Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

What does data say about sexual harassment in India’s top companies?

The number of companies in the BSE 100 universe reporting sexual harassment data has increased over the years

Mumbai/New Delhi: After details of alleged sexual harassment against powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein were published in early October, women from various industries across the world have narrated their own accounts of exploitation.

Credible data on the extent of sexual exploitation across all industries in India is hard to come by, but regulations introduced by the capital markets regulator a few years ago allow us to examine the trends in reported instances of sexual harassment across India’s top 100 companies.

These companies belonging to the BSE 100 universe were mandated to report the number of women employees in their ranks, and the number of sexual harassment charges made by them since 2012-13.

For this analysis, we consider 52 of these firms for which consistent data is available for the past five financial years (from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2017). Some firms have been excluded because of accounting changes, mergers and so on. Others have been excluded because they have not clearly mentioned either the number of women employees or the number of sexual harassment charges in one or more years in the period under review.

The data shows the number of reported instances of harassment has risen over the years. The ratio of the number of harassment cases to the number of women employees on company payrolls has also gone up.

This may not necessarily indicate that the incidence of harassment per se has increased. As the Weinstein episode reveals, sexual harassment cases tend to be under-reported. This is also true of gender crimes in India in general.

Thus, part of the increase in the proportion of sexual harassment cases may simply reflect a “reporting effect" owing to a greater awareness of redressal mechanisms.

The number of companies reporting instances of sexual harassment has also been rising over the years, suggesting that companies may gradually be putting in place monitoring and redressal mechanisms.

In fiscal 2016, four companies did not report data on sexual harassment. This number declined to two in fiscal 2017.

The largest chunk of sexual harassment cases arise in services such as information technology (IT), and banking. This is true even among the top 30 companies, which are a part of the BSE Sensex universe.

While data for several of the Sensex firms is missing for previous years, all of these firms reported the number of sexual harassment cases for the past fiscal year.

However, the absolute numbers may be slightly misleading because the services sectors also tend to employ more women. When normalized with respect to the number of women employees, it is the auto and infrastructure firms that rank higher in terms of reported sexual harassment.

In general, larger and more valuable firms seem to report such cases more than smaller or less valuable firms, the data suggests.

When companies were divided into four groups based on their market capitalization, the groups with higher market capitalization tended to have higher numbers of sexual harassment cases.

But it is worth noting that there are big exceptions to this trend.

According to Sensex data, some of the most valuable blue-chip firms reported zero instances of sexual harassment over the past fiscal year. The economic costs of sexual harassment are difficult to quantify, but they may be quite significant.

In a recent study that attempts to quantify the economic consequences of sexual harassment on the streets, Girija Borker, an economist at Brown University, found that female students of Delhi University were more likely than their male counterparts to choose a college that had a perceived safer travel route, even if that college was of a significantly lower quality.

Borker estimates that the willingness to pay for safety meant that women’s post-college salaries were 20% lower than those of their male colleagues. Her analysis suggests that the fear of harassment may often compel women to make relatively poorer economic choices.

The trade-off between safety and financial security that women face may also partly explain India’s low female workforce participation rate, Borker argued.

This in turn could be hurting India’s productivity and economic growth, as the fear of harassment may be keeping many skilled women away from the workforce.

According to World Bank estimates, India’s economic growth can rise by a full percentage point if it even manages to raise its female work participation rate to the level of Bangladesh.

Adequate monitoring and redressal of sexual harassment in companies can play an important role in creating an enabling environment for women.

The rising spotlight on sexual harassment across the world will hopefully spur more firms to deal with this issue more seriously. This also means that the number of reported harassment cases may go up rather than down in the coming years.

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