Dear friends and colleagues,
Today, women can be seen in greater numbers in what were previously perceived as “male-dominated” professions. Attitudes towards women at the workplace have changed a lot from the time I started Biocon in 1978 as a young, 25-year-old woman entrepreneur, with no business background and limited financial resources. Professionals did not want to work for me as they felt that I could not provide them ‘job security’ being a woman, and some even assumed I was the secretary to the Managing Director (MD) and not the MD. Suppliers told me they were reluctant to give me credit because they did not have confidence in my business abilities. Banks and financial institutions were reluctant to fund me and some even suggested that my father should be the guarantor for any loans.
While there is a higher acceptance of women in the professional context now, certain gender biases still persist. When a woman dares to speak her mind, demands respect and equality, she is often perceived as a threat by her male colleagues. A bold woman is often prone to sexual harassment.
In order to discourage sexual abuse and ensure safety of women at the workplace, the formal Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was introduced in 2013, which mandated every organisation with more than 10 employees to have a policy for prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment at the workplace. It also directed companies to have an internal committee to look into complaints of sexual harassment. However, it is not enough to just provide a grievance redress mechanism.
Organisations need to adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards sexual misconduct and put strict preventive measures in place. An annual certification program on prevention of sexual harassment should be made compulsory for all employees. Gender sensitisation and behavioural workshops should be run to train employees on how to conduct themselves responsibly and with propriety. We have found that these workshops help employees understand what they need to do when confronted with such a situation. A few years ago, we further strengthened our employee policy on prevention against sexual harassment by introducing a mandatory annual e-training which prepares them for handling such situations for themselves or for other colleagues.Men need to respect women as fellow-workers and colleagues. They need to be sensitised about the fact that sexist and off-colour ‘jokes’ that stereotype and objectify women are unacceptable
Women should be encouraged to fearlessly fight gender discrimination and sexual harassment. They should also be empowered to confront a harasser whenever they encounter sexually inappropriate behaviour.
Women also need to be mindful of the fact that their behaviour is in keeping with professional propriety and that they work shoulder to shoulder with male colleagues without demanding extra privileges being a woman.
Organisations should have a system in place to take immediate and appropriate corrective action whenever an incident of sexual harassment is reported. Those who come forward to press charges of sexual harassment need to be assured that neither will they be victimised nor their career jeopardised in any way.
Sexual aggressors should not be allowed to take advantage of the workplace hierarchy to get away unpunished. Dismissal without any ‘benefits’ or ‘severance pay’ for executives found guilty of sexual harassment could also serve as a strong deterrent. We have had a few cases where we took strict action against alleged perpetrators without hesitation. We even let go some high-performing employees to establish that organisational values and ethical conduct is paramount and cannot be compromised.
Employees need to be educated on the company’s sexual harassment policy so that they can provide the right moral support to a victim, respect her privacy and cooperate in any kind of departmental investigation.
If you are being harassed persistently by a colleague despite voicing your resentment, then you may wish to consider the following course of action:
– Send an email strongly expressing your resentment
– Report the matter to HR and seek intervention
– Make sure you keep a note of all incidents, emails and any other forms of messages including witnesses if any
– Do not publicise the issue until you access the company’s redressal system for sexual harassment
Only if all of the above fails should you take the matter public and to a court of law for due justice.
We all need to take responsibility
To create an environment that breeds equality, instils confidence in women and assures them of their safety and security, both men and women should come forward to commit themselves to a code of conduct that is built on mutual respect. Everybody needs to embrace a culture of gender diversity and gender equality.
As a society we need to bring up every boy to understand that the responsibility for sexual misconduct lies squarely with him. Governments and businesses must help create an environment conducive to women’s economic empowerment. Our lawmakers will have to send out a hard-hitting message to deter sexual predators. It is time we said enough is enough and do all that it takes to create a society that is safe for each and every woman.
It is indeed a matter of shame that despite the advances that we have made as a nation, as a society we have failed miserably in protecting our women and children from sexual assault and rape. Nearly 95 women are raped in India every day! If that number doesn’t alarm you, consider the fact that these are only the reported cases. If we were to account for the rapes that are hushed up, the number would be even more appalling.
It has been four years since the sickening gang rape and murder of 23-year old Nirbhaya shook the nation to its very core. Since then, the definition of rape has been expanded and harsher punishment recommended for rapists. However, these changes don’t seem to have deterred the perpetrators of these grave offenses. This is really worrisome. It points to a deep-seated societal mindset which needs to be corrected.
The atavistic misogyny that fuels sexual violence against women in India reflects an aversion towards a modern, self-assured woman like you and me, who dares to break the traditional mould of a submissive woman whose voice is limited to the four walls of her home. Thus, if a woman fails to adhere to certain conservative societal norms — in dressing, socialising or lifestyle choices — it makes her “deserving” of rape according to this medieval mind-set.
It is time we joined the battle against society’s regressive attitude towards women and their rights at home and at the workplace. Unless gender discrimination and sexual harassment is nipped at the bud, it can morph into abhorrent incidents of sexual molestation and rape.
(The writer is chairperson & managing director, Biocon)