Coffee, tea or me

2605sex-harassAnita Reddy used to treat her superior, Sandeep Prasad’s, invitations for coffee outings as a minor irritant. The Bangalore-based professional, who worked as a team leader at a multinational information technology (IT) company, would find an excuse and wriggle out of them. Reddy didn’t put down Prasad openly as he was head of the company’s India office.

Then things got worse. Prasad started sending personal messages and gifts. Finally, she lodged a complaint with the company’s human resource (HR) department. But nothing came of it. Her complaint was brushed away as frivolous since there was no physical abuse. In the end, Reddy quit her job.

Reddy’s case — and that of numerous others — shows that the charge of sexual harassment filed against iGate CEO Phaneesh Murthy finds resonance in the Indian software sector.

Reddy was one of the 2,000 women IT professionals interviewed by the Centre of Transforming India (CTI), a Delhi-based think-tank, for a survey on sexual harassment in the Indian IT and information technology enabled services (ITeS) sector in 2011. The survey found that 88 per cent of women had been victims of some form of sexual harassment in office. About 50 per cent of the respondents said they were verbally abused and sexual favours were demanded.

While 47 per cent of women said they did not know where or how to report the matter, a whopping 91 per cent claimed they did not report harassment for fear of being victimised.

The fears aren’t unfounded, says Pankaj Sharma, chief trustee, CTI, because most cases of sexual harassment follow a top-down trajectory. “In 72 per cent of the incidents, the perpetrator was a senior company executive,” he says.

Although most IT firms have sexual harassment policies in place, Sharma says they remain confined to the rule books. “Most companies are wishy-washy about enforcing sexual harassment policies. We also found some cases being hushed up, as it would spoil the company’s image,” says Sharma, adding that this discouraged women employees from lodging complaints.

When Aditi Ramesh, a technical architect at a Mumbai IT company, felt cornered by the constant sexual come-ons of her project manager, she consulted a counsellor. “Ramesh’s manager would find subtle ways to get physical with her. He would peep over her shoulder when she worked, sit next to her during lunch and call her to his cabin for trivial matters. She felt depressed and confused,” recalls Rajan Bhonsle, founder, Heart to Heart, a counselling centre in Mumbai.

But Ramesh didn’t want to follow Bhonsle’s advice and lodge a complaint with the company’s HR department. “Ramesh had seen a colleague go through the entire process of reporting harassment. She had been called for countless committee meetings, where she had to narrate every incident she found offensive. Eventually, the perpetrator got away with a warning,” says Bhonsle, who gets about five cases of workplace sexual harassment every month of which half are from women in the IT sector.

CTI’s Sharma believes sexual harassment is frequent in the IT sector because most companies work in project mode — where the team leader has almost absolute power. “The project head is completely in charge of his team members. Such authority can be corrupting,” explains Sharma.

Adds Nina Mukherjee, a former HR professional at Cognizant Technologies, Accenture and IBM, “The nature of the job in IT companies creates ‘intimate’ situations. Employees work very closely as teammates and work late into the evenings. It is unfair for a team leader to take advantage of that situation.”

The large women workforce in the IT and ITeS industry is another reason harassment incidents are high. According to IT industry lobby group Nasscom, women comprise 30 per cent of the IT workforce and 42 per cent of BPO employees. “The Indian corporate sector, on the other hand, has 10 per cent of women,” says Sharma.

Also, unlike the banking and financial sector — where women like HSBC head Naina Lal Kidwai and ICICI CEO Chanda Kochhar preside over company boardrooms — women are yet to break the glass ceiling in the IT industry. “So there are no women at the top to steer the IT sector towards an unbiased playing field,” observes Sharma.

Add to this the youth-centric, informal work culture in software companies and you have the perfect recipe for intimacy. Explains Sajai Singh, partner at the Bangalore-based corporate law firm J. Sagar Associates, which works with several IT companies. “As employees work long hours and travel together, some cross the line between professional and personal equations.”

But some contend that even if incidents of harassment are high in IT companies, they do get treated seriously. “IT companies are strict with sexual harassment complaints because their practices are drawn from the US, and also because most of the HR policies are in tune with the age group of the employees. Most IT employees are young, and come from an era where the women are empowered,” says a senior corporate affairs official of the Indian office of a top American IT business solution provider.

Thanks to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, which was passed in April this year, women professionals now have a strong law which they can invoke in cases of workplace harassment. In 1997, the Supreme Court had passed a directive — in the Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan case — which defined unwelcome sexual behaviour as physical contact, a demand for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and other physical and verbal acts like leering and cracking dirty jokes.

Often, it’s because the harassment takes this covert form — lewd remarks, sexual innuendos and cracking dirty jokes or “accidental” body contact — that it’s difficult for a woman to report the matter or make a strong case, says Parul Tank, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist who works as a counsellor in four companies.

Last year, a mid-level executive at a Mumbai BPO, Aparna Rao, approached Tank and sought her advice. “Rao’s superior would discuss his sex life with her. He would ask her about her physical relationship with her husband,” recalls Tank. This left Rao uncomfortable and confused — she couldn’t figure out if such candid conversations amounted to sexual harassment.

Corporate India is, however, now realising that incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace are bad for business. “Today companies understand that sexual harassment in the workplace impacts the bottom line and affects productivity,” says Nirmala Menon, founder, Interweave Consultancy, a Bangalore-based firm that works on work-life issues in the corporate sector.

Menon would know. Interweave conducts workshops and markets an e-learning product that educates working professionals on recognising, reporting and redressing sexual harassment. Both are selling like hot cakes. The consultants have conducted the workshop at 40 companies, including Amazon, Fidelity, Texas Instruments and ABB and sold its e-learning product to 25 companies. “Since workplace sexual harassment is usually covert and nuanced, rather than in-your-face physical molestation, it is important to educate organisations and professionals on how to tackle it,” says Menon.

Until that happens, some men in positions of power will continue to think they can get away with sexually harassing their female colleagues.

Additional reporting by Kavitha Shanmugam in Chennai

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