A small news item in a South Indian newspaper, buried in the inside pages, recently announced that Phaneesh Murthy, formerly a top executive at Infosys (US), India's leading infotech company, was inducted into the board of directors of a Chennai-based IT company. Murthy resigned and quit Infosys abruptly last year after an American woman colleague filed a case of prolonged sexual harassment against him. While the sexual harassment case made front-page news, his appointment as a board member was almost missed by the media.
Murthy's blemished record did not prevent the Chennai company from inviting him to the board. Do corporate companies and multinationals consider sexual harassment a crime? Apparently not! Do private agencies examine a man's past record at the workplace before hiring him? Obviously not! In both private and government organizations, sexual harassment continues to be ignored.
Sachi, a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace, says, "When a man embezzles money from a company, he is sacked and sometimes his photograph is inserted in the newspapers warning people not to deal with him. Why is it that sexual harassment charges are not given similar importance?"
In 1997, the Supreme Court laid down very clear guidelines with regard to sexual harassment, saying, "...sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behavior (whether directly or by implication) as: Physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favors;
sexually colored remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature." But the guidelines have largely remained on paper and very few women have succeeded in securing justice when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Take Meenakshi, who was a secretary to the chief executive officer (CEO) of an American multinational based in Hyderabad. Her boss often harassed her and was aware that, as the sole breadwinner of her four-member family, she was unlikely to protest. Meenakshi was constantly under pressure and one day decided to complain to the US headquarters. The company sent a woman from the Human Resources (HR) department to investigate. She declared that if the charges were true, serious action would be taken against the CEO.
The charges were proved. But the man in question was allowed to leave with all his benefits in tact, while Meenakshi was marked as a troublemaker and was soon issued a notice to quit because the company was downsizing. Despite company rules saying so, she was not even financially compensated for the psychological and mental torture she underwent. An embittered Meenakshi says today, "It is a man's world out there. They can get over such problems by just snapping their fingers. The women are left to cope with the trauma and the stigma."
Meenakshi insists that there is a "Men's Club" in every office which becomes very active during such crises. "Firing a man who has sexually harassed women colleagues only makes other women more vulnerable."
While women in junior positions are more vulnerable, women executives and even bureaucrats are not entirely exempt from this treatment. A 2002 study conducted by the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy, Mussourie, shows that 21.4 per cent women civil servants feel that sexual harassment is on the increase in premier government jobs. The case of the Kerala IAS officer, Nalini Netto, who filed harassment charges against a state minister, is well known. The minister was charge-sheeted; although he quit the ministry, he continued to be a member of the Legislative Assembly. His party also gave him a ticket to contest the subsequent elections.
Donna Fernandes of Vimochana, a leading women's organization in Bangalore, says, "After the Supreme Court directive, many government organizations have set up a Complaints Committee to deal with cases of sexual harassment at workplace." But Fernandes feels that women still do not come forward because they fear they will not be taken seriously. They also dread the character assassination that inevitably follows such complaints.
While several institutions and companies will claim to adhere to the sexual harassment policy, they opt for a compromise when it comes to taking stern action against the guilty. A Kolkata-based IT company's HR official claims, "Mechanisms for redressal are in place and if proved, an offender could
face serious action depending on the level of the harassment." Yet, in several cases, the legal advice offered to companies is that a guilty man should not be sacked but allowed to step down.
Sachi's story is an example of the insensitivity of organizations towards the issue. Her trauma began when her middle-aged boss started giving her compliments and even touching her. Unable to express her anger directly, Sachi stopped smiling at him or wishing him. The boss became nasty and started picking on her. He even threatened to withhold her confirmation if she was not nice to him. Sachi complained to the Delhi office, which confirmed her but took no action against the manager. The harassment stopped only when Sachi got married, left the job and moved to another city.
Sachi says, "Most girls are expected to ignore verbal and physical harassment in public places. Decent girls don't protest." Even at the workplace women are expected to adopt the same behavior.
While the women continue to traumatized, it is clear that employers or the decision-makers - men, in other words - don't want to clear up the mess in their own companies.
(The names of some women have been changed to protect their identity.)