As India’s #MeToo moment has gathered steam in the past few weeks, employees across several media and entertainment companies have either been sacked or put on leave while the allegations against them are investigated. The latest to go: Binny Bansal, cofounder and chief executive of Walmart-owned Flipkart Group, following an internal probe on allegations of personal misconduct.
That revelation came soon on the heels of a report in The Indian Express detailing how a former employee of Taj Hotels, which is owned by the storied Tata Group, was “left with no choice but to quit” her job after the company offered what she felt was inadequate redress to her allegations of sexually harassment by the former CEO.
I spoke with Aparna Jain, an India-based leadership coach and the author of Own It: Leadership Lessons From Women Who Do, on what does this recent wave mean for corporate India. Edited excerpts follow.
Bahree: What has been the impact of #MeToo on corporate India?
Jain: Different corporates are reacting differently, some are re-evaluating policies, and some are lawyering up. A lot more complaints are now being voiced. Women are finding the strength to speak up. But we have a long way to go, because again, I’m only talking about the top-tier cities and larger companies. Still, it’s good because now corporates are taking due process seriously.
What are the chances this wave will continue? If not in the public sphere, then at least behind the scenes? Or are we done?
I don’t think we are done. Many women now know what constitutes sexual harassment. And they are reporting incidents which they earlier didn’t. But a caveat is that all this is happening with companies in the public eye. There are thousands of small and medium companies that do not have committees, and their attitude is “it’s a fine only.” Also, I believe women in smaller companies are not aware of what they can do when they are harassed. Even in smaller branches of big companies, women are unsure what to do.
Some critics have said this will discourage companies from hiring women. What are you hearing from clients?
I’m hearing both. The instinctive reaction and the knee-jerk reaction of male managers, who do not know how to deal and would prefer taking the craven way out, do say “we will not hire women.” The big problem is when women hear these kids of statements in a company, it not only makes them nervous, but many are discouraged from ever speaking out. Then, they either have to “suck up” the bad behavior or indeed “become one of the boys.” It is hostile behavior like this, which then makes the women adopt the patriarchy in order to survive. We see it in senior women leadership all the time. And this cannot and should not be the way forward.
Is anyone making an effort to improve?
I’ve seen that the younger nimbler companies are going out to their way to change. One company that was a client of mine, in particular, has made positive changes in the past six months to the extent of which I have not seen in any of the large corporates. Aside from the mandatory twice a year sexual harassment workshops, they’ve also held gender sensitization workshops, set up an external committee for complaints about people they represent, focused on affirmative action, in terms of women representation for every event they organize. They have been absolutely on the ball for all complaints. No obfuscation, no bailing.
Is there something in the law that needs to be tweaked?
The current Vishakha law does need to be updated. There also are some semi-gray areas. It also needs to be more inclusive and gender neutral. We need some kind of independent body or committee that companies submit themselves to for auditing their policies. their committees and actions.
How can companies prevent abuse of the law/false allegations in the current wave?
I’m not even going to get into false allegations, because that should not be the focus which, sadly, it is becoming. Companies have brushed over and ignored bad behavior by a number of senior management members over many years. They should be focusing on making due process more thorough and fair and keep adapting. One size does not fit all.