Mumbai: Last month, Tata Motors announced its decision to increase the number of women employees on the shop floor from 6% to 20% within two years. Both private players as well as the government are making efforts to encourage more Indian women to work across sectors. A recent change in law allows women to work night shifts in many sectors. These are certainly welcome efforts towards breaking the glass ceiling. But, is the quest for removing the gender gap in the workforce also reflected in terms of providing a dignified and safer working environment to women?

Mint has looked at the pattern of sexual harassment complaints in some of India’s biggest companies to answer this question. The analysis is based on information provided in 237 Business Responsibility Reports (BRR) of 79 companies for the years 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15. BRRs are mandated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India and, among other things, require disclosure on the number of women employees and the number of sexual harassment complaints since 2012-13.

While the disclosure norm applied to the biggest 100 companies, 21 have been dropped from the analysis to account for comparability problems arising out of mergers, changes in accounting year, etc. This has been done because an event like a merger/demerger would affect the number of sexual harassment complaints due to an exogenous change in the number of women employees. Similarly, changes in year mean that some companies would have a longer- or shorter-than-usual year, making other data non-comparable. Here are the major findings.

Number of sexual harassment complaints has been increasing

In 2012-13, there was just over one sexual harassment complaint per company. This has increased to over five in 2014-15. The number of complaints as a proportion of women employees has also increased similarly. Figures in the chart below have been calculated by extrapolating existing disclosed complaints to the number there would be if there were one lakh women employees. This was done because sexual harassment complaints are very small in number relative to the number of employees, making it difficult to give a percentage figure.

Is the increase bad news for women employees? Not necessarily, say experts. Vrinda Grover, senior advocate in the Supreme Court, says the rising numbers are probably due to better reporting due to increased awareness through media as well as improved gender sensitization through activities such as mandatory putting up of information regarding sexual harassment at workplaces.

The information technology (IT) sector has the highest share in total complaints across the three years, but automobiles has the most complaints per woman employee.

Also Read: Tata Motors aims to get more women on its shop floor

Companies in the services sector (banking and finance, and information technology) account for more than half the number of sexual harassment complaints filed in all three years. IT alone had more than 40% share in 2012-13 and 2014-15. To be sure, this could also be due to the fact that more women work in these sectors. An analysis of complaints per woman employee shows that manufacturing and infrastructure companies have a much worse track record in terms of number of sexual harassment complaints filed per woman employee.

The charts below give the sectoral breakup and look at disclosed complaints as a proportion of women employed in the sector. Like above, figures have been calculated by extrapolating existing disclosed complaints to the number there would be if there were one lakh women employees per sector. This was done because sexual harassment complaints are very small in number relative to the number of employees, making it difficult to give a figure as a percentage of women employed.

Do companies discourage reporting of sexual harassment at workplace?

After a woman employee brought up sexual harassment charges against R.K. Pachauri, then director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a handful of former TERI employees have come up with similar allegations. A common reason for not bringing this up earlier was their fear of slander and harm to career. A 2006 International Labour Organization report mentions a US study which found that historically only 5% of sexually harassed women have revealed their experience. India would not be any better. The fact that TERI’s board, comprising of eminent personalities from corporate India, did not do enough to ensure that Pachauri faced the consequences of his action—as was pointed out by Namita Bhandare in Mint —raises the question whether companies are complicit in discouraging reporting of sexual harassment.

Rakhi Sehgal of the New Trade Union Initiative says that 60-70% of blue collar women employees could be facing sexual harassment at work. These estimates seem to be in line with the fact that even in our analysis, manufacturing and infrastructure companies report the highest number of sexual harassment cases per woman employee.

While it is difficult to arrive at an estimate of actual under-reporting that takes place regarding instances of sexual harassment, our analysis shows that smaller companies might be more prone to under-reporting of complaints. When you arrange companies in descending order in terms of market capitalization, 16 out of 20 in the bottom 25% companies did not report any incident of sexual harassment in 2014-15, something which is counter-intuitive to say the least. All of the companies had women employees on their rolls. This could also mean that some sectors are suppressing complaints, and those with higher incidents may well have better disclosures rather than being necessarily bad workplaces.

In 2015, Hindustan Times had reported that many companies in Gurgaon were probably under-reporting sexual harassment complaints because mandatory mechanisms such as an internal complaints committee were not put in place even after the legislation of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

To be sure, not all provisions in the 2013 Act are considered women-friendly. A provision against false complaints can result in disciplinary action against the complainant if charges cannot be proved, even if possibly true. This can act as deterrent for victims, says Grover.

The upshot is more women are ready to call a spade a spade when it comes to sexual harassment than there were even three years ago. However, there are many more who are expecting institutional reforms and support in confronting this beast. Indian companies must do their bit to ensure that.