Silicon Valley is in a flutter since the resignation of the Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for encouraging a toxic sexist culture in his company. Suddenly it seems as though the floodgates on sexual harassment at the workplace have been opened wide. The stories are pouring out in torrents and we cannot keep up with them, with the latest coming from Tesla and 500 Startups. In India too, we have had our own share of stories with most recently, the founder of The Viral Fever (TVF) Arunabh Kumar stepping down.
How did it start? Through the courage of a few brave women who shared their experiences on social media, though there was pushback at first. In both the Uber and the TVF case, for instance, the sexual harassment allegations were initially dismissed. The dignity of the women who came forward was further assaulted and their character questioned. However, their bravery encouraged other women to break their silence, thus leading to change in management in both of these organisations.
Sexual harassment at the workplace is a violation of a woman’s right to equality and livelihood. It undermines her confidence and affects her mental health. Often women resign their job rather than confront the perpetrator because it is very difficult to take on the system which by default gives more credibility to a man and his version of the events. Women, on the other hand, have to prove themselves repeatedly and fight the system while under great stress. Take for example Ellen Pao who sued her firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for routinely discriminating against women employees but lost the lawsuit.
sexual harassment at the workplace is a very real problem, making work life a challenge for women in an environment of repression and intimidation
Another example is what happened to one of my dearest friends. She was on a fast track career progression at a FMCG company. Her immediate superior assaulted her and when she raised it to her superiors, they immediately pressured her to resign and join another group company. They promised that they would investigate the case, which they did not do, and finally quietly closed it without taking any action. As a result, she ended up in a new organisation, in a new role that was thrust upon her, a new area of work that didn’t interest her and a lower pay scale, thus forfeiting her fast track career progression. And the man? He continued to climb the career ladder in his own organisation and even retired with full benefits and no blemish on his record.
But what is most upsetting is that in all these cases, the men took the easy way out and sought to gain empathy by apologising and trivialising the issue. Dave McClure of 500 Startups resigned saying, “I am a creep, I am sorry”. Arunabh Kumar after repeatedly denying that he sexually harassed his employee, later apologised from “the bottom of his heart” for his insensitive initial response to the allegations. They continue to remain part of their companies, albeit in roles that are more behind the scenes and less public-oriented.
In India, we have the The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 which makes it mandatory for all employers, including the ones who employ women domestic help, to provide a safe working environment for women. It is also mandatory to have an Internal Complaints Committee for organisations with more than 10 companies and the details of any harassment complaints must be reported in the annual report. Recent findings amongst 50 Nifty Companies suggest that there has been a 26% rise of complaints in one year and there were 525 complaints from two-thirds of these companies.
This clearly indicates that sexual harassment at the workplace is a very real problem, making work life a challenge for women in an environment of repression and intimidation. We cannot accept such a toxic culture nor can we condone management’s failure to provide a level playing field for all its employees. We must do more to create welcoming and safe environments and, if problems arise, we must take the complaints seriously without questioning the integrity or penalizing the women.