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The big #MeToo dilemma in India and China is who you gonna call

But while Western outfits are right to fear lawsuits stemming from the #MeToo movement, many companies in Asia probably feel it’s not something they need to worry about.

editorials Updated: Apr 30, 2018 10:53 IST
Nisha Gopalan
Nisha Gopalan
Gender gap,Sexist remarks,MeToo
Human resource departments may have something to do with women not reporting bad behaviour in Asian companies.(HT File Photo)

While the #MeToo movement has toppled scores of executives in the US and Europe, it’s been slower to take hold in Asia. Human resource departments may have something to do with it.

It’s understandable that women are reluctant to report bad behavior in a region where sexist job ads still exist. There’s also a preponderance of family-owned companies that tend to be run like personal fiefdoms. Even if those sorts of firms have an HR department, chances are it’s staffed by people not especially keen to level harassment claims against the big boss’s son.

Only 1.3 percent of 2,600 local companies canvassed in Asia said they had an HR system or policy in place to prevent sexual harassment, according to an International Labour Organization study. That was well below the global average of 4.2 percent in the report.

In many cases, those subject to unwanted behavior simply don’t bother reporting it. Take the example of Zhang Cheng, a Chinese woman who was in her boss’s hotel room using his hairdryer to save time because she was sharing a room with two female colleagues, as the South China Morning Post relayed. He emerged from the bathroom naked and hugged her, begging her to stay.

That was more than two years ago. Zhang never reported the incident to the Shanghai company in question, and, with no specific law against sexual harassment in China, sees no point going to the police either.

It’s an all too common story.

In India, too, change can be slow. As Nirmalya Kumar wrote in an op-ed piece earlier this month for BloombergQuint, “when elites are socially and economically highly inter-related, asking hard questions is unacceptable.” He noted the board of The Energy and Resources Institute waited too long to question Chairman RK Pachauri on the many sexual harassment rumors floating around.

There’s also former Infosys Ltd. high-flyer Phaneesh Murthy. He was fired in 2002 after his executive assistant accused him of sexual harassment but within a year was back in the game as CEO of U.S.-listed Indian software manufacturer iGATE Computer Systems Ltd. The board of iGATE let him go in May 2013, following an investigation into a relationship that he had with a subordinate.

It doesn’t help that Asia has too few female leaders and role models.

Representation on boards of companies in the region increased from 6 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2016, but that’s still less than half the 28 percent average of advanced economies, research from McKinsey & Co. shows. What changes there have been tend to be driven by government regulations: India has made it mandatory for firms to have at least one female director while gender diversity is a measure the ASX Ltd. tracks in Australia.

Companies in Asia need to create proper HR divisions and put systems in place that allow both men and women to raise grievances without the fear of recrimination. That means establishing “formalized processes that specify how, to whom, when, and where a complaint should be directed, so that employees are heard and issues are promptly and responsibly resolved,” according to Anu Madgavkar, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute.

At the very least, firms should establish clear policies outlining what constitutes sexual harassment so as to raise awareness. There are just too many smaller to mid-sized organizations that don’t even have a human resources person.

As the legal case involving BNP Paribas SA in Hong Kong shows, a slow response to sexual harassment allegations isn’t limited to Asian firms.

But while Western outfits are right to fear lawsuits stemming from the #MeToo movement, many companies in Asia probably feel it’s not something they need to worry about. That needs to change. Bloomberg Gadfly

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

First Published: Apr 30, 2018 08:54 IST