By Gurbir Singh |
A bit of the glad eye or some sexual play by the boss with his female employees was considered ‘normal’ a few decade ago. A complaint of sexual harassment was dismissed in 1989 by a US judge who ruled that a woman employee being made to fish for quarters in her boss’s pockets though unpleasant would not cause undue distress to any “reasonable woman”, the Economist noted.
In India, the workplace has been equally unfair to the victim.
This is a real incident from about 2 decades ago. A powerful HR boss of a very large media house had summoned his personal secretary for some ‘urgent’ office work on a Sunday. He picked up the unsuspecting lady in his car, but when she realised they were heading for a ‘picnic’, she had the car stopped and managed to sneak out. When she mentioned the incident to her women colleagues in the office, a senior lady drew up a complaint petition asking for action against the HR chief. Result: Both the victim and the lead petitioner were sacked.
The Harvey Weinstein case, where the former founder of Hollywood’s Miramax Studios was named by several female actors for sexually assaulting and raping them shows how prevalent it is of men in power, sexually preying on vulnerable women, despite all the talk of gender equality.
The #Metoo campaign opened the flood gates. Twitter said the hashtag was shared a million times in 48 hours.
Second, the Weinstein case has proved once again that it is the workplace where women are most vulnerable against powerful men who demand sex in some way in return for favours; or maybe just to keep their job and not face work harassment.
In most cases, the perpetrator gets away scot free, and even if indicted, worms his way into the top echelons of another company. Phaneesh Murthy, the top Infosys executive who was fired in the US in 2002 for two cases of sexual harassment, cost the company $3 million in settlements. That didn’t stop him getting a plum job at iGate where he was again sacked a second time in 2013 for sexual harassment.
There are quite a number of Weinsteins in India’s corporate corridors too: the celebrated ‘solar lantern man’ R.K Pachauri of Teri; Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka; and start-up TVF founder Arunabh Kumar. The list of those who got away pretty lightly is quite long. We only see the tip of the problem as women employees recoil from making complaints perceiving that complaining would result in further harassment and even dismissal.
A survey carried out earlier this year by the Indian Bar Association of over 6,000 respondents showed that 70 percent of the women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared they would be punished further.
The law is not weak. The Supreme Court in 1997 created the Visakha Guidelines, which is central to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act passed by Parliament in 2013. These define sexual harassment exhaustively and call upon employers to display communication informing of stiff penal consequences of sexual harassment. Employers are also called upon to treat cases of sexual harassment as misconduct under service rules; and the setting up of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) is mandatory and failure to do so attracts stiff monetary fines.
But the Visakha guidelines earlier, and the anti-sexual harassment Act since 2013, have been observed more in the breach by even very large companies as the Act provides very little policing mechanism. Imposition of huge fines is a strong punitive deterrent, and India can well learn from the US example.
The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) for instance recovered $165 million in a single year in 2015 through lawsuits filed on sexual harassment charges. Ford alone paid up $10 million recently on account of misconduct charges in two Chicago plants.
Gender revolution needed
But workplace harassment cannot be solved by policing alone from outside. It will need a workplace cultural revolution which does not see the problem just as an ethical issue. Companies have to realize that a safe working environment works wonders for productivity. On the other hand, an atmosphere of fear and the shielding of sexual predators are bound to create demoralisation and ultimately impact targets negatively. A corporate culture that makes it loud and clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated regardless of rank is half the battle won.Ultimately then, word has to be got across that women hold up half of heaven.
The #MeToo hashtag spread virally on social media in October 2017 to denounce sexual assault and harassment, in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein Twitter said the hashtag was shared a million times in 48 hours