Women are on their own

Aug 18, 2018, 07:23 IST | Lindsay Pereira

For most offices in Bombay, guidelines against harassment exist on paper alone. We continue to let all women down by not speaking up

Women are on their own
More and more women are dropping out of the workplace because companies have done precious little to accommodate them. Representation Pic

I have strong words to say about Human Resource personnel in Mumbai. I suspect a lot of people may concur, but my reasons have nothing to do with their roles, their inability to connect with colleagues or general inefficiency when it comes to finding the right candidate for a job. My words stem from anger because I have repeatedly watched them let women down. Male or female, their lack of empathy is universal, and I have yet to meet one of their representatives who has convinced me otherwise.

My anger comes from conversations with female friends, all of whom complain about everything from passive-aggressive bosses to unwarranted comments about sex to, in several instances, downright inappropriate behaviour from male superiors that ought to have cost those men their jobs. In every single instance, it was the women who had to resign. Some of them strongly believe that raising their voices will cause them to be labelled troublemakers and hamper their prospects. Others reconcile themselves to the fact that speaking to their HR departments will solve nothing.

I managed to get an inkling of what they go through when I spoke to my own HR manager at a start-up I worked with. I believed my peers had been blatantly sexist, insisting that only pretty women be hired whether other candidates were qualified or not, and presented her with proof of my accusations. She nodded, told me that my views were valuable and that the company intended to take them seriously, then accepted my resignation letter when I quit in disgust. That was three years ago. The men I complained about continue to hold those positions and have been given larger salaries since.

This isn't to say I don't recognise the fact that HR can only do so much, and that their hands are tied by a larger corporate culture that simply doesn't take women's complaints seriously. I still feel more can be done though, if only because the law categorically empowers companies to act against these offenders. The Vishakha Guidelines have given way to the ostensibly more powerful Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. Unfortunately, as is the case with most laws in our country, most Indian employers have yet to implement it. The ones that do, at least on paper, continue to make it hard for women to complain without fear of repercussions.

Think about the number of men who have been named and shamed across social media platforms in recent months. The venture capitalist who harassed women online and offline for years before some of them spoke up, the CEO of a digital content creation firm who apologised and stepped down, only to resurface quietly a few weeks later, safe in the knowledge that his role and salary were both secure. Think about what the women who accused those men had to go through, the anger they were compelled to swallow for years, the anger they must come to terms with in the face of what seems like a futile effort.

A friend of mine works at a fancy start-up that is supposedly doing very well financially. She is routinely asked to work until midnight, forced to attend parties with colleagues that go on until 3 am for fear of being labelled difficult, and obligated to fend off unwanted advances from her boss who demotes her when he senses her lack of interest in him. She can't speak to her HR department, because she has no concrete evidence of this harassment. In an ideal world, she wouldn't have to produce proof given how intangible the nature of harassment in corporate India is. She can't speak out though, because she worries about how she may not find another job if the new HR representative speaks to her current one.

More and more women are dropping out of the workplace because companies have done precious little to accommodate them. Fancy designations like 'People and Culture', blindly taken from genuinely people-friendly organisations in the West, mean little when restricted to putting together an annual party or distributing chocolate on Women's Day. People who work in HR departments need to take their roles more seriously and recognise that their inability to empathise with their female colleagues only empowers more male predators to get away with harassment.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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