Many Cases of Sexual Harassment Never Make it To Companies’ Internal Committees
In the past few weeks, social media has been a platform for scores of women to air their voices against sexual harassment and assault. So far, only perpetrators from the entertainment and media industry have been called out, even though, according to a recent survey, nearly one in three Indian women have either personally faced sexual harassment at the workplace or know someone in their family who has.
However, according to the same survey, 80% of respondents who have been harassed at work say they have not reported their experience to company leadership or HR.
“I wanted to run away, but all I could think about was my company’s reputation.”
Despite having been in one of India’s top three IT companies for nearly two decades, and assuming a position among the company’s management, A.S. agreed to speak about the numerous instances of sexual harassment she faced during her career only on the condition her initials be used, to protect her identity and work.
“When I have to make presentations, I always wear a sari to come across as decent, more professional. On one such day, one of the members from the client’s team asked if I had been working out, because my waist looked very toned.” She glossed over it and continued with the presentation, she says. “I was alone from my company, with five other men from the client company — how would I have reacted?”
In another instance, in a meeting with a government employee, he asked her, “I feel lonely despite being married, especially at night. Do you, too?”
“It was the most horrific two to three seconds of my life. I wanted to run away, but all I could think about was my company’s reputation and its relations with the government and if making a noise would have any impact on bagging future projects from the government,” A.S. says.
(Both instances A.S. describes constitute workplace sexual harassment, even though the harassers were not employed by her company. “If you face harassment by a perpetrator working with you in the same premises, or if you go to a third-party premise and face harassment there, or if a third party visits your office premise, it is your office that will be held responsible,” explains lawyer Shalmali Khokhar, who has offered pro-bono legal services to women with #MeToo stories.)
In the first instance, A.S. told a superior informally. “He was very supportive and asked me what I wanted to do, which is when I told him I’ll never go to the meetings alone and always take one male colleague along,” she says. In the second case, she took a leave of absence for the duration of the project on a pretext, telling her team her son needed her to be home to help him prepare for his board exams.
Advocate Vandana Shah, who has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement and is providing free legal aid to women filing cases of sexual harassment, says A.S.’s choice to bow out or brush past the harassment, rather than address it formally, is common.
“What women want is some form of redressal so that the behavior is not repeated.”
Women like A.S. are often criticized for not making formal complaints and precipitating change for the next woman. But Shah says the responsibility for office culture change lies with Internal Complaint Committees (ICCs), not the women who have been subjected to inappropriate behavior.
“What women want is some form of redressal so that the behavior is not repeated and some form of feedback,” says Shah. “From my experience, they aren’t looking for disciplinary action, but even a trained and enthusiastic ICC that helps and convinces them to make written complaints when needed would go a long way in addressing this highly ignored issue.”
ICCs were set up in response to the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, which allowed for criminal prosecution of harassers and mandated businesses set up an internal complaints committee in every office or branch with more than 10 employees.
Ideally, “it is upon the ICC to determine action based on facts and circumstances of each complaint, the nature of sexual harassment, repetitiveness, hierarchy of respondent, abuse of power, impact on aggrieved, et cetera,” says Shailja Pandit, who sits on the ICC of a prestigious IT firm.
It was a mandate welcomed five years ago; before the act’s passage, companies were encouraged to follow a set of principles known as the Vishaka guidelines. A landmark in their own time, when they were established in 1997, the guidelines weren’t legally binding and offered women little in the way of actual redressal for any workplace harassment. ICCs were intended to fill that gap.
The problem is that women are often prevented from reporting their harassment to ICCs.
“He told me that I was being unreasonable.”
“Women hesitate in approaching the internal committees because they fear being subjected to discrimination and many a times also fear that the committee will be biased towards the more powerful person,” Shah says.
In her practice’s experience so far, Shah says, many of the cases of sexual harassment involve a superior harassing a junior employee.
That was the experience of 22-year-old J.S., who also prefers to be identified only by her initials. J.S. was a trainee at a bank last year, during which time her superior would continuously comment on her clothing.
“I was feeling very uncomfortable throughout my time there but couldn’t tell anyone anything, for the fear of being judged or being called conservative,” she says. “One day he told me that I should wear skirts more often because I have the legs for it, that’s when I spoke to one of my senior female colleagues and she said I should confront him.”
The same senior discouraged J.S. from making a formal report via the bank’s ICC, saying it would cause a scene for no reason by getting more people involved; it was best, the senior colleague advised, to just discuss the matter with the man directly.
J.S. did — and ended up with her career in jeopardy. “He told me that I was being unreasonable and that if I wanted to become a permanent employee, I should stop discussing his remarks with others.”
With no real recourse, J.S. decided it would be better to leave the situation. “I eventually quit on the pretext of moving cities,” she says.
“That’s not what I want to be remembered for.”
#MeToo has brought stories like A.S.’s and J.S.’s to the fore – stories that seem to have no clear path to resolution. They are old, and involve people that may or may not still be part of the same organization. But the sheer volume of #MeToo stories that are set in the workplace has prompted a revisiting of the very measure intended, five years ago, to prevent this kind of outpouring.
“We know that the government is working on setting up a committee to look into the barrage of the #MeToo complaints and the way companies can help is by assisting victims by furnishing any available records or documents that they may still possess,” says Pandit.
While that’s helpful to women who decide a court case is worth the time, effort, money and potential career damage it could entail, perhaps what is ultimately standing between ICCs and women is a label, like victim – or troublemaker.
“I’m close to retiring. I’ve worked with the biggest of names in the industry and third-party clients like the World Bank, and I definitely don’t want to leave as someone who created a ruckus or caused a stir in the company before I left,” A.S. says, reflecting on why she never took any complaints to her company’s ICC. “That’s not what I want to be remembered for.”