On International Women’s Day last year, leading neuroscientist Shubha Tole sparked something extraordinary. A principal investigator at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), she was a mentor at the 10th Young Investigators Meeting (YIM) at Thiruvananthapuram. Each year, the event draws an eclectic mix of the country’s best young life-sciences researchers, postdoctoral fellows, renowned scientists (both Indian and international), representatives of grant-funding agencies and science policymakers.
At lunch break, two young women scientists told Tole in passing that they had been sexually harassed and discriminated on the basis of gender by the senior scientists they reported to. One of them had the harasser fired by lodging a complaint through the internal complaints committee (ICC) while the other wrote a public blog detailing her harassment. Tole asked them if they would be open to sharing their experience with the event’s packed post-lunch audience. And before she had even finished her plate, she had decided to anchor an impromptu session on #MeToo, the catch-all hashtag denoting a still-unfolding global movement against sexual harassment.
What began as a session on breakthrough scientific proposals quickly shifted gears as Tole stunned the audience by speaking about sexual harassment in the scientific community. The two young women scientists then shared their experience of sexual harassment at the workplace.
When Tole asked the 100-odd audience how many among them had experienced something similar, over a third raised their hands — some in trepidation, some with new-found courage. Soon there was an outpouring of stories, and the session ended with a standing ovation. But beyond the avalanche of naming and shaming, mostly online, are Indian workspaces being rewired at all to create a safer environment for women?
The TIFR says it is putting in place a sensitisation programme, to be conducted once every two years, through an external agency. “This, I hope, will, in time, make a community aware and supportive enough for every individual at TIFR-Colaba campus to freely come forward and report issues, confident that their complaints will be investigated in full confidentiality,” says Sandhya P Koushika, associate professor and women’s cell in-charge at TIFR, over email.
Tole points out that filing a formal complaint is often the lesser battle. The war to be waged is against entrenched mindsets. A common fallout of such complaints is the isolation that the survivors face from faculty members and staff, often wreaking psychological havoc on the complainant.
Tole has observed instances of complainants being judged by colleagues on the flimsiest of pretexts. It is not uncommon to hear comments such as “I saw her laughing the other day, acting normally. How can her complaint be genuine?”
Tole reasons, “It has to get a lot more confusing before things get better.” One of the things she now does with unfailing regularity is conduct a special session on women in science at various fora. It addresses both men and women, but primarily aims at spurring women scientists to stand up and speak for themselves on what it means to persist in the sciences despite being told in many ways, subtle and unsubtle, that it’s not a woman’s place to be in. “The ‘MeToo’ label has been about as useful as the feminist label — both are hated. What people have engaged with have been the stories behind the hashtag,” she says.
Barely a month before Tole’s breakthrough session in March, Gagandeep Kang, a clinician scientist and executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) in New Delhi, made headlines for terminating the employment of a well-known immunologist, on grounds of sexual harassment. The first woman to head the organisation, she wasted no time in addressing the complaint made by an employee.
The task was onerous indeed — right from setting up an ICC with the right qualifications, including an external member, to learning to “operationalise” the Vishaka guidelines, and ensuring that the recordings of the sessions were accurate and could stand scrutiny in court. The accused was sent on leave while the case was being heard and the complainant was assured of a safe working environment, recalls an insider who watched from the ringside the events unfolding at the institute.
“It was a long and stressful period for all of us,” says the insider on condition of anonymity, describing how people within the institute took one of two positions: Those who questioned why Kang was taking such a drastic step for a “minor” complaint; and the other, smaller camp of those who felt she was brave to stand up in such an unprecedented way.
The #MeToo movement did help change perceptions among the employees on why it was important to resist, and why Kang’s decision was admirable. The case is now in court.
What is undeniable is that the #MeToo movement’s ripple effect is being felt all around — right from the plush environs of a corporate set-up to the shopfloors and assembly lines of capital-intensive manufacturing units, where gender discrimination is often rife and sexual harassment is rarely viewed as an anomaly. That’s changing, according to Gautam Mody, secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), a national federation of trade unions. He points to a spike in sexual harassment complaints ever since #MeToo made news. The responses, however, have been far from ideal. “We see an effort by companies to trivialise these complaints or transform them into industrial disputes rather than sexual harassment cases,” he says, adding, however, that unionised workers are now facing up to the fact that this attitude is no longer acceptable.
