By Ila Ananya
Just before I began my final year in a college in Bangalore, we third year students were forced to attend a two-day Human Resource Development (HRD) workshop that claimed to be preparing us for the real world when we got our degrees. I’m not sure what sessions on god-is-great and abortion-is-bad had to do with my career, but there was one session on sexual harassment at the workplace by a man whose name I can’t remember now.
Here are some things I learnt at the session:
1. Sexual harassment at the workplace is not a real thing.
2. Men must be careful so that they aren’t “misunderstood” by women because women always want to misunderstand men.
3. Men “suffered” consequences like getting fired if they did things that are considered harassment. Also, the reason they shouldn’t harass women is that if they get fired, they’ll find it hard to get another job.
4. Most importantly, there are ways to “avoid” being penalised for sexual harassment at the workplace.
Now, every time I read news about women who have complained of sexual harassment against their colleagues, it seems like everybody has been taught these things in their colleges by these same uncles who claim they have a lot of experience. So when the Indian National Bar Association (INBA) published unsettling but not altogether surprising results of its survey on sexual harassment at the workplace, I began to feel like this theory was mostly confirmed. If college students can be taught not to take either the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition Redressal) Act 2013, or sexual harassment itself seriously, it’s no wonder that our institutions have constantly been protecting men who harass women.
Surveying 6,047 participants, the INBA found that of the 38 per cent who said they had faced sexual harassment at the workplace, a whopping 68.9 per cent said they didn’t complain about it. The reasons, the respondents said, were fear, embarrassment, lack of confidence in the complaints mechanism, fear of retaliation or repercussions, and the company’s sympathy with offenders because of past mutual understanding. In cases when respondents did complain to their respective Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) these fears were only confirmed — 65.2 per cent said that protocol wasn’t followed.
On December 28, 2016, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) issued fresh guidelines about sexual harassment of women at the workplace. According to these, enquiries into sexual harassment complaints must be completed in 30 days, and all departments and ministries are required to submit a monthly report on each of these complaints to the Ministry of Women and Child Development so that their progress can be monitored. The results of the INBA study, which came just a few days after this announcement, only made it clear that stricter guidelines are necessary.
Every case of sexual harassment at the workplace that gets reported in the media has only been an affirmation of the INBA’s findings.
Perhaps Arun Jaitley, Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, was taught the same things I was taught in college. In December 2015, when Maneka Gandhi, Union Women and Child Development Minister, announced that all companies must disclose whether they have a committee to deal with sexual harassment complaints, Jaitley felt, ayyo paapa, why should we trouble companies to enact this? Now, in November 2016 for instance, we learnt again that there are ways for men to avoid being penalised for sexual harassment at the workplace.
This time the reminder came from a woman’s resignation letter that became public a year after it was written. Addressed to then Tata Group Chairperson Cyrus Mistry, the letter complained about sexual harassment by Indian Hotels CEO Rakesh Sarna. The woman wrote that when she complained to the senior management at Tata Sons (including Mistry) about the sexual harassment, she was moved from her job at the Taj, away from Sarna. She was sent to what Mistry promised would be a six-month arrangement with the Corporate Communications team at Tata, before her career was brought back on track. In her resignation letter, she wrote, “I do not see the reason why it [her career] should be taken off-track considering my high performances in my last roles and my choice of discretion. Also, I do not have any tangible proof this will happen.”
In this case too, like in the case of RK Pachauri at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who sexually harassed several junior women colleagues, the procedure was infuriatingly handled at every level. When the woman executive first complained against Sarna, for instance, an enquiry was not set up though it should have been done immediately. In Pachauri’s case, not only did TERI’s ICC find Pachauri guilty and make recommendations that were not implemented (although they didn’t ask her if she wanted to file a case), The Caravan’s cover story Hostile Climate also showed that TERI’s workplace had enabled Pachauri’s behaviour.
In another instance, it took Rina Mukherji 10 long years of fighting a case of sexual harassment against her colleague Ishan Joshi at The Statesman. Her complaint against Joshi hadn’t been investigated — instead, she was fired from her job in 2002 for making the complaint, and Joshi was promoted to a higher position. The situation is no different for students in colleges, where if the ICC is miraculously present, it either only denies harassment, or says that since it was not rape, all is fine.
At every stage, companies have conveniently turned tail from actually dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace. The government has tried to make provisions like transferring the accused to another department — although in Sarna’s case it was the complainant who was transferred — in the same way that new guidelines have tried to give women who have faced sexual harassment 90 days of paid leave. While these might be well intentioned, there have been no attempts at actually dealing with any of the problems that became evident in the cases of Sarna, Pachauri, Joshi, or the many other men. Until there are actual attempts at dealing with these problems, we will live with fantasies about men having their toys taken away from them in sexual harassment cases, such as in the case of yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, ordered to give up his empire and his fleet of luxury cars to his former lawyer, Minakshi Jaffa-Bodden, who had filed the complaint against him.
Co-published with Firstpost.