By Nandini V
In the recent past (like every day, honestly), there have been innumerable conversations around workplace harassment, Vishakha guidelines, the TVF response to the sexual harassment allegations. These conversations have carried over from the internet to our homes, our workplaces, amidst friends, colleagues and family.
I work at Urban Ladder in Bangalore with a fully functioning ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) and a fairly friendly work culture towards women, and employees in general. This Women’s Day, we decided to do away with tokenism. And I’m quite happy and proud in a way that the women in the organisation took this call instead of consulting any specific person/body. We just decided to sit together, have an uninhibited chat on our fears, concerns, our managers, our teams, the organisation or our joys and privileges. Each of us is now taking a pledge to work on our fears, pick a challenge and identify a friend/colleague who will hold us accountable. And for several of us, it is the men we work with. We also plan to hold regular status meetings to check where we go with this.
Some questions that came up in these conversations: How do we have a better structure around this? How do we formalise this activity, have more of us open up, take up challenges and not limit ourselves? How can the organisation help; how can our male colleagues help?
Several women spoke of how they’d like us to have more gender conversations, both with men and women. Some of us also narrated instances of when we’d spoken up and gotten ridiculed. Or, how frustrating it had been to listen to joke after joke on our internal WhatsApp groups. That set me thinking.
Can the ICC in organisations like ours do a lot more than just evaluate particular cases of sexual harassment that come to their notice?
The answer, I’ve realised, is a resounding yes.
We set up the ICC a little later than we should have. The underlying assumption (and was true to a large extent) was that ‘yeh hamaare office mein nahin ho sakta’. The truth, however, is different. We got caught up with growing the business, establishing the brand, making our customers happy that we forgot one of the most important tenets of our business: doing the right thing in any situation (usually involving the business and customers, but includes our employees too). No excuse, honestly. Gender issues and systems to fix these should be hygiene in any society/workplace. We missed doing that, and our first learning was to acknowledge that we do need a body like the ICC, irrespective of whether the law mandates it or not.
The first challenge that most organisations face is institutionalisation of a body like the ICC. It isn’t usually considered important, or even necessary. If you work in an organisation with more than 10 people, raise your voice, ask for a body to be set up. The law demands that. One would assume that setting up the ICC per the law is more than enough to ensure gender parity in your workplace. Let me just say that we’ve realised that this is just the beginning.
For the ICC itself, pick employees who listen, who try to solve problems objectively and those who genuinely care for their colleagues and have a deep sense of what’s fair. Thankfully, this wasn’t a hurdle for us.
The challenge really lies in engaging on gender issues. In most organisations, including ours (until now!), the ICC was involved only in evaluating cases of sexual harassment that are brought to notice. It isn’t enough. Engaging with employees and evangelising gender parity should be the goal of ICCs.
Here are my learnings after being on the committee since it was instituted:
1. One-time training isn’t enough to drive the message around prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. We need to continue reiterating the message again and again. Role plays, workshops, lectures, quick huddles within teams—whatever works. Hold refreshers on a frequent basis to ensure that the message is internalised.
2. Make this conversation/training a part of the induction training. We are planning to. That way, no new employee is missed out, and it becomes a part of your organisation’s culture, brand and values. If you genuinely want to ensure that the women in your organisation feel safe, secure and happy, this shouldn’t just be a tick off on the to-do list for the HR team, but something that the leadership should be involved in and push for.
3. Start with the top. Sensitise your entire leadership team (not just the top leadership, but anyone managing people/functions) beyond just the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Guidelines. Consent, casual sexism, every day stereotyping are all important topics to address with this group.
4. Evangelise gender conversations, don’t limit the ICC team to handle only sexual harassment. Empower them to be strong voices in all gender-related conversations, so that more and more women feel comfortable to report any issues.
5. Identify more women across all levels to create a circle of trust, an actively participating sisterhood that will speak up, stand up for each other. In our organisation, we are looking to set up a process to have women check in with each other on a regular basis to ensure no decision/no event is making our women employees uncomfortable. The goal is to encourage women to report to the ICC than just accept it as something normal. Harassment isn’t normal.
In an effort in this direction, for the first time, we are putting together a plan at Urban Ladder; a plan, much like a business plan or an Annual Operating Plan to address gender issues. We want to identify milestones to achieve with strict timelines, an index to determine the organisation’s health in terms of gender issues. It is very clear for us at Urban Ladder that building an organisation’s culture without inclusiveness or gender parity will not make us a successful business. The goal of the ICC is to step up and go beyond the guidelines outlined and make the gender metric (for the lack of a better phrase) as important as any business metric within the organisation.
We’ve just started and we are bullish about this. Do send your feedback on how we can do this well, or if you’ve done this in your organisation, spam me with pro tips, concerns or dissenting opinions so we can do better at this. We might lose some battles along the way, but the war is yet to be won.
Photo Courtesy Nandini V
Nandini leads Customer Experience and Service Quality at Urban Ladder. Apart from that, she makes people think twice before cracking a sexist joke in front of her.