Business Today

Corporate apartheid

Ambition can come at a cost, and it is invariably the woman in the workplace who pays the price.

Saumya Bhattacharya & Puja Mehra | Print Edition: October 17, 2010

15 months ago Malini Shah, 30, was chosen to work on a project as a part of a 20-member team in her organisation that provides information technologyenabled services, or ITES. The project was challenging and Shah was pretty enthusiastic about it. Her manager was initially most supportive and mentored her. But when he started calling her late at night - and the calls would stretch for over half an hour - Shah began to feel uncomfortable. Since she was the only woman in the team, she did not know who to discuss the issue with. She had little choice but to put up with this kind of behaviour for the entire duration of the project. The project did get over, but the attention from the manager continued, via mails such as: "Why are you not talking to me?" Shah did not know how to deal with it, and chose to quit the organisation. Should she not have taken up the matter with her seniors?

 Top concerns of women

  • Discrimination in promotions
  • Biases in work allocation
  • Insensitivity to women issues such as maternity
  • Discrimination in salary hikes
"How do you distinguish early on that such behaviour is harassment," she asks. "Unless it is blatant, such behaviour is difficult to pinpoint." Anita Sharma, 29, worked in sales and marketing in an Ahmedabad-based company till early 2009. Five years in the organisation and in charge of a team, Sharma was all fired up and looking to climb the corporate ladder.

However, slowly but surely, she realised her work allocation was getting diluted, and her targets were being questioned. Sharma had little doubt that she was being sidelined. She approached her seniors, who gave her just one option: Move to a different department. Sharma instead chose to move to another organisation."These are the things you don't cope with. You confront them straight on or you get out. Getting out was my option," she says.

It's not just about groping and pinching, or crude jokes and confrontations around the coffee machine in testosterone-fuelled workplaces. All that constitutes harassment and bias of the worst kind - which is easier to pin down. What is not as easy to put a finger on is a boss who subtly hints that he wants sexual favours to guarantee a subordinate's professional progress - that is the boss who would take a junior out for dinner even as he fancies that junior as the dessert. And then there is the bias: Discrimination in hiring, promotions, work allocation, salary hikes and benefits; and insensitivity to gender-specific issues like, for instance, maternity in the case of women.

To be sure, corporate apartheid - not just in India Inc. but also in the developed world - exists wherever ambition does. And it cuts across gender: Males could be harassing and discriminating against males as well as against sexual minorities such as gays, lesbians and transsexuals.

Sorry stats of inequality

15% of all senior management positions in corporate India are held by women - this puts India in the bottom five globally

14 of the BSE Sensex 30 companies have at least one woman director

7 of the BSE Sensex 30 companies have at least one woman independent director

775* companies have at least one woman director

247 *companies have at least one woman independent director

5.3% of the 1,112 directorships on BSE-100 companies are held by women

2.5% of all executive director roles in BSE-100 companies are held by women

*Data available only for 86% of the 3,042 companies listed on the BSE. Sources: A Grant Thornton study cum survey, Prime Database, A Standard Chartered Bank-Community Business and Cranfield School of Management report

But doubtless it is the woman in the workplace who pays a high cost for her desire to scale the corporate ladder. "Corporate India will have to understand that sexual harassment is rampant and underreported. I don't think most companies even understand what the dignity of women is," says Delhi-based lawyer Vrinda Grover.

Naming those accused of misconduct against women in recent times - like Hewlett Packard's former CEO Mark Hurd and Penguin India's David Davidar, to name just two - will only serve to highlight that improper conduct, sexual harassment and bias against women are alive and kicking.

Yet, the reaction of most companies BT spoke to is that it either doesn't happen or even if it does it is no big deal. And therein lies the rub: at a time when more and more women are entering the workplace, very few are able to make it to the top echelons.

In fact, companies have one very good reason to curb harassment and bias. For, as the Hurd case proved in the United States, such issues that blow up - often out of proportion - hurt not just the harasser and the harassed but the company and its shareholders, too. Since Hurd was fired as CEO of HP in August, the stock has lost some 15 per cent, or $15 billion, in shareholder wealth.

What makes women particularly vulnerable is that they look up to the C-suite executives as mentors and guides. And most of the top brass are men. Just 15 per cent of all senior positions in corporate India are held by women. This puts India in the bottom five globally, according to a study by Grant Thornton, a consultancy.

