A string of high-profile complaints has put the spotlight on workplace sexual harassment of women in India. While firms are scrambling to raise awareness, experts say they are failing to implement an anti-harassment law.
Namita Shah (name changed) enjoys her high-flying job as a consultant for a software company. The 29-year-old has flexible working hours, stimulating projects and the opportunity to train abroad. But there's a downside: unwelcome behavior from some male colleagues.
From lewd stares and explicit jokes, suggestive pings on the company's internal messaging service to persistent requests to meet outside work, Shah said she has often faced sexual harassment in the seven years that she's worked in the IT industry in the western city of Pune.
"It's creepy and at times makes me uncomfortable at work," she told DW. "I have to be careful how I conduct myself because some male colleagues easily misconstrue simple gestures like a smile or a friendly comment." She said she was unaware of any anti-harassment measures at her company, which she didn't want to be named.
Shah's experience is not uncommon. A string of highly-publicized complaints in recent weeks has turned a spotlight on the prevalence of sexual harassment even in what are considered to be progressive workplaces in India.
Last month, the editor of prominent news magazine Tehelka was arrested after a female colleague accused him of sexually assaulting her. It followed allegations by a law school graduate in a blog that she was sexually harassed by a retired judge from India's top court when she was interning with him.
Workplace safety is the latest issue in a wider ongoing discussion in India about the position of women and how they are treated. The debate was triggered by the fatal gang rape of a student in Delhi
almost exactly a year ago, which sparked national outrage and huge protests.
Experts say the intense media coverage of crimes against women ever since has sent companies scrambling to hire gender experts to help them sensitize their workforce and set up measures to prevent sexual harassment.
Kalpana Tatavarti, managing partner at Interweave, a Bangalore-based consultancy that works in diversity management and inclusion for the workplace, says her firm has seen a big increase in companies requesting workshops about appropriate behavior at the workplace.
"I'm often amazed at workshops about the low level of awareness both among men and women about what constitutes sexual harassment," Tatavarti said. "In the corporate context, leering, innuendos or off-color jokes are the main issues. But they are still not seen as harassment. So we help employees and managers understand the nuances and realize when someone is crossing a line."
Tatavarti said the focus of the workshops is on "building a culture of openness and respect" in industries which bring together people of widely differing social and economic backgrounds from all over the country.
With more and more women joining the Indian workforce - a quarter or more of the estimated three million workers in the IT and BPO services sector are women according to Nasscom, the industry's trade body - some companies say they are actively pushing anti-harassment measures.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy on harassment," Meghala Nair, press spokeswoman for IBM India, said. The global IT player has a diversity manager as well as helplines, counseling and regular workshops and e-learning modules to raise awareness about sexual harassment among its employees.
Vivek Rana, head of consumer and healthcare at The PRactice, a public relations company, said they had a "well-defined" policy in place that includes a gender sensitization program which is mandatory for anyone joining the firm.
A majority of the company's 90 employees are women. "So far, we've had issues like an invasion of private space with a male colleague hovering too close for comfort," Rana said.
He added that the awareness programs were meant to give employees "the confidence and the vocabulary to assert themselves in such situations."
Nair said IBM had also set up a committee that investigates complaints of harassment by employees and takes disciplinary action if needed. That's mandated by a set of 1997 government guidelines to ensure women's right to work in an environment "free of sexual harassment."
The guidelines, detailed by an anti-harassment bill passed by the Indian parliament in April, requires all companies and organizations with more than 10 employees to set up an internal complaints committee, with one external member, headed by a woman. The mechanism is meant to encourage women to complain if they face sexual harassment and ensure a fair process.
But the reality is quite different, some say. Anagha Sarpotdar, a consultant on gender issues, said there was "rampant non-compliance" by companies even though they could face penalties and even lose their license if they fail to implement the law.
Companies not committed?
Sarpotdar, who's researching workplace sexual harassment of women at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, said few firms are serious about stamping out the problem.
"Many companies make noises after a high-profile case and set up fantastic-sounding policies. But many only have complaint committees on paper," she said. "Also, they avoid using the term 'sexual harassment' and instead trivialize it by calling it 'inappropriate behavior' or an 'untoward incident' or an 'internal matter."
Worse, many companies actually deter female workers from making a formal complaint about sexual harassment, Sarpotdar said.
"Women are often labeled as 'troublemakers' or they're pressured to drop the complaint and quit. There's also a huge fear in companies about the mechanism for complaints being abused," she said. "As a result, few women dare to step forward and speak out."
Women 'stand to lose everything'
So what can be done to make workplaces safe and harassment-free for women?
More awareness is the answer, Kalpana Tatavarti said. "There's a tangible sense of empowerment among women employees during awareness workshops as they become aware of their rights and realize how to say 'no' in unwelcome situations" she said. "And we get feedback from companies about improved communication and mutual respect between male and female employees."
While that can help in tackling the problem, Sarpotdar said there can be no real improvement in workplace safety unless employers "understand the spirit of the anti-harassment law" and implement it stringently.
"Companies have to realize what a huge impact workplace sexual harassment has on women in the Indian context. They risk a lot when they decide to make a formal complaint," Sarpotdar said. "It can completely damage not just their careers, but also their personal life and reputation. They stand to lose everything."