Preventing workplace sexual harassment
Despite advances, including legislation, over the past few decades, many companies still don’t do enough to contain workplace sexual harassment
Early this year, former Uber employee Susan Fowler’s act of courage had a $70 billion company reeling and sparked a movement in Silicon Valley. In India, the revolution was seeded a few decades earlier. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a saathin (social worker) in Rajasthan, was gang-raped for stopping the marriage of an infant girl child. Her prolonged legal battle saw activists and lawyers coming together to file a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court.
This PIL brought to light the vulnerabilities that Indian women were exposed to in the workplace. In 1997 came the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement, which came to be known as the Vishakha Guidelines. These guidelines have now been superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, making them mandatory for companies with more than 10 employees. In addition, Bhanwari Devi’s case led to a clearer definition of sexual harassment; earlier, it was left to the subjective understanding of the authority assessing the incident.
Sadly, 25 years later, Bhanwari Devi has not received justice for the violence her employment exposed her to—but her fight changed the law for Indian women across industries. Despite these advances, a 2015 study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and EY suggested that 36% of Indian companies and 25% of multinational corporations in India were not compliant with this Act. Perhaps the situation has improved since then—but it is unlikely to be where it needs to be.
My work with companies has led me to observe that the delayed compliance with this law is due to a lack of awareness, coupled with misconceptions about implementation. There are three common myths surrounding the law.
The first is that the law will change the dynamics of an informal company culture. Organizations are increasingly subscribing to informal work cultures. Work is now seen as an extension of the home, with one encouraged to bring their “whole self to the workplace”. But when employees are asked to explain what company culture is, the common response indicates a confusion between perks and ethos. Beer nights, foosball tables or office décor are often confused as culture.
An informal set-up helps employees feel comfortable and included so that they take professional risks, voice their ideas and perform better.
This description of an open culture is not in conflict with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act. Implementing this law offers a tangible strategy to ensure safety and respect as defined by an open culture. Thus, the approach for communicating the policy or conducting awareness training must include a holistic focus on culture, a respect for consent and an empathetic conversation on different cultural beliefs of what is acceptable and what isn’t. It should have an emphasis on bringing the best version of one’s whole self to the workplace.
The second myth involves worrying about false complaints. If that is the very first thought that comes to mind when reading this Act, it indicates how little the organization knows about the enormity of the issue.
Unlike school, when complaining to the teacher meant consequences only for the person committing the act, in a workplace, making a complaint demands immense courage from the complainant. A survey by the Indian National Bar Association (Inba) of 6,047 participants suggested that 38% had faced harassment at the workplace and 69% of them did not complain about it. These unreported incidents can be attributed to a lack of faith in the organization or ability of the internal committee, fear of retaliation, self-doubt, and the stigma of seeming like you cannot take care of yourself.
Statistically, even cases that do get reported are ones where the incident has occurred more than once. Given the stigma around making a complaint, women are more likely to brush off the first few incidents by questioning their own judgement or giving the respondent the benefit of doubt. This silence does not add to their productive contribution to the organization.
An inclusive company doesn’t warn employees against false cases but instead builds their faith in the ability of the internal committee to address an incident fairly and with confidentiality.
The third myth is that awareness workshops will increase the number of complaints. But isn’t this level of comfort the basis of an open culture? Given the hurdles in making a complaint, if an employee does report to the internal committee, it is a sign that employees have faith in the organization.
Inclusive organizations are concerned not about the additional paperwork involved in an inquiry but about the best way to help employees understand the company’s commitment to safety. This commitment communicates two messages to employees. One, that any careless action has consequences and two, the company is invested in the employee’s safety and well-being.
But attitudes are changing. Recently, we started working with a start-up that had hired its 14th employee. It was one of the most encouraging moments to see such a small organization recognize the importance of defining their “open culture” and creating an environment in which diverse employees could feel respected and work towards achieving higher company goals.
Chryslynn D’Costa is head, diversity and inclusion, Serein Inc.
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