The text, tone and tenor of the statement issued by The Viral Fever (TVF), among India’s top entertainment software start-ups, while denying the allegation of sexual harassment against its co-founder Arunabh Kumar, tells us a great deal about how sexual harassment figures as an issue in the workplace, even in trendy companies that otherwise seem progressive and feminism-oriented.
The statement, released in response to an allegation made by a former employee on a social media site, was defensive, precluded any possibility of examining her allegation, and threatened the young woman.“We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations…” read a line. This was an ugly street-side demonstration of organised male power against a young woman. Since then, other women associated with the start-up came out with their own terrible experiences.
Eventually, a senior woman member of the company’s core team encouraged her colleagues and others to complain. But Kumar told a tabloid that “he is a heterosexual male who finds women sexy and tells them so”. It begs the questions: Why should a male boss wear his sexuality on his sleeve while at work? Why should the workplace be the setting to tell a woman colleague she is sexy?
It does not have to do with education or training or, even sensitivity. Remember the Tehelka and TERI cases? Kumar is an IIT grad. It is, at its core, about men who see women colleagues more as women and less as professionals, as fair game for their predatory sexual behaviours.
Sexual harassment is hardly only about sex; it is the unmistakable coercive pressure on women in subordinate positions, a subtle connection drawn between sexual favours and work, the demonstration of power by a man in a superior position. It is about the man marking the workplace as his territory, not an equal space.
It takes a great deal for women at the receiving end to speak up or file a complaint with the police. The battle becomes long, lonely and humiliating. Worse, it affects her career. Sexual harassment is more common in the urban workplace than we think. Since The Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force on April 2013, documentation of sexual harassment in the organised sectors tells its own story.
Sexual harassment is “an unidentified threat” to women employees and creates “an environment of intimidation and repression…the victim endures hostility, degradation and pressure, which her colleagues do not,” stated the latest report of the Indian Bar Association, which studied the issue across industries and cities in India last year.
Nearly 60% of the victims had endured it for at least six months before speaking up and nearly 29% had waited for a year to complain. But here’s the rub: only about 31% had complained to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in the organisation, the report stated. The ICC is, of course, required by law.
The data shared by 50 Nifty companies on sexual harassment cases in their annual reports showed a 26% rise in a year and two-thirds of these companies had 525 complaints in the year, a report in this paper said three months ago.
These were from the banking, IT, media and entertainment sectors. These are formal workplaces; how lesser educated or empowered women negotiate their way through the informal sectors and rural workplaces is anybody’s guess.
Sexual harassment vitiates the work atmosphere, making it an unsafe and uneven playing field for women. Alarm bells are ringing about the abysmally low – and falling – participation of women in the formal workforce.
Mumbai has only about 16% women in its formal workforce, Bangalore tops the list with about 25%. Of the key factors that keep women away from the workplace, an unsafe work environment with possible sexual harassment is one.
The sooner the workplaces address this issue, the better for all. And, no, start-ups with the casual dude-bro work culture cannot claim a special licence to keep the work environment intimidating or unsafe for women.