Workplace sexual harassment is a big problem in India.Sometimes it seems that the world’s biggest challenge is to remain civil, to treat others with respect, and to exercise empathy appropriately. In the IT Industry’s rush to “earn a buck” it becomes easy to overlook the feelings and comfort of other employees.

The IT Industry has brought India wonderful technological advancements, greater means of communication, and an increased standard of living for millions. Unfortunately, it has also brought some problems and challenges — the most embarrassing of which is sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is generally defined as “behavior in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.” It’s a big problem in India with 70 percent of women reporting that they have been the subject of lewd comments from men. An additional 18 percent report being groped or molested, and another 8 percent reported being stalked. Tragically, 90 percent of women who report being harassed do not register a complaint, as they felt it “would not make a difference.”

Because sexual harassment violates an individual’s sense of self, its effects are severe and long-lasting. Although women are almost always the victim of sexual harassment, it isn’t just a “ladies’ problem.” It concerns all of us.

From the Vedic age through the social reforms of Crown Rule, and even today, a woman’s place in India is constantly debated. Ironically, India is not only a land that worships a number of female deities, but the national personification of India is Bharat Mata, “Mother India.”

Even our history seems somewhat contradictory. On one hand, we had the rise of women in politics —Indira Gandhi, our third prime minister. On the other we still have tens of millions of women suffering untold stories of pain and humiliation on a daily basis.

As the 21st century dawned it brought the gift of literacy and financial inclusion on a more widespread basis. Part of that was a legal and regulatory framework set up to protect women and promote their interests. Yet we remain a male-dominated society that seems unsure and insecure about letting women take a leading role in society.

Women in the workforce

The advent of IT dramatically altered the fabric of India’s business environment. Women were in some instances suddenly more employable than men. The boom in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) suddenly meant that English-speaking women were in high demand. BPO soon turned into full-fledged operations command centers with quality control and research and development accounts opening up in Indian offices to serve multinational corporations.

The new workplace brought men and women into close proximity with one another. Indian woman were ready for the IT revolution. They embraced it all — the culture, the work, the money, the intellectual challenge and the prospect of a woman’s being more than she ever had been before. Alas, the 1990s saw not just an explosion of woman entering India’s workforce, but also an accompanying host of issues regarding sexual harassment.

In 2013 India passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. This law sought to protect women from sexual harassment in the work place, and in schools and colleges. Under the law employers with 10 or more employees are required to establish a committee to investigate and deal with harassment complaints.

The law also requires employers to conduct educational programs and develop policies against sexual harassment. Failure to do so can lead to an initial fine of up to ₹ 50,000 per incident, with higher penalties and even cancellation of business licenses for repeated violations.

Unfortunately, human nature is difficult to change. There are still large numbers of complaints fielded each year. In Bangalore, the software capital of India, more than 700 complaints were filed with the Karnataka Labor Department in 2014.

The downside is that most of them were unofficial, being reported via anonymous e-mails, letters and complaints — without full details of the cases, making them thus difficult to follow up on and resolve. As it is now, most cases go unreported with women either leaving their positons willingly or being transferred to another location.

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to low-class louts, either — it occurs at all levels of an organization. In 2013 IT services company iGate terminated its president and CEO Phaneesh Murthy based on a sexual harassment charge by a subordinate.

Progress

While much yet remains to be done, India is making inroads against sexual harassment. IT companies are now mandated to set up committees inside the company with neutrally nominated employees. The committees must consist of at least one female and a member from an NGO who works for the cause of woman’s protection. IT companies are also required to have mandatory training modules on sexual harassment and the legal consequences.

The good news is that India IT companies are actively addressing the problem. They are focused not just on identifying and responding to allegations of sexual harassment, but on proactively preventing it from happening in the first place.

One effective tactic is to conduct gender-specific workshops to help employees know what they can and cannot say or do. Gender-specific gatherings work well because they can minimize participant embarrassment while promoting frank discussion.

While most companies have strict no-tolerance policies, holding regular sessions for employees is crucial. In these sessions employees are instructed on proper language and behavior.

In some companies employees are even instructed to avoid situations that could be questionable, for example, not working alone in the office after a certain hour. Some employers even go so far as to place closed circuit TV cameras and microphones in cubicles and offices of upper-level management as a way to ensure appropriate employee interactions.

Workplace sexual harassment is a big problem in India.Two companies taking strong and persistent action to prevent sexual harassment are the multinational IT consulting firms Infosys and Wipro. Each hold regular mandatory classroom sessions and e-learning programs for all employees.

They place posters in the work place and even send out mailers stressing the importance of professional behavior at the workplace. They also have effective processes to address complaints in a timely, thorough, and sensitive manner.

Looking ahead

Pankaj Sharma, chief trustee of the non-profit Centre for Transforming India and an expert on workplace sexual harassment issues expressed his concerns in an interview and cautions that, “The biggest ground yet to be covered is in educating and sensitizing employees. Some companies have one-off workshops for department heads, but make no effort to ensure the message filters down.”

India has come a long way in fighting sexual harassment, but as more women continue to close the education gap and join the workforce, there is a greater need to ensure that all employees are trained and aware of their rights and responsibilities to help prevent such behavior. It won’t be easy. Companies must to continue to make an effective effort to prevent and deal with sexual harassment complaints.

The whole of India’s law, corporate and educational apparatus are increasingly structured to fight sexual harassment. But the real action that needs to be taken is for each of us to be aware of the problem, understand its implications and to treat others with respect and professionalism at all times and in all places.

As the Mahabharata so beautifully states: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.