Saumya Bhattacharya & Puja Mehra September 29, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)