Workplaces

Why is Corporate India Silent on the #MeToo Movement?

Binding work contracts, the stigma of being called a 'rabble-rouser', disappointment by historical legal action, and merely the company of fewer women at the top - these are just a few reasons why the wave of #metoo is still not hitting corporate India hard enough.
Why is Corporate India Silent on the #MeToo Movement?
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Artists and the Bollywood industry were the ones to initiate it. Journalists and the media industry have spoken.  Authors from the Indian publishing industry have raised their voices. Politicians have been attacked. But one industry is silent and no big names are taken. No women from multinationals, nor small-scale startups have come out in the recent revival of the #metoo movement in India.

While there are no cases from corporate India to talk about, which add to this domino effect in the rebirth of the  #metoo movement in India recently, statistics tell us a different story. Many reports including one by E&Y says that 38 per cent of women face sexual harassment at workplaces, with the IT sector and Banking topping the list. On the other hand, as many as 70 per cent of women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared the repercussions, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association in 2017. So why are these women in Corporate India not speaking up? What's holding them back? What will it take for us to hear their voices? Here is a look.

Corporates are closed setups with binding work contracts

Nikita Rana, a former Journalist who later worked in the Indian corporate sector for years says, “Many of the journalists who've put their name to the #metoo allegations are freelance or independent, not bound by the contracts of a company. Most joining contracts don't permit you to say anything negative against the company in the public domain. And if you do it anonymously, as it happened in the case of Suresh Rangarajan of Tata Motors, there's a chance that the company will find it difficult to investigate.” This means that most voices never go out of the four walls in a corporate and are guarded by strict policies and attempts to “hush” the matter.  

The only news heard in the last week was a tweet when a former colleague levelled sexual harassment charges against Tata Motors Corporate Communication head Suresh Rangarajan, who has previously worked in Vodafone, Nissan Motors and Niira Radia’s Vaishnavi Communications. In response, Tata motors tweeted, “In light of the enquiry by ICC, Suresh Rangarajan has been asked to proceed on leave in order to allow for an objective enquiry to be completed as swiftly as possible.”

Rohn Malhotra, a start-up founder who exited his first company and is now mentoring and consulting with startups says,  “Professions which are frontline facing, by that I mean more connected to media, such as films, sports, media, journalism etc, vs fields which are not in the public eye as much, such as politics and business  have different dynamics. Women, perhaps, in industries closer to media are more confident about the results of coming out. They are also more likely to get solidarity. With corporates and politics, if one woman steps out, does she have confidence that others will and that she will get support? I don't think so.”

Labelling as “troublemakers” in professional circles

Sairee Chahal, Founder and CEO of SHEROES (a women's community platform)  brings it back to the  “conditioning” of women from the very beginning. She says, ”Our earliest coaching is to bear it. Tolerate it. Don't be a rabble-rouser. Don't make trouble. We are trained to adjust. And it is hard to gauge how much to adjust. Where are the boundaries?” Many women in India are still the first-generation in their families to have joined the workforce and they do not want to also be the ‘first ones’ who found it difficult to work in a male-dominated corporate setup.

Tina Nayak, a Berlin-based independent consultant who has worked in the Indian startup industry in leadership roles states, “The fight to climb up the corporate ladder in India is even more aggressive, intimidating and exhausting. Women representation in senior management roles is only between 2-5 per cent and would maybe be 10 per cent in optimistic scenarios.  As a mother, I have to balance work with home and then find the time to upskill to stay focused without compromising on my ambition. I have to work ten times harder than my male counterparts to stay sharp and noticed. When you have comments passed at you, it’s easier to let it go than to put up a fight. It’s not worth my time, plus what’s the point.”

Rana adds that the fear of one's livelihood is threatened and reputation being maligned are the greatest for survivors. In corporate India, where women are a minority from entry-level to the boardroom, many would think it's just not worth it to stand up to harassment. You'd rather just pay your bills and get by.

No awareness of the available support

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013 holds Indian workplaces liable for sexual harassment and prescribes a system for investigating and redressing complaints. Employers must create committees that are at least 50 per cent women, presided over by a woman, and with one external expert, to process complaints. However, the E&Y report says that 69 per cent of the respondents in their sexual harassment survey had constituted ICCs in their organizations after the enactment of the Act. However, 18 per cent of respondents had not done so, despite there being a lapse of over a year from notification of the Act, and 13 per cent were still in the process of setting them up. Non-compliance among Indian companies was higher compared to the average – 36 per cent had not constituted ICCs or were in the process. MNCs were marginally better, standing at 25per cent.

Most women at senior levels are unaware of their rights as Tina says “ ‘I don’t know if I will get support within my workplace from both women and men. Will your workplace be action-oriented? What causes did you sign your work contract? Women have to be aware of these facts.”

Another unawareness, according to Sairee, is the question of what constitutes abuse and harassment?  “In so many women coming out, so many of us took years to recognise what constitutes abuse. Recognising, knowing, understanding harassment, especially in situations where one has a close relationship - work, family, etc., is difficult. These things are not talked about and it's something most of us pick up along the way and form our own worldview," she says.

Fear of future unemployment

Malhotra feels that inherently there is more to lose potentially for a woman coming out in industries like politics or the corporate sector. Those in media facing industries, while being in the public eye, could still establish themselves as a figurehead and build a life in media. It’s the same reason there isn't as much corporate whistleblowing but happens so much more in other fields. “Once you've burnt bridges with corporates, I don't know if you can go back,” he says.

Ankur Warikoo, Founder, nearbuy, resonates “I think it’s maybe because the corporate play is a multiplayer repeat play game. One’s reputation carries a lot of weight for the next set of games you will play.  And the implied repercussions of #metoo will, unfortunately, give women the impression that it will be tough for them going forward.“

Historical judgements don't give confidence to women

In the last one year, names like angel investor Mahesh Murthy and TVF founder Arunabh Kumar have been accused of sexual harassment but the verdict is still not out and significant action has not been taken legally.  Rana adds that there are a few well-known examples of CEOs who were asked to quit after allegations of sexual harassment were found to be true. But these individuals were hired very quickly by other companies and in top positions. The fear that nothing will really happen to the perpetrator is a huge deterrent. And as far as the complainant goes, after the filing of a sexual harassment charge, there is a big chance of growth opportunities being seriously limited. Men in the organisation would want to avoid working with you and you're likely to get sidelined, or get termed 'difficult to work with.’

Sairee too feels that there is no support or redressal. “Most of us fear and know that no one will believe them and that redressal, counselling, or support, are hard to come by. Fear of being cut out, being blamed for the harassment is real. It also might mean job loss, reputation loss and disconnection from work and family circles. It's a lonely battle for women who report or come out.“

Final Thoughts

The truth is that there have been numerous unresolved cases in the corporate sector where CEOs merely move on with their lives to the next top-level position.  What will it take for women to speak? Do they have to wait for another 20 years when they are in the same powerful positions as these men and can fight back? Oh wait, but then women will be asked why the hell they waited for 20 years!

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