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A year since #MeToo: What has been done is #TooLittle

An analysis of the BSE 100 companies reveals that there has been a 14% increase in the number of complaints in 2018-19, compared with the previous year.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Oct 10, 2019, 12.44 PM IST
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In publicly listed companies there has been an overall rise in complaints.
It was October 2017 in the US. It was October 2018 in India. Both marked the beginning of a rallying cry against the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and, it was hoped, the end of years of silence over it. Some spoke out in the hope of justice, some in the hope of being heard and some in solidarity. In India last October, the hashtag #MeToo on social media became a scream, a semaphore, as women shared their experiences of being sexually harassed at the workplace by supervisors, colleagues or people they met in the course of earning their livelihood.

It was a time of tumult but it also held out hope. The silence was shattered, to some extent. But what has been won and lost? For a year is a long time in the course of a movement. Conversations with lawyers, company representatives, HR consultants and activists reveal that though the Me Too movement has increased awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment at work and the redress measures available, challenges remain.

When the Me Too movement took off in India, after actor Tanushree Dutta and comedian Mahima Kukreja shared their experiences of harassment, it stirred companies into action. “I saw hyper-alertness across corporate India. It definitely jolted a lot of them,” says Rituparna Chakraborty, cofounder of TeamLease Services, one of India’s largest staffing companies.

This translated into a rush to comply with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, also known as the POSH law, which mandates offices with more than 10 employees to have an internal complaints committee (ICC), among other things. Delhi-based lawyer Sonal Mattoo, who is on the ICC of several organisations (including BCCL, which publishes ET Magazine), says there was a focus on doing sessions with small groups of women, getting their feedback on issues they faced while raising complaints and reassuring them of support. Fearing their brand would get singed by an accusation, many organisations undertook detailed due diligence of every leadership profile and encouraged self-reporting.

It saw a spike in complaints in the months that followed. “The majority of them turned out to be spot on. I was pleasantly surprised that the ones who had cases had the courage to come and speak out against very senior people, whom, they felt, the organisation might protect. The organisations also stepped up,” says Mattoo.

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Data bears this out. An analysis of the BSE 100 companies by consultancy ComplyKaro Services reveals that there has been a 14% increase in the number of complaints in 2018-19, compared with the previous year. “Because of the #MeToo movement, organisations are doing more, fearing reputational risk. People now know that if women don’t have a choice, they might speak out on social media or go to the police. And because companies are doing more, women are more confident in approaching the ICC,” says Vishal Kedia, director of ComplyKaro. The year also saw the biggest rise in complaints with the National Commission for Women — from 570 in 2017 to 965 in 2018.
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This sense of empowerment was evident in new employees as well, says lawyer Amba Salelkar, cofounder of Paarvai Advisors. “Often new recruits are targeted because they are in a vulnerable situation. They are now very forthright about asking where they can go to raise a complaint.” Some organisations have gone beyond what the law mandates, putting in place gender-neutral policies against harassment, and rules against same-sex harassment, says Kalpana Tatavarti, founder of Parity Consulting, which advises companies on building safe and inclusive workplaces. “These organisations, which are setting benchmarks on implementing the law, do so in spirit and intent, not just in letter. In one case, while discussing interim relief for a complainant while the investigation was going on, the organisation accommodated her in their guest house with security, since she was living alone and expressed fears about her safety. They supported her till she found a new accommodation. This is way beyond the interim relief outlined by the act.”

Among the industries that saw several women speak out against men in power who had allegedly abused them was cinema. There is a shift in how the industry views harassment, says actor and filmmaker Revathy, a founding member of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), set up earlier in Kerala. “The industry used to be very complacent about it, with most people feeling that these things happen. Now, that attitude is changing. And that’s big,” she says. Some independent and corporate production houses in Kerala have set up ICCs, and WCC itself is positioning itself as a forum where women can find support, she says.

“You need a particular standing in the film industry to be heard. At WCC, we would like to provide a voice to those who are not heard and work with them, whether it’s counselling or anything else,” she adds.

The Backlash
Discouragingly, there has been a backlash against women who spoke out. Both actor Parvathy and singer Chinmayi Sripada have spoken about how work has reduced in the wake of their public statements against harassment. There have also been defamation suits filed against women, from former Union minister MJ Akbar, who is suing journalist Priya Ramani, to Tamil director Susi Ganesan, who has filed a case against screenwriter and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai. The latest is artist Subodh Gupta, who has filed a suit in the Delhi High Court and sought Rs 5 crore as damages from anonymous Instagram handle @ herdsceneand, which had shared an accusation of harassment against him.

Big Concerns
In publicly listed companies, while there has been an overall rise in complaints, the data on the BSE 100 also threw up two trends that are of concern. One is the increase in pendency, or the time taken to resolve cases. While the law allows 90 days for resolution, ComplyKaro’s Kedia says there is no reason to stretch it for a long time. “The delay is possibly because the company is not treating complaints with urgency. Tomorrow, if a woman believes she has got justice in five days, more women will come forward because they know redress will be prompt,” says Kedia.

The data also shows that 14 companies employing thousands of people have reported no case of sexual harassment since 2015-16. “Whenever an organisation tells me they have never had a single case, my antenna goes up. What we like to see is more complaints, because sexual harassment is a reality, and when cases are raised it means the employees have trust in the organisation’s ICC,” says Tatavarti.
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Globally, studies estimate that anywhere from two to eight of ten women experience sexual harassment at work in their lifetime. The very narrative that disclosing a high number of complaints reflects badly on a company needs to change, say experts. Kedia gives the example of an MNC employing over 11,000 people. “When a new Asia-Pacific head took over, he felt that getting only one complaint meant that either women were not aware of the internal redress mechanism or they were not comfortable coming forward to make a complaint.” He undertook a series of interventions, including sensitisation sessions, which led to a spike in the number of complaints. An increase in complaints just means women are comfortable in an organisation to raise a complaint, says Kedia.

Among the BSE 100, IT major Wipro, which employs over 1.7 lakh people, saw the highest increase in complaints, year-on-year. “The data reflects increasing awareness and greater conviction in the organisation’s process to be able to address these concerns,” says Wipro Limited, in an emailed response.

In the US, where the #MeToo movement took the country by storm two years ago, the fallout has troublingly included a reluctance to hire women and mentor them. A study by a group at the University of Houston, published in the Harvard Business Review, reported that 56% of the women they surveyed felt that men would continue to harass but take more precautions against getting caught. More than 10% of men and women said they thought they would be less willing than earlier to hire attractive women. Close to 60% of men felt that men would have greater fears of being unfairly accused.

Similar data is not available in India but anecdotal evidence suggests concerns here, too, although there might be no visible dip in recruitment of women. “HR departments in companies, especially MNCs, have a diversity quota while hiring. But today, managers have become much more cautious in how they deal with women colleagues,” says Kris Lakshmikanth, CEO of Headhunters India. This includes a reluctance to travel alone in a lift with a female colleague and keeping cabin doors open in office, according to him.

Consultants say in India, too, the fear of being falsely accused has become more pronounced among male executives. “In every session, the first question I am asked is about false complaints,” says Tatavarti. She usually addresses this by highlighting the mechanisms that are in place in the act to deter false complaints. “We must also remember that women step forward to lodge a complaint only when they realise their career is at risk, and they have no choice. Statistics show that 75% women who are harassed don’t raise a complaint. Let’s focus on this missing 75% to get justice,” she says.

There are also concerns about the impact on the accused, since there is a lot of media attention on the cases. “In our experience, a lot of women don’t want to come forward as they don’t want the guilt of being the reason for someone losing their job. You need that balance of giving people the confidence that they will be heard and understood. Navigating the space is extremely complex,” says Salelkar. Last December, executives at services outsourcing firm Genpact were served a notice by the UP Police after an FIR was filed by the wife of an assistant vice-president, accused of sexual harassment, who died by suicide.
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In sectors employing blue-collar workers, even less has changed. In the garment industry in Bengaluru, for example, which employs over 5 lakh workers, 80% of whom are women, activists say internal complaints committees overwhelmingly side with the management.

“In one case, where a woman complained of harassment, she had to face a committee of 50 people, mostly men. They came out with a report saying the complaint was false, though the victim was never called to explain her side,” says Lekha Adavi, an advocate with Alternative Law Forum.

Many feel the law needs several amendments. Says lawyer and activist Flavia Agnes: “The Women’s Commission had held consultations and we gave many suggestions. But nothing happened.” One of the lacunae they point out is the three-month limit from the date of the incident to filing a complaint. “I don’t think a delay in reporting should be an impediment. A lot of people don’t understand that the responsibility of the organisation doesn’t last only for a three-month window. If an incident has happened, you should take it up whenever it’s brought to your attention, under your code of conduct,” says Mattoo.

Most importantly, workplaces need to stop looking at prevention of sexual harassment as one more box to tick in the long list of rules they have to comply with. “The question you need to ask is, if you don’t feel safe at work, would you file a complaint? If not, why?” asks Salelkar.

Also Read

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Authors Olga Tokarczuk & Peter Handke win Nobel Literature Prize after 2018 #MeToo scandal

#MeToo: Rape case filed against actor-producer Aditya Pancholi

#MeToo fallout: Men more likely to victim-blame women, show empathy for perpetrators in sexual harassment cases

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