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Dear Corporate India, Your Silence On #MeToo is Deafening

(This is a personal blog. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

Journalists, authors, advertising professionals, comedians, artists, even the Indian film industry – #MeToo has swept across most sectors in India, but we are still waiting for the voices from the big fat wealthy corporate sector, to speak up.

She is ten years old. The men of the family are sitting at the dining table and are being served by the women. She helps her mother and aunts, and thinks she ought to eat later with the other women in solidarity. She does eat later and maybe the best chicken leg piece is not on her plate now.

Cut to 25 years later. She worked her way up the corporate ladder and ended up being at the same table as powerful men at boardroom meetings. And yet, she is apologetic – for having the same power as they enjoy. She thinks twice before speaking her mind, and claiming equal rights. Also, she wishes there were more women around her.

Also Read: #MeToo in Corporate India: Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Internalising Patriarchy

Is the social conditioning of women the reason why Corporate India is silent on #MeToo? No voices from senior corporate leadership are being heard on the #MeToo movement and no big names have been flashed.

The numbers are startling and speak for themselves. According to a report by Local Circles, 78 percent of those who were sexually harassed at the workplace did not report it; 32 percent citizens said that they or a family member had faced sexual harassment at the workplace.

As many as 70 percent 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.

It is no surprise then, that women are not speaking about this openly. A friend who had worked in the Indian corporate sector in the past, connected me with three WhatsApp groups of Indian corporate women, for their views on #MeToo. We received only silence in response. The ones who spoke, wanted anonymity, and some of them withdrew their comments later.

“The stakes are too high, Diksha – to speak up and to shift a job after having an opinion on a topic like sexual harassment. That's not the case in media or any other industry. Speaking up is encouraged and women have support,” is what we heard.

Workplace Harassment – a Global Issue?

Is this the case globally as well? My former colleague and friend, Amanda Rino, who moved to Berlin from San Francisco tells me, “I am from San Francisco which is very liberal. I had leadership positions and had tattoos and hot-pink hair. Catcalling existed a lot on the street, but I didn’t experience this with colleagues. But I was also the boss, and people didn’t want to mess with me. Now, there was still a problem of ‘boys clubs’... male employees gathering to speak secretly about a female client or to tell a joke they deemed inappropriate for women.”

She continued, “I challenged this exclusion for many years, pointing out how it’s a means to disempower women. But I can’t think of one occasion at work that a man said something directly lewd about my appearance or dress. This is just not socially acceptable in the workplace.”

This definitely does not mean that there are no sexual harassment cases in countries like the United States of America.

In Berlin, where I have spent nearly a whole year, I can tell you that I am yet to meet a woman who shies away from speaking about women’s issues, or sharing personal experiences openly. But let’s forget the West.

What we have been compelled to ask now is: do we have spaces in India where women feel safe to speak up?

Why Corporate Women Don’t Speak Up

Most women have binding work contracts and have to go through the legal framework to make any comments outside the company. What’s worse, they are often not aware of their rights and how to go about handling a case of sexual harassment. 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 percent women, presided over by a woman, and with one external expert, to process complaints.

The E&Y report says that 69 percent of the respondents, in their sexual harassment survey, had constituted ICCs in their organisations after the enactment of the Act. However, 18 percent of respondents had not done so, despite there being a lapse of over a year since the notification of the Act, 13 percent were still in the process of setting them up. Non-compliance among Indian companies was higher compared to the average – 36 percent had not constituted ICCs or were in the process of forming one. MNCs were marginally better, standing at 25 percent.

Sairee Chahal, Founder and CEO, Sheroes (a women’s community platform), says that the biggest problem is the question of what constitutes abuse and harassment.

“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.”

Women Need to Feel Safe at Home & at Work

Nousheen Khan, a Kerala-based HR professional commented on a recent article I wrote on sexual harassment in the corporate sector saying, “Fear of being labelled as a troublemaker and loss of reputation, are the biggest reasons why sexual harassment is not reported. Sexually-coloured remarks, jokes are so rampant in our society that they may even fail to evoke any outrage among many colleagues, both men and women. What is frightening is that by normalising it, we are making it legitimate or acceptable.

Anyone who questions this is often isolated or silenced by remarks like, “Why are you making it such a big issue?”

Merril Diniz from the Sheroes team makes a valid case in point, “Casual sexism reflects a deep-rooted societal mindset where both men and women devalue themselves and each other. Please don't compare instances of ‘casual sexism’ with assault and harassment. I disagree. These are all varying degrees of the same problem – of power, disrespect and devaluation of our humanity.”

Why We Must Not Dilute India’s #MeToo

The line between gender discrimination and sexual harassment is sometimes blurred, making it imperative to have clear definitions. Of course, the ideal situation is to have workplaces and homes where gender equality is a given and sexual harassment, for both men and women, is abolished.

But we have to reach there by focusing on each layer. And in India, it is the MeToo movement which is the driving force that can get us to that stage, with time.

But among the issues cropping up at the same time is that of ‘which gender issues fall under the aegis of #MeToo’. Having said that, it is tempting to club many burning gender agendas under a movement that has finally taken off. Therefore the onus of not weakening or diluting the movement, by focusing only on those gender battles that specifically involve sexual harassment, is on us.

This is a serious movement, and while corporates need to educate their employees on what sexual harassment means, they also need to come out with a voice in this movement.

Men and women leaders in the corporate sector, please speak up and say what you feel about this courageous movement in India. It is about time women shared the table with men – at home and in the workplace – without shame or guilt.

(Diksha Dutta is a business journalist and writer based in Berlin. Bloomsbury is publishing her first book on the startup ecosystem next year. She is passionate about effective leadership communication and diversity as well as inclusion at workplaces. She tweets at @dikshadutta)

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