Nirmala Menon, Founder & CEO, Interweave Consulting, an organisation that works with companies on diversity issues, says most organisations have their heads in the sand.

"Everybody thinks it does not happen in their organisation." The fact that the law is in a state of flux does not help. The Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill that has been in the making for six years is slated to come up before the Cabinet later this year. The Vishaka judgement (Vishaka and Others vs State of Rajasthan and Others - 1997) provides the basic definition of sexual harassment at the workplace.

You've been harassed if someone

  • Grabs, touches or pinches you
  • Demands or requests sexual favours (whether directly or by implication)
  • Passes sexually explicit remarks, etc.
  • Makes offensive gestures, kissing sounds, etc.
  • Shows you pornography
  • Makes any other physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature
  • Requests sexual favours in return for promotion or other benefits or threatens to sack you for non-cooperation
  • Makes intrusive inquiries into your private life or persistently asks you out
According to the Supreme Court, such behaviour "includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually-coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature".

Equally disappointing is the fact that society has gone on to accept gender discrimination as a way of life. The way women are portrayed in advertising, television soaps and on the silver screen may have a lot to do with the stereotypes that have been reinforced. A woman is seen either as a homemaker or a trouble maker, or as a seductress who can convince men to buy even cement - as long she is clad in a swimsuit (see Beyond Stereotypes, page 58). She can do all that but, for heaven's sake, the workplace is not meant for her - and certainly not the boardroom or the corner office.

Ambition in a woman is still considered perverse, freakish and even superfluous. At the same time, marriage, childbirth and being a caregiver to the elderly are looked upon as the biggest snags to climbing the corporate ladder. "Women do not go high in their careers because they make choices at these inflexion points. Which mother will not choose child over career?" asks Meera Sanyal, Country Executive, India, Royal Bank of Scotland.

A society fed on stereotypes - which inevitably find their way into workplace situations - can only change if efforts are made to educate and increase awareness. Sanjay Bhan, HR Director of India operations at Texas Instruments or TI, recalls an incident that took place in his company three years ago. A young male employee used to send mails expressing his love to a woman working with one of TI's contractors at another location. The woman was offended and she raised the issue.

While both companies deliberated the matter, the man was let off with a warning. "The guy came from a small town and had no clue that what he was doing amounted to unacceptable behaviour," says Bhan. The company, too, learned a lesson. New entrants in the company are put through a training programme to educate them on what amounts to harassment.

That is also a lesson for industries that hire in large numbers from smaller towns - or even those that hire from gender-imbalanced institutes like engineering colleges. Satish Agnihotri, Director General, Shipping, and a bureaucrat considered an expert on gender imbalance, explains that students from all-boys institutes will have adjustment issues in a genderdiverse workplace. To offset the discomfort, their behaviour borders on the aggressive.

When such attitudes prevail, merit goes out of the window especially when a woman is in the race for a role perceived to be the sole preserve of men. Says Ajeet N. Mathur, Professor in Strategy and International Business, and Chairperson, Gender Resource Centre, IIM Ahmedabad: "As a company director and a former HR head, I have come across many occasions when the best candidate available for a managerial position is a woman and there is reluctance amongst the senior team to appoint her." He cites the example of Dunlop in its heyday when men objected to recruiting women because "they would not be able to sell tyres at a roadside dhaba at midnight". And nothing could convince them that the number of tyres sold at roadside dhabas at midnight is near zero.

 Harassment is about Power and Mindsets, and Less about Sex: Girija Vyas

The National Commission of Women (NCW) has received 430 complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace since 2007, some of them in the form of distress calls to Chairperson Girija Vyas, whose cell phone number is on the NCW website. That is just the tip of the iceberg, says Vyas, in an interview to BT's Puja Mehra. Edited excerpts:

On the kind of cases that come from the corporate world
Mostly, they are from banks and airlines concerning women who are being forcefully terminated or transferred for not giving in to the sexual advances of male colleagues. Many women call me requesting action but refuse to register their cases for fear of retaliation at work. The bulk of the women suffer silently without ever coming out in the open. Our appeal to women is they should alert us at the very first instance and not after the male colleague begins to threaten them with transfers or terminations. Some of the cases become hard to prove as the complainants come to us so late that gathering evidence becomes difficult. Some companies then take the stand that the complaints are fabricated.

