Sexual harassment in IT companies is on the rise but what are they doing about it?
A top IT firm recently had to take help from a women’s group to probe three allegations of sexual harassment by a few of their employees. Post the probe, one male employee was suspended, another got fired and the third one spared after weeks of investigation.
An independent study has claimed that nearly 88 per cent of the female workforce in Indian Information Technology, Business Process Outsourcing and Knowledge Process Outsourcing (BPO/KPO) companies reported having suffered some form of workplace sexual harassment during the course of their work. The “Workplace Sexual Harassment Survey,'' carried out by the Centre for Transforming India, a non-profit organisation in the Information Technology and BPO/KPO industries states that close to 50 per cent of women had been subjected to abusive language, physical contact or have had sexual favours sought from them.
Incidents on the rise
Rising incidents of harassment is a cause of worry for big IT firms as industry body Nasscom indicates that the ratio of women in large IT organisations (with a total staff strength of 20,000-70,000) ranges between 24-30 per cent. Even in large BPO organisations, the percentage of women employees is 35-42 per cent with a slight variation. But the key problem is that though the female workforce is increasing, there aren’t too many women holding top job positions. Take a look at the top IT firms in the country and you will struggle to find women employees in key managerial roles.
Sandhya, a leader of the Progressive Organisation of Women, says there is no fundamental change in the perspective of men and women notwithstanding the so-called transformation the IT sector has brought in.
“At least five-six companies have approached us to probe and recommend action on specific allegations made by their employees. We see a lot more women coming to us on weekends to pour out their woes,” she said.
Nasscom says that efforts are being made to proactively support women employees with policies and systems. Safety policies such as Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) and transportation policies are offered by all organisations irrespective of their size.
Companies such as HCL Technologies have dedicated programmes and policies for women employees like a microsite called hclwomen.com for the female workforce to learn, share and empower others.
“We have practices in place for protection of our employees, women especially, and this is constantly communicated and widely circulated throughout the organisation,” an HCL spokesperson said. The company conducts special audits on the adherence to these practices, which is incorporated into its regular audit plan. Apart from workshops on self-defence, HCL also ensures that an escort is provided for all women employees who are picked up first or dropped last. It is mandatory that both the escort and the employee have to sign duty slips which are duly recorded. Every vehicle which leaves the office is also routinely checked by the security supervisors.
Thanks to such initiatives women now feel more confident about their workplace. Aruna Jayanthi, Indian Chief Executive Officer of Capgemini, sees no discrimination at workplace in the IT industry. "It is full of opportunities for women. You have good scope for growth. The only issue they face is they should be ready to work on different sites," she says. Jayanthi started her career at entry level about three decades ago in a top tier Indian IT firm and rose to become the Indian head of the French IT major Capgemini. She heads a team of 37,000 in India which plays an important role in the firm's offshore work. But not everyone is as lucky as Jayanthi.
PwC carried out an interesting gender neutral survey last year to gather the pulse on diversity and inclusion. With a sample size of 408 (197 female and 211 male), the survey found that the majority of staff agreed that diversity and inclusion has a business rationale for their organisation. Some staff felt that more needed to be done on sensitisation and communication.
Prof Madabhushi Sridhar of NALSAR University of Law says that the IT company managements are mandated to provide facilities to ensure a safe work place for women.
Incidents of harassment are not limited to India. Ellen Pao, a junior partner in a distinguished venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, California has filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against her colleagues. The case has sparked a huge debate about Silicon Valley being male dominated.
Sridhar, a cyber law expert said that IT firms are mandated to constitute a committee with a few women employees as members to receive complaints. These complaints need to be followed up with inquiry and necessary action against the offender if the allegation is proved.
Though harassment of women at the workplace is not new and not restricted just to the IT industry, the chances of it happening in the IT sector seems to be higher. Activists at the Progressive Organisation of Women say that there are three reasons why the number of sexual harassment cases is growing in the IT industry. “Irregular timings and work pressures are the major reasons. In the case of freshers, the pressure is more to succumb to the advances. If they fail in their projects, they will be ousted and periodic job losses might ruin their future,” says Sandhya.
Some team leaders and programme managers know this weak point. “If the team leader is a bad one, he will lure them and exploit them,” she observes.
K Dileep, an employee of a multinational Internet technology company, says strict guidelines and punishments are keeping male staff from harassing their women colleagues.
“If a complaint comes, they take strict action because any bad PR would hit them very badly back in the United States,” he said. He, however, said subtle harassment always happens. “You can only see that but you cannot really establish it.”
The remedies range from seeking prosecution if harassment amounts to crime, compensation in form of damages, transfer of the accused or at least complaint from the place of harassment. The Workman’s Compensation Act 1947 provides for strict vicarious liability of management to compensate the violation of rights of workmen. Even if the managers are in no way responsible for such violation, failure to prevent such violations would make them liable for action.