Companies need to look beyond the law to provide safe workplaces for women. Addressing gender inequality should start with the leadership recognizing that issues exist, writes Shraddha Mor Agrawal

Women in workplaces have traditionally struggled with glass ceilings, perceptions, social expectations and the lack of institutional assistance. With Indra Nooyi’s exit from PepsiCo as the chief executive officer, there are less than two dozen women chief executives in the companies that make up the S&P 500. For the 30 Indian companies that make up the Bombay Stock Exchange’s Sensex index, the number is just two.

When the Indian government increased the duration of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26, the immediate reaction was that it is easier to not hire women than struggle with maternity and day-care issues. When the law was amended to define sexual harassment at the workplace to include circumstances of implied or explicit promise or threat to a woman’s employment prospects or creation of a hostile work environment or humiliating treatment, which can affect her health or safety, the reaction was the same.

However, the Indian government has ploughed ahead determinedly in improving the legal benefits for working women. It launched an initiative for prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace by enacting the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, with the objective of creating a safe and secure workplace for women. The act also establishes a redressal mechanism for the disposal of their complaints.

The Ministry of Corporate Affairs also introduced an amendment to the Companies (Accounts) Rules, 2014, requiring all eligible companies to incorporate a statement in the directors’ report disclosing their compliance with the provisions relating to the constitution of an internal complaints committee (ICC) under the act.

The act requires all companies with more than 10 employees to constitute an ICC to receive and redress complaints from women in a time-bound and confidential manner. This will possibly help in formalizing ICCs in companies since many still set up a committee only when a complaint arises.

The Sexual Harassment Electronic Box, an online platform launched by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, is another effort by the government to provide single-window access to every woman, irrespective of her work status, whether working in the private or public sectors, to register complaints related to sexual harassment. Any woman facing sexual harassment at the workplace can register her complaint through this portal. Once a complaint is submitted on the portal, it will be directly sent to the authority that has jurisdiction to take action on the matter.

The law has reached the desirable standards but the companies must go beyond what is legally required to create a safe and secure working environment for women. Gender equality and sensitization workshops are required to counsel employees. This is a difficult ask as employees will have to battle deep-rooted cultural and social stereotypes.

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As an example, a politician had shared a derogatory post about working women on a social networking site. The post made derogatory remarks about women journalists. This matter reached the court and on 10 May 2018, the Madras High Court held that: “There cannot be any harsher words than this, which portrays that all working women coming up in life are sacrificing their chastity. The future of such working women is at stake. Instead of wiping out the wrong impression about working women among the public these words create fear and anxiety among people who want to pursue a career.

The matter was challenged in the Supreme Court, which refused to interfere and ruled that it be tried as provided by law.

Indian women are held back by a complex mix of social barriers, including an expectation that they will prioritize family needs over their careers. This is the mindset that women are also battling within companies. The educational qualifications or the professionalism of the women come later, gender bias comes first. The most common barriers are marriage and childbearing. And when they have children, it’s difficult to balance having children, career, marriage, and to be an excellent performer who is going to grow in the company.

In India, generally there is no infrastructural support and gender-sensitive policies to help the woman to do so. Hence, companies would prefer men to do the jobs instead. This is a challenge that working women face but in which the law cannot help. This is where the leadership and the ethos of the company have to step in. The leadership must state loudly, and often, what the company believes in and model such beliefs in decisions and actions. When that happens, the senior level and mid-level employees will follow.

What we see now is conscious and sub-conscious discrimination. Conscious discrimination is vocal and women are made to feel undeserving – sexist jokes are often loudly enjoyed in offices and deliberate attempts are made to humiliate women based on gender stereotypes. This may translate into physical harassment as well.

This is where the law steps in. This is a clear case where the woman can approach the authorities. However, this is only possible with awareness. The dissemination of this information is important to ensure that women are acquainted with the rights they have been provided with by the government for professional career enhancement. But in such cases, she has to accept that her career could be jeopardized as it is highly unlikely that other employers would hire her after a legal action for something that is generally deemed “acceptable”.

The second scenario is subtler and here is where the law has no role. Social dos and smoking jaunts are often male only and women are not invited. Some social dos are organized late at night when it is likely that the women employees would not attend. Subtle comments and jokes are shared about women. There is a private men’s club and though you know it exists, there is little you can do as it is not made obvious. In such scenarios, it is made clear to the woman employee that appraisals and career opportunities may not necessarily be linked to their output or performance at work alone.

In both cases, the role of the leadership is very important. The action the leadership takes against the errant employees, the message it sends to its workforce, gender sensitization awareness drives conducted by professionals, policies created by the human resources department are all important steps.

Thankfully, companies seem to be moving in that direction. It makes business sense as the current research demonstrates that gender diversity and equality as well as happy employees help businesses perform better. Governments also recognize that women’s inclusion drives development, and acknowledge that achieving Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations (UN) that includes gender equality, and national economic development plans require rapid movement towards gender equality.

There are several reference points to help the private sector focus on key elements integral to promoting gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community. One of them is the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a partnership initiative of UN Women and UN Global Compact, a non-binding UN pact to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on their implementation. It provides guidance to private sector companies in promoting gender equality in the workplace.

However, to take these steps, the leadership of the organization first has to recognize that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. As Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, said, women pretend that they have it all. “Only when we stop pretending, can we start looking for ways to fix the gaps through which women continue to fall.”

Shraddha Mor Agrawal is vice