Around the first anniversary of the #MeToo movement, which took the US by storm, India too had its #MeToo moment last week with a barrage of allegations against several well-known personalities that is still making headlines. Are a lot of men squirming in their seats remembering past indiscretions and wondering if and when they will get caught out? Many of the alleged perpetrators have gone or been sent on leave and organisations are quickly waking up to dust sexual harassment policies out of the bottom drawer and refocus on training their employees. Will it make a big difference to the gender power imbalance, which is the root of this malaise? Only time will tell.
In the meanwhile, let's talk about the actions, since they really do speak louder than words, that the corporate world has been taking to addressing issues around sexual harassment in the workplace, ever since the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. This Act, which took about sixteen years to be enforced post the Supreme Court verdict in the Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan case, brought about a procedural change within organisations in India with a clearly outlined mandate on how to create robust mechanisms to address such issues.
While most companies ensured compliance from a tick in the box standpoint, I believe many also overlooked the real spirit of the law. Due processes were put in place, internal complaint committees (ICCs) were set up, and training were conducted for all employees to clearly outline what constituted sexual harassment and the redressal mechanisms thereof. However, for any policy or initiative to be truly effective, it requires a massive shift in the attitude of all stakeholders whether it is Swachh Bharat or Prevention of Sexual Harassment. And, I think that is where #MeToo will have the maximum impact.
Over the years, I believe that the organisations that set up POSH mechanisms, have followed the mandated protocol and seen to it that complaints are addressed appropriately; i.e. investigated by the ICC, escalated to the organisations' boards, and subsequent and necessary action has been taken. During these endeavours, they have also unfortunately unearthed a few complaints that have been found to be malicious. Some women may have misrepresented situations, with intent to malign the image of their male colleagues/bosses due to perceived inequality in other work areas.
While I'm sure that all registered complaints have been taken up in accordance with the law, the more relevant question is -- have all such misdemeanours been brought to the notice of the organisation? I am quite sure they haven't. In many cases, women would have been too fearful to complain, and in some cases, they may have been actively discouraged from complaining. So, how do organisations uphold the law in both spirit and form? What can they do to ensure women are treated as equal professionals and colleagues by men, so they feel safe in the organisation? How can they encourage a collaborative environment, where women do not encounter the male gaze as either patronising or sleazy?
The biggest service the #MeToo outrage has done (and will continue to do, provided it doesn't lose steam), is to bring this conversation to the fore; right up to the centre of the room. These are not hushed whispers in the corridor or gossip at the water cooler any longer, but loud, deafening noises being made, public and pervasive. And about time too! The feminine voice has been shushed and suppressed to a frequency that has been disregarded by the human ear for far too long. And what's not heard is not seen!
To ensure a wrong is redressed, it must be voiced and acknowledged first. And in the #MeToo era, organisations have no choice but to hear complaints internally and quickly, because if they don't, there is a large public platform now waiting, which will ensure they are heard. The reputational risk for the organisation can be colossal and irreversible and that fear itself will ensure far more diligence, which is a big win for gender equality.
The second and equally impressive victory of #MeToo has been emboldening women to stand up and complain. Many women have borne the brunt without being vocal about these issues, given that approximately 90 per cent of senior leaders in most organisations are male and have consistently operated within the narrow regime of patriarchal mind sets. The historical baggage of being seen as playthings, and the immense pressure of being a 'sport' just to fit into a fundamentally male culture, has made women wary of complaining -- despite the organisation creating avenues for them to do so. In fact, many women who knew about the oppressors tell me that the reason why these complaints have taken so many years to surface is precisely because the environment in those days was completely unconducive to even making a fuss!
Post #MeToo, I sincerely hope genuine complaints will be voiced speedily and just as swiftly addressed, and women continue to find courage under the aegis of #MeToo to shed all apprehensions and speak out boldly and fearlessly!
Thirdly and finally, the unassailable and enduring way to ensure equality and fairness for women in the workforce is simply to have more women in the workforce. The more women present within all levels; entry, middle and at the top, and the more women there are in all fields and industries, the more their voice will gather strength and provide an impetus to the gender equality agenda. By staying in the workforce and by being visible in public domains, we women add our voice to the chorus that forms opinions and becomes the basis for social action. Remember, the wisdom of the crowd always prevails. It is up to us to ensure we are a significant percentage of that crowd! Stay in the game always and stand up to be counted whenever the situation demands.
(The writer is President of Jagran Prakashan Ltd)
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