Historically, the corporate world has been a male bastion with restricted entry to women. It is only in recent times that this “men only” club has opened up membership to women. This has seen a steady increase of women professionals in the corporate workplace the world over and India is no exception. Corporate India now boasts of a growing tribe of women professionals that constitute 24% of the workforce. This trend has certainly upset the equilibrium in the work place where men are still finding it difficult to accept women as fellow colleagues and in many cases, as their bosses. After all, traditionally Indian society and Indian men have regarded women as subservient home makers and not as equal partners in the economic mainstream. It is therefore this deep rooted cultural and societal mind-set that manifests itself in the way men behave with their female colleagues in their shared work space.
Changing Trends at Workplace
In the past, the few women professionals who dotted our corporate landscape, suffered in silence, not willing to complain about discrimination or harassment for fear of losing their jobs. Today there is strength in numbers and women are now willing to raise issues of gender discrimination and sexual harassment publicly. Although women have assumed greater confidence, financial independence, strong peer groups and a greater understanding of their rights, they are still reluctant to expose issues relating to sexual harassment and take their tormenters on a legal path of justice. There exists, unfortunately, a huge psychological challenge that women and society as a whole need to address in terms of behavioral attitudes and code of conduct in the work place. It was in 1997 that a Women’s’ rights group called Vishakha filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in response to a humiliating legal battle fought by a rape victim in Rajasthan who did not get justice but instead was shamed and ostracized by her community. Consequently, the Supreme Court came up with the Vishakha judgment that laid down the guidelines for employers to deal with complaints of sexual harassment/assault at the workplace which included the formation of an independent redressal committee.
Sexual harassment goes largely unreported as women are embarrassed to even raise such issues in an open forum. If one looks at statistics of reported rape cases it is obvious that women have been denied justice. Between 2009-2012 over 1 lakh cases of rape and molestation have been registered but sadly the convictions have been declining from 44% in 1973 to 24% in 2012!
Shocking Behaviour of High Profile Employers
Against this backdrop the alleged sexual harassment case involving Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal has yet again revealed the ugly truth of how women are being victimized in their work place. Worse still, Tarun Tejpal initially confessed misconduct and then retracted it once he realized the gravity of the case. The victim, on the other hand, has courageously taken the matter on a legal course and is now braving the onslaught of allegations and tirades from Mr. Tejpal’s camp. “Why did you ride the elevator with Mr. Tejpal for a second time?” is one ridiculous question. It is these inane comments on such serious matters which undermine the status of women in our society. Another outrageous comment came from Naresh Aggarwal, a UP Politician who now questions the employability of women! Such irresponsible utterances should be condemned if we are to build an equitable and modern society.
Tarun Tejpal’s case is not an isolated one as we have been privy to a number of such shameful instances of misdemeanour. From the young woman lawyer interning with a retired Supreme Court judge who recently alleged that she was sexually abused to others in the corporate world like Phaneesh Murthy (Infosys, iGate) , David Davidar (Penguin International) , Gopal Kanda (MDLR Airlines), Pradeep Srivastava (Idea Cellular) to many others, the list is endless. The anger and outrage expressed this time around has reached a decibel level that needs to be converted into positive change. We cannot allow our attention span to be short lived. We must act swiftly and surely to ensure that the Vishakha Committee guidelines are implemented in every organization. Women must be empowered and provided a safe working environment.
Media and social media have raised such issues to a larger platform and it is imperative that we use this high profile case of Sexual harassment to sensitize the corporate world and society at large of the need to build mutual respect between men and women and more importantly between employers and employees. The changing face of the Indian work place has to embrace gender diversity and gender equality. It is imperative that employers and employees understand the importance of a moral code of conduct that is key to building an equitable work environment that offers equal opportunities to men and women. After all, surely we live at a time when technology has created an open society where there should be no gender barriers.
The core issue pivots around a moral code of conduct that guides the behaviour of men and women at the work place. Whilst technology has indeed broken many barriers; at a sociological and cultural level, we need to draw a line between personal and professional conduct and the need to have mutual respect both at the workplace as well as within society. More importantly we need a change of mind set that goes beyond regulation and punitive action. We must create an environment that nurtures respect and understanding irrespective of caste creed or gender. Only then can we be proud of our communities and our country.