Firstpost's #MeToo Conversations: How must sexual harassment at the workplace be dealt with?

Since 5 October 2018, a slew of #MeToo allegations have emerged on social media timelines in India, triggering the second wave of the movement.

The allegations are astounding in the range of behaviour they encompass — from inappropriate comments and unwelcome advances to sustained harassment, and in some cases, assault.

Many of these #MeToo stories also seem to have occurred within the confines of the workplace.

The onus then, is on Indian organisations to make their workspaces better and safer for all employees.

This was the focus of the fifth session of the day at #MeToo Conversations, moderated by award-winning writer Meghna Pant. A day-log series of panel discussions organised by Firstpost, the event aimed to shape the discourse on some of the very pertinent questions the #MeTooIndia movement has raised.

 Firstposts #MeToo Conversations: How must sexual harassment at the workplace be dealt with?

Sonal Mattoo, Deepa Bhatia, Indira Rangarajan and Ramkumar Krishnaswamy with Meghna Pant during session five of the #MeToo Conversations

The session roped in panelists like advocate Sonal Mattoo, film editor Deepa Bhatia, Indira Rangarajan, the National Programming Head for Radio Mirchi, and Ramkumar Krishnaswamy, the founder of Leadership Centre, to discuss how companies deal with sexual harassment at the workplace.

Bhatia said that when researching sexual harassment at the workplace, she found that many of the women who had faced it, would speak of it to their friends, or they would approach HR (instead of the Internal Committee constituted to deal with such cases). "Sexual harassment is a huge challenge for HR departments," Bhatia maintained.

Creating support structures in companies that women could rely on/approach is important. "The support structures should be well-prepared, and it should be publicised that these resources exist," Krishnaswamy pointed out.

Mattoo said that even simple measures — like displaying the contact numbers of resources in women's washrooms — encouraged more women to report cases of harassment.

"Many women feel powerless because their perpetrators are emboldened and have a clear modus operandi," she said.

Mattoo reminded the audience present that the law to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace "is not a high IQ law, it is a high EQ law". "Women hesitate (to report harassment) due to lack of evidence, but in these cases they don't need evidence," she added. "The committee will put the evidence together."

The panelists also spoke about how sexual harassment is a major cause for women to drop out of jobs, rather than wage gap and other factors. They say that companies fail to protect women in places outside the workspace, such as out-of-office meetings, for instance.

The process of lodging a complaint should be made easier, and roadblocks such as multiple levels of hierarchy and paperwork must be done away with, they concurred.

The role played by senior management too was crucial. "Senior management must ensure that the workplace is a safe environment," said Krishnaswamy. "Senior management's creation of a toxic culture is what breeds sexual harassment, not just policy loopholes." "You cannot perpetuate boys' clubs," he said, adding that these are the benchmarks companies must set in order to make workplaces safe.

Krishnaswamy emphasised the need to engage men, as without their participation, the movement won't go anywhere. "The shift (for organisations) needs to be from compliance to culture. Women don't feel safe to come out and talk. The formal structure is not sufficient. We should create support structures where women can come out and talk. Culture is being able to tell people that when you travel don't call a woman to dinner in your room," he asserted.

"#MeToo has brought the conversation from (official) documents to the water cooler," Rangarajan said in summation. "It is empowering for women to witness others telling their stories. In the media industry, the culture in many companies is casual but people must learn what boundaries to maintain."

"This movement has done more for awareness than any training programme," she concluded.

Follow live updates and video stream from the summit here.

Updated Date: Nov 28, 2018 16:59:34 IST