Is your work environment a hostile one for women?

Travis Kalanick

Uber, one of the most valuable private companies in the world, has made headline news recently.

Following a sexual harassment complaint by a former female employee, former US Attorney General Eric Holder conducted an internal investigation of the company. The newly released findings showed that the work culture at Uber is highly toxic and prone to sexual harassment. Upon the release of the findings, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said he is going to take an indefinite leave of absence to grieve for his mother who passed away recently. That same day, during a board meeting on sexism, a board member made a sexist comment. He soon after resigned his post.

Among the findings of the Uber report it was revealed that a senior executive obtained the medical report of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in India and that Kalanick and other senior executives viewed the document, discussed it and doubted the woman’s statement. This was violation of the woman’s privacy and it reinforces the culture of toxic masculinity where the woman is repeatedly a victim.

While no doubt Kalanick’s leave of absence (or resignation) is in part related to his mother’s passing, it should also serve as a reality check for a lot of corporates who continue to blatantly promote a hostile work environment and do not make an effort to improve diversity within the workplace.

In 2013, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in India. It recognises the fundamental rights of a woman to equality under articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India. Article 21 also guarantees her right to life and to live with dignity and the right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. This includes a right to a safe environment free from sexual harassment.

Under this Act, all corporates have to have a sexual harassment policy, an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), display the details on the notice board and conduct trainings for employees so that they are fully aware of this legislation. They also have to mandatorily report the number of investigations conducted in their annual report and provide details on completion or not, with reasons why.

However, in my experience of working on the issue of sexual violence in public spaces, including workspaces, not many Indian corporates have implemented this Act nor made arrangements to inform their employees. Many have taken the easy way out and just sent a circular to their staff or posted it on their intranet.

Elsa Marie DSilva

But as we all too well know, sexual harassment is a deeply complex subject and awareness programmes are essential for both male and female employees to understand not only the provisions of the Act but also the redressal mechanisms. Awareness programmes are also a preventive measure but many corporates feel it is a Pandora’s Box, so they avoid it.

What can a corporate do to ensure their work environment is truly safe for women?

  1. The CEO and senior management must “walk the talk” with regards to creating a non-toxic/hostile work culture. Often this senior group comprises of males who take undue advantage of their position of power to make women employees feel vulnerable. The Act specifically talks about Quid Pro Quo and just because one has not been called out on it yet, don’t assume you will get away scot free forever.
  2. Have a clear sexual harassment policy which focuses on zero tolerance for offences. Prominently display it and make it part of the induction process, company culture and regular trainings.
  3. Conduct capacity building programmes for ICC members as well as all employees on what constitutes sexual harassment, how to file a complaint, the entire redressal process and options available to both parties to resolve it.
  4. Create safe spaces to talk about such issues. Often inappropriate behaviour can be nipped in the bud before it escalates to a situation that is serious. But an environment must be created where a woman feels comfortable calling out the perpetrator.
  5. Treat everyone with respect and dignity as everyone deserves a safe environment within which to work.