On whether companies are proactively working to prevent harassment
I find many companies have not set up the Internal Complaint Committees (ICC) stipulated by the Supreme Court. They are hurriedly patched together after a woman employee makes a complaint. That defeats the point. If an ICC is in place male employees will get the message that the company will not overlook misconduct. Harassment is more about power and mindsets and less about sex.

Mathur goes on to say that companies that fail to appreciate the virtues of diversity are more likely to perish in competitive circumstances - like Dunlop. "I am not attributing its collapse only to its all-male employee policy, but its lack of diversity in talent was certainly one of the reasons." Elsewhere, research done by Leeds University Business School concludes that having at least one female director reduces a company's chance of bankruptcy by 20 per cent. And 83 per cent of executives surveyed worldwide by Aziz Corporation, a United Kingdombased executive leadership consultancy, felt a dominant male culture was responsible for the global financial crisis.

That should be a wake-up call for business - global and Indian. Says Rajeev Dubey, President (Group HR & After Market) & Member of the Group Management Board, Mahindra & Mahindra: "We believe it is an advantage to have more women. We have observed that innovation is better. Often women bring with them points of view not expressed by men."

Most companies have a sexual harassment policy in place, but that is cold comfort when enforcement is weak. Of the 175 working women surveyed by BT-PeopleStrong, 80 per cent were aware that their companies had a sexual harassment policy, but an overwhelming 90 per cent felt that the policy was not being enforced.

What about the GLBTS?

India Inc. is insensitive to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, except for a few exceptions.

Women are by far the biggest targets of harassment and bias, but by no means the only ones. Dishing it out to subordinates can be construed as bullying, but there is a thin line that separates bullying and harassment. "Men harassing men is also being talked about across organisations. Any intimidating behaviour of one person against another qualifi es as harassment," says Nirmala Menon, Founder & CEO of InterWeave Consulting, an organisation that works with companies on diversity issues.

More than males harassing males, however, it's the lack of sensitivity to gender minorities in India Inc. that is a huge area of concern. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, or GLBTs, as they are known, do not exist for corporate India. If they do not have a policy to address issues of GLBTs, it's simply because they are not mandated to do so.

There are stray signs of activity on this front. Menon, for instance, recently started work on a gender diversity module that caters to GLBTs. And a few companies have begun to train their workforce on showing sensitivity to GLBTs. IBM India is one such company. It put in place an initiative after Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was partially repealed last year by the Delhi High Court, which criminalised sexual activity between members of the same sex. When IBM has GLBT executives coming from the major markets, interactions and sessions are held on how the company can leverage their talent. "These sessions are used to educate managers in sensitivity", says Kalpana Veeraraghavan, India Diversity Manager, IBM India.

IBM has a network group on GLBT but the company does not disclose numbers. The group works around issues that this set of minorities faces. "The network is pretty small, but one does not have to be G, L, B or T to be a part of the group. At the moment, we have 4-5 straight allies supporting this group," says Veeraraghavan. Besides, all people managers at the company are trained in GLBT etiquette and the practice that all opportunities are based on meritocracy. That's a start.

GLBT Etiquette @ IBM India

Use inclusive language. Rather than just saying "your spouse," say "your spouse or partner"

  • Host roundtables with GLBT employees to learn more about them and listen to their ideas
  • Strongly address any kind of harassment of GLBT employees and use appropriate mechanisms for immediate redress
  • Act against unwarranted behaviour such as off-colour jokes, graffiti, etc. on the GLBT community in the workplace
  • Encourage peers and others to support the GLBT community. In IBM, there is a GLBT "merit badge" that employees can wear to signify that they are GLBT allies

The silver lining is that "corporate India is increasingly becoming conscious of female talent and their role in organisational growth," says C.G. Srividya, Partner, Grant Thornton, India.

"Companies are beginning to understand that a glass ceiling is detrimental and has to disappear over time." Every such ceiling that shatters will convince more women to enter the workplace. And if more women enter the workplace, the higher are their chances of climbing the ladder and reaching a position to mentor their female subordinates.

Read In Good Company to find out how Indian companies that have recognised the twin problems of harassment and discrimination are creating more womenfriendly workplaces.

(Names of people who have spoken out about sexual harassment and gender bias have been changed to protect their identities.)

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