence: From a POSH Act perspective, specific reference is made to the 1997 Supreme Court of India Vishaka Guidelines, the benchmark for India’s current law on the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. A few examples stated in terms of reality: ‘Rape and sexual violence have long been used as a tool of social control. Dominant caste men have historically used sexual violence as a tool to reinforce and maintain caste hierarchies.’ Also, ‘[a] woman who consents to sexual activity with one man does not consent to sexual activity with all men. Similarly, a woman who consents to sexual activity with a man at a particular instance does not ipso facto consent to sexual activity with that same man at all other instances. A woman’s character or morals are unrelated to the number of sexual partners she has had.’ These are aspects I continuously reiterate in POSH trainings – the past history of a complainant (or of a respondent, for that matter) is not a matter for judgment by the employer’s Internal Committee.
I welcome this historic Handbook as one of the most significant legal guidelines issued in India in relation to DEI measures. Employers should follow the Supreme Court’s lead in continuing to take concrete steps to fight stereotypes as part of ensuring dignity and equality.
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Photo credit: Supreme Court of India