She Speaks is an original Shenomics’ series of dialogues between leading women from various disciplines on relevant issues pertaining to professional women in India. Disclaimer: All views contained in this article represent the individual’s personal views, and not those of any organization with which they might be affiliated.
Sexual harassment is a serious concern at the workplace in India. A survey by the Indian National Bar Association (INBA) conducted in early 2017 found that of the 6,047 participants (both male and female), 38% said they had faced harassment at the workplace. Of these, 69% did not complain about it, as cited by a report by digital news portal Quartz. In 2013, the Rajya Sabha passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, making it mandatory for companies to institute an Internal Complaints committee (IC) to handle complaints from employees, as well as conduct trainings frequently.
Antony Alex, CEO of Rainmaker, a startup that has developed e-training modules on sexual harassment for companies and Asha Sivashankar, an independent Human Resource consultant shed light on corporate India’s stand on the matter in a freewheeling chat moderated by Shonali Advani.
How awakened is corporate India with respect to sexual harassment at the workplace?
Asha Sivashankar: I was working with human resources from 2013 – 2016 and this was a critical time when the PoSH Act gained prominence. We implemented policies with great vigor in our organization. As a staffing company we had people deployed all over and to whatever extent I interacted with those companies, most being large ones, I saw they had basics in place; some kind of a policy and an internal complaints committee. Whether they were training people or reporting cases the way it needed to be done, I can’t comment on.
Antony Alex: In our experience, as a startup that helps companies comply with the law, medium to large companies have done whatever it takes from a ‘check the box’ perspective. Large corporates are fully in compliance. Unfortunately, there are very few companies taking genuine steps to sensitize the workforce. I think corporate India needs to do a lot more to crack down on it. They don’t want to do more or spend much cash on it either. All the messaging needs to happen in a more vigorous fashion.
Asha: If you look at some cases in India as well as Uber, you are beginning to see a theme there.
Antony: Sexual harassment is rampant. The only good thing now is that what went unchecked or not in media is changing. We are seeing a lot of publicity around it thanks to social media as well.
What is driving companies to take action? Is it because there is a law or is there a genuine need to take baby steps?
Asha: To some extent it is the standards of leadership. There are some non-negotiables. In the center of all this is an element of justice. It has to be done. I personally feel it has a lot to do with the way top down leadership approaches it.
Antony: I agree. If top management, CEOs, and CXOs feel strongly about this issue then the culture is set right at the top, which percolates down with a positive impact. Also, companies are realizing sexual harassment can have a negative impact not only from a manpower or resource perspective but also from a point of view of bad press. More companies want to put a system and process in place, so if an incident happens, they can deal with the complaint.
Asha: I agree. The process and everything in place is a safety net for organizations. The manner in which trainings happen, and the examples given to employees, is important too. There is a fine line between friendly banter and what can cross the line. Sometimes it’s unintentional. That additional level of sensitization across levels needs to happen. The onus rests on human resource departments at organizations.
How easy or difficult is it to implement the law?
Antony: Implementation is the main challenge. The main question with implementing is how seriously is the IC taking these cases. For instance, the IC can deal with a case softly if his/ her boss is in the middle of a complaint. The IC structure doesn’t have any oversight by an independent judicial body. That’s where the real challenge is. There have been places where things have been compromised, and they go with what the management wants.
Asha: In a real time situation, where the IC has to go through an investigation we have seen complications where an employee on our roll would complain against an employee on a client’s roll. IC members don’t have the time to cope or don’t know how to handle documentation with all this.
Antony: Also, the training of IC members is a challenge. Either, they don’t have the right background or are not trained in investigation techniques, drafting the order et al. All this is critical for an IC to function properly.
Are the laws comprehensive enough?
Antony: The law can be made better. However, it is a step in the right direction as it enables organizations to take a step forward.
Asha: We don’t have enough research actually to see to what extent it has been implemented. To see if it’s augmenting into something positive, we need to do some research on it.
Is the burden on women to prove the harassment?
Antony: The law is clear that if a woman feels harassed it is a case of harassment. The IC has a quasi judicial function. So it has to go by the evidence in front of it. Typically, in a situation where there is no evidence, it becomes hard for an IC to prove the case. At best, they will give the respondent a rap on the knuckles. Also, harassers are becoming smarter and many don’t leave an electronic trail of evidence. Harassment happens behind closed doors in a cabin, where it is one person’s word against the other. Now people surreptitiously record instances on their mobiles and that becomes evidence for an IC. Technology has enabled people to get smart.
Asha: I’ve also had situations where an employee said, “I deleted a message because I was ashamed.” Later they regretted and said, “I wish I hadn’t.” Like Antony said, it’s my word against theirs. But it does give harassers a jolt. I remember an incident where a person involved in a case was stressed. Later everyone said he become a better person after it.
Antony: Many men don’t know what is acceptable behavior. We need to train people and create sensitivity around the issue.
Asha: At my previous organization, we had a young crowd: they were first-time jobbers. They needed a high level of counseling. The other challenge we faced was general harassment – around performance or other queries. We had to do quite a bit of training to our staff, to be able to segregate complaints and identify ones with sexual content.
Any anecdotal examples of how protected women feel?
Asha: At large organizations it is multiple things- safety inside and outside the office, if you provide them with transport and other security measures. Overall, in the last three years I’ve got a lot of positive feedback from women, and some suggestions too.
Antony: At companies, where we’ve rolled out Worksafe, our online training modules, we have women employees writing in saying they feel more empowered. After the law was passed, many women didn’t know there was a law for their protection. They also realized they need not keep quiet and that there’s something working in their favor. Men need to know about the law too and where to draw a line. From that perspective women are feeling more secure.
Are you seeing a lot of false complaints? Are men and women mis-using the law?
Antony: Like all laws designed to protect women, this one is no exception. The statistics are similar.
Here are some links to resources that will be of help to anyone who wants to learn more about the laws in place for sexual harassment at the workplace:
- Handbook on Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace
- Sexual Harassment – The Law in India
- 20 Laws Against Sexual Harassment Most Indians Don’t Know About
About the Authors
Shonali Advani is a trained journalist, having worked previously with leading publications such as the Economic Times and the Entrepreneur magazine. She is now a freelance writer and startup consultant. When not working, she is dreaming up her next travel destination.
Bhavna Toor is the Founder and CEO of Shenomics, a Mindful Leadership platform for aspiring women. She helps women realize their highest professional aspirations, and believes in daring greatly, leading boldly and living mindfully.