The contrast couldn’t be starker in government offices, though. “#MeToo has become a joke,” says a Central government employee in New Delhi who has been on several complaints committees. Male colleagues snarkily swear to be “doubly careful” with their secretaries, arranging for them to sit outside their cabin rather than inside as a “precaution”. Some are even going so far as to declare that they will only hire male staff, who will “have no qualms staying back late or running errands”. “We need a dialogue for this fear to lift,” says the employee on condition of anonymity.
Navigating muddy waters
Aside from hurriedly breathing new life into hitherto dormant complaints committees and stoking internal dialogues where there were none before, many companies are tackling the more difficult conversations by outsourcing them to gender sensitisation workshops.
One of the first exercises in gender sensitisation trainer Paromita Vohra’s workshops is to get participants to write down on anonymous chits questions they might be too embarrassed to ask about the opposite sex. Vohra, also the founder of Agents of Ishq — “a multi-media project about sex, love and desire”, says the chits usually contain the most basic questions on how to make conversation with a woman, or how to compliment her without coming across as a creep.
“It may seem stiff and awkward. But we’re dealing with decades of assumptions here. It’s important to ask these questions,” says Vohra, in a phone interview from Mumbai.
Another crucial lesson is about knowing the difference between a personal remark and a complimentary one. ‘You look hot’ is unacceptable; ‘That’s a beautiful saree’ is acceptable. “We all want a culture of warmth and generosity. But it doesn’t have to be physical. Why not praise a wonderful piece of work instead?” she says. Another takeaway is the need to recognise that we’re all different from each other. “That you get to know somebody’s comfort level bit by bit is the bedrock of consent,” she says. So, the same compliment that pleases one person can offend another. Women or men aren’t blocks of gender stereotypes.
Over the past six months, Vohra has been jet-setting across metro cities, conducting training programmes in media organisations, corporate firms, NGOs, television, film and radio institutes, theatre groups and start-ups.
Caution seems to be the watchword. The primary driving factor is anxiety (“we don’t want this trouble to occur to us”), she says. If only we had these conversations earlier, we might not have had this can of worms we see today, she says.
Since October, however, she is seeing a wane in interest. Companies that set out to conduct regular sessions are contemplating reducing the frequency. “Companies still prioritise investing in GST training than a session that navigates what constitutes harassment,” she says.
A month ago, Network of Women in Media (NWMI), a social media group of women journalists, sent members a 20-minute survey on how various media organisations had responded to the #MeToo movement, whether they had made employees aware of the availability or not of an ICC and the procedure to register a complaint. The results will be presented at the annual NWMI meet in February. But what is already clear is the lack of awareness about existing systems and their negligible use till date. “What we know is that a lot of companies look at it as grievance redressal rather than addressing the atmosphere of harassment. Even ICC members aren’t sure what constitutes sexual harassment. It’s common to see them saying, ‘But he didn’t even touch her’!” says journalist Laxmi Murthy, a founder member of NWMI.
“#MeToo has made this issue a legal liability. Companies are looking for a quick way to tick the box, mark their compliance, and get it over with,” she adds.
Meanwhile, there have also been stray efforts of the kind made by a Bengaluru-based start-up and a Delhi-based media house, which have put in place an informal network of people that a potential complainant can reach out to before filing a sexual harassment complaint with the ICC. The idea is to create an approachable and less-intimidating resource point, but experts are quick to warn that any attempt to dilute the reporting of sexual harassment goes against the Vishaka committee guidelines.
A few have been early movers. Adobe India had instituted gender sensitive systems nearly a decade before the #MeToo movement. “A sexual harassment complaint is dealt with very seriously and leads to termination of employment in nearly all cases,” said an Adobe India employee who also refused to be identified.
Besides compulsory attendance for employees at annual workshops on prevention of workplace harassment and sexual misconduct (tuned to address local cultural norms), the company says it has ensured global gender pay parity in 40 countries.
“We are good people with good intentions is how everybody, including harassers, see themselves,” says Tole. The way out can only be by changing mindsets, bit by bit.
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