Startups And Sexual Harassment: Bizarre Or Normal? Women Speak Out
I am a woman. I want to start up. Will I be judged based on my gender while raising funds? What could the men ask me? Will I get pregnant soon? Will they trust my instincts? Quite a familiar list of queries for rising women entrepreneurs as they set course to be part of the startup ecosystem.
Women entrepreneurs say in three out of five cases, they face gender discrimination at the investors’ table. Recently, a revelation of an investor’s intolerance sexual misbehaving has shaken us all to the very core.
The blatant exploitation from the famous Venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy, Founder of Pinstorm and Seedfund was recently exposed by a gutsy young female entrepreneur. His misogynistic behaviour was exposed publicly by Wamika Iyer, founder of FrshDay.in. Thanks to her, it grabbed the whole nation’s attention. In a bold move, Wamika shared the screenshots of snippets of a year old personal interaction between her and the so-called mentor, who was trying to set up a different kind of deal with her. All Wamika was looking for a mentor to help her improving the startup structure. Little did she know that she had to fight this even before starting a new business.
The WhatsApp conversation between the two are here:
Wamika later tweeted a series of posts:
We at SheThePeople.TV asked few women entrepreneurs about such incidents in the startup ecosystem. Are these normal? Is this the kind of behaviour women need to go through? How many hide this and move on? Why do some stay silent? And then some core questions – is raising funds hard for women? Or the idea eventually becomes a stumbling block because of few people like Murthy?
The power dynamics and the lack of safe spaces to speak out – this is the primary reason why we have fewer and fewer reported instances and more and more women who are uncomfortable about speaking out – Kirti Jayakumar
We caught up with Ankita Vashistha, Founder – SAHAFund, that invests in exclusively in women led businesses. “Women come to SAHA fund for many reasons based on merit, business, network, scalability, impact and the fact that they believe we can be good partners for them. But yes on the personal level it is also about comfort, women to women understanding, mutual respect and equality. I am most passionate about gender equality in the society, at the workplace and within the larger community.”
“We must always always stand up for ourselves in any situation with anyone!” Ankita
So what could be the reasons for women to opt for a fund like SAHA? Comfort with a woman? Or do they feel less empowered talking to bossy and over powering male investors? Ankita says both the reasons are true. She further explained, “There are instances of indecent behaviour/talk cited by women entrepreneurs interacting with male investors/colleagues/acquaintances. It makes us all very angry and as a community, we need to call those people out and support the right thing!”
Rishika Chandan of Home Salon – winner of SheThePeople Digital Women Awards says she was often asked where her husband was when she went to meet investors. “Luckily for me, my husband saw big potential in our platform and joined it full time to help me build the business.
Nidhi Agarwal, Founder of Karyaah.com went across to 113 investors before she secured funding from Bangalore based SAHA Fund, Ratan Tata and Mohandas Pai.
India ranks 70 among 77 countries covered in the 2015- Female Entrepreneurship Index. The main reasons that the study identifies for this are lack of funding for women entrepreneurs. A SheThePeople survey earlier in 2016 concluded women call funding their biggest challenge. Hopefully, as the numbers grow this is a trend that shall be reversed.
ENTREPRENEURS REACT TO MAHESH MURTHY CASE
“It goes without saying that Mahesh Murthy’s behaviour has left me incensed. But with a deep dive in terms of looking for solutions, the incident leaves us with two things to take into account as we double our efforts to fight workplace sexual harassment. One, the fluidity of the term “workplace” and two, the role of power dynamics that go hand in glove with the lack of safe spaces to speak out,” said Kirthi Jayakumar, founder of The Red Elephant Foundation.
WOMEN NEED TO SPEAK UP
Kirti also puts the spotlight on why women may not speak up against such behaviours and why many sexual harassment accusations go unreported. “We need to be cognizant of work dynamics and appropriate standards of behaviour, and there is a desperate need to monitor these behaviours. The power dynamics and the lack of safe spaces to speak out – this is the primary reason why we have fewer and fewer reported instances and more and more women who are uncomfortable about speaking out.”
One of five things happen according to Kirti:
No one believes us
Or they believe us and brush it off
Or they believe us and don’t / can’t do anything
Or they turn hostile and put pressure on us to keep quiet
Or, they make us the ones to blame and send us packing.
This desperately needs to change. She says “Mahesh Murthy’s disgusting behaviour makes it imperative that more and more women should have access to spaces where they can speak out with confidence and freedom, and where they want to take action, their initiative should have no hurdles.”
We need to be cognizant of work dynamics and appropriate standards of behaviour, and there is a desperate need to monitor these behaviours
ElsaMarie D’Silva of Safecity, a platform that uses tech and location mapping to identify ‘places’ of sexual harassment said to SheThePeople.TV that often nonsense like Murthy’s comments are ignored as light banter and one has to be alert to the intentions at all times. “I have worked in the aviation industry for a long time and it is quite common to have light hearted banter amongst colleagues including conversations that can be termed “flirtatious”. However both sides must be careful that the conversation is consensual, is not hurtful and does not involve a threat of “quid pro quo”. At Safecity we do a lot of workshops for men and women on the legislation Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act and explain the definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse, the provisions of the legislation and the redressal procedure.”
She also recommended Mahesh Murthy woke up and smelt the coffee. “I don’t have too many details but given that 3 women entrepreneurs have so far raised concerns and made accusations of Mr. Murthy’s conduct, I would recommend that Mr. Murthy read the POSH Act and get prior consent before making personal remarks.”
STARTUP ECOSYSTEM ISN’T EASY
Elsa also added, “The startup environment is quite difficult especially for Women entrepreneurs who may come across as being vulnerable. Therefore all the more reasons for VCs, investors, and startup firm managers to be accountable in their personal interactions and be cognizant about the language and actions that could come across as a threat or quid pro quo.”
Both sides must be careful that the conversation is consensual, is not hurtful and does not involve a threat of “quid pro quo”
While giving examples of some recent example in the news, Elsa was enraged saying, “Another example of Uber where a female employee raised concerns about the culture of the organization where male managers often used their power to demand sexual favours. The CEO Travis Kalanick apologised at an all-hands meeting for their company culture.”
Shikha Suman, Medimojo commented saying, “Commenting on something where both sides of stories are not known is not appropriate for me. Social media trial is gaining popularity where we hang people without understanding whole story. However just as a disclaimer, using informal language in business conversation is not really advisable.”
BIG QUESTIONS AHEAD
The larger question is ‘How many Mahesh Murthys are lurking in the startup ecosystem? How many such wrong doings will be unraveled online?’ There is no doubt there is a problem. It’s perpetrated by a skewed ratio of women to men. We need more women to speak up!
What’s your take? Tell us in the comments section below.
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