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Are Startups Saying NO To Sexual Harassment Loud Enough?

In the wake of the sexual harassment cases against The Viral Fever (TVF) and Arunabh Kumar that surfaced earlier this month, companies have started to look within. Concerned employers are trying to come up with more practical ways to make the workplace safer for women (‘safer’ is a questionable term here, because when was it ever safe?!).

The TVF controversy put the spotlight on startups and how sexual misconduct is rather rampant there, as it is easier to reject HR policies, provided there are any. Most of the startups begin with only a handful of people, and if you look at the stats, only 21 out of 670 funded startups in 2016 are run by women. So, considering that there is only a microscopic population of women in startups, how far can you expect them to be gender sensitized? Can you expect them to use a part of their resources to set up an Internal Complaints Committee, which by the way, the government holds mandatory for every firm that has more than 10 employees?

Or should we sympathize with these start-ups for their inability to ensure prioritization of something as basic as good conduct? Of course, we should not.

Suggested read: 26 tweets that show how women experience sexual harassment and violence from an early age

As Anuj Goslia of Terribly Tiny Tales while talking about sexual harassment in the workplace, points out,

“As small and agile groups of people geared towards growth, we assume good conduct (and rightly so) as default.

But that assumption can sometimes lead to tragic consequences.”

So, why is an Internal Complaints Committee not a priority? And how do startups get away with it?

The committee only becomes urgent rather than important, when something tragic happens. Like, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment committee at TVF was formed only last year, though the company has been in existence since 2010.

According to a post on the Guardian,

“Under the guise of “disruption” and “innovation”, startups and tech corporations skirt employment laws and reject HR practices while sometimes fostering a party culture where young male executives encourage socializing and drinking. Often, founders hire and promote friends and people similar to them. In these settings, women are vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, ranging from lewd comments to unwanted propositions to groping to assault.”

While investors look at all sorts of compliance, when investing in a company, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, though a factor, is more of a tick-box formality.

When an incident of sexual harassment does happen, why does the victim (he/she because men are also sexually harassed, for e.g., the Miki Agrawal case) not report it?

This happens for a number of reasons. Let’s look at a few:

  1. The stigma attached to sexual harassment discourages him/her to come forward.
  2. The incidence lowers the person’s employability.
  3. Victim-shaming and victim-blaming. The questions soon shift from “What happened?” to “What were you doing there?” or “What were you wearing?”
  4. People only report when it becomes a problem that they cannot handle anymore. The harasser takes advantage of that.
  5. Believe it or not, most employees are not sensitized about what constitutes sexual harassment. They dismiss such incidences as mere flirtation or “friendly nature” of the senior in question.

The occurrence of sexual harassment is more in companies which find themselves in the creative spectrum. Consider this: When A reports a complaint about B, and more than often, B is more influential, brings in additional clients and is higher up in the hierarchy than A, the company is in the offing to sweep the whole thing under rugs. If, however, the word gets out, then organizations tend to rubbish the complaints, and start finding faults with A to sack him/her from the job. Now, if the company is in the creative space, dealing with filmmaking or content writing or standup comedy etc. then it is easier to disregard an employee’s work and say “oh, your poems are not ‘soulful enough’” or “your jokes are not ‘funny enough’”. The productivity (and therefore, worth?) of the worker in the creative space is more subjective than in other spaces, where when someone is blamed of not being good enough, he or she can use data and number to lash out at their accusations.

According to the guidelines set up by the Supreme Court of India in the 1997 Vishakha case, in government, public or private organizations, it is the duty of the employer to check sexual harassment in places of work. These guidelines have been enacted in a legislation, which is called, “The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, Redressal) Act, 2013.

Suggested read: Wipro sued for £1 million in sexual harassment case in UK

Now let’s focus on how you and I can deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. First thing we need to keep in mind is that we should not sit waiting for something terrible to happen to us, or someone we know, and then take action. Take a stand against such practices regardless of whether it has happened to you or not, whether you are a full-time employee or just an intern or even if you are doing voluntary work. You have a right to ask these questions and demand answers:

1. Is there an Internal Complaints Committee who I can address my grievances to?

I stated this earlier in the post, and I want to mention it again because it is important: Any organization that has more than 10 employees is MANDATED to have an Internal Complaints Committee that addresses and checks sexual harassment in the workplace. The officer who presides over the Committee should be a “senior-level woman employee”. Also, the Committee should constitute of 50 percent women.

2. Is the Committee impartial and how do you ensure its impartiality?

To find out how impartial the Committee is, you need to find out who all constitute it. According to the Vishaka guidelines, the Committee should have a third party member, like a representative of an NGO or a lawyer working on social issues. Impartiality is fundamental because addressing sexual harassment is complex and often it involves an employee reporting a complaint against her employer. This creates possibility for fear, intimidation and undue pressure. For example, in the TVF case, the company in its statement not only rubbished the allegations made by the author of the unanimous post on Medium (the post is no longer there, by the way) but also went on to say, “We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations.”  How is that for intimidation?!

3. If I have a complaint, then how do I file it?

First of all, the company has to create awareness and educate the employees of about sexual harassment: what constitutes it and what are the consequences relating to it.  Also, the workplace is supposed to “prominently notify the guidelines (and appropriate legislation when enacted on the subject) in a suitable manner.”  The company has to conduct workshops and training programs that aim to sensitize employees regarding sexual harassment at the workplace. Notices should be put up in prominent places within the office regarding the consequences of engaging in sexual harassment and also information of members on the Internal Complaints Committee.

It is difficult to outline sexual harassment, but this definition under the 2013 Act clearly explains it as “unwelcome sexually determined behavior,” that includes five things:

  • 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

4. Will I be further harassed or worse threatened because of my complaint?

Once you file your complaint, the company needs to make you feel heard, and also, safe. If you want, then the Committee will invite you for a “reconciliation” before it starts investigating the report, says The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Money can, in no case, be a part of the settlement.

If you are not willing to reconcile, then an inquiry is initiated.

According to the 2013 Act, the complaints committee in the workplace has the same powers as a civil court, which in effect means that the Committee can summon the petitioner or the accused to make statements under oath.

The 2013 Act states clearly that after one files a sexual harassment complaint at the workplace, any possible intimidation by the employer to the complainant or his/her job will be further defined as ‘sexual harassment.’

Suggested read: 8 invalid excuses for street harassment we need to STOP making

Lack of awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace and how it can be reported gives the perpetrator enough leeway to go ahead and commit another one. No wonder so many women are coming ahead and reporting similar allegations against Kumar.

If you want to be a part of the change, then today itself ask your employer the questions we discussed. And if you are the employer, put in efforts to sensitize your work environment to make it nontoxic for people, in general, and women, in particular.

Featured image source: Google, copyright-free image, under Creative Commons License 

Article Name
Are Startups Doing Enough To Check Sexual Harassment In The Workplace?
The TVF controversy has triggered debate on sexual harassment in the workplace. Let's see if startups are doing enough to create safer work environments for women.
Riya Roy

Riya Roy

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.” This Isaac Asimov line, embraces my love for writing in the finest and most desperate way that it is and should be! I was tormented by the earnestness of the written word not very early in my journey. But once smitten, it has helped me devour life twice over; savoring the moment and indulging in its memories. As a flâneuse, I wander to understand the intricacies of human relationships. Realizing that, they are just different manifestations of the same feeling of love, has been my greatest learning. I seek to share its opulence through the words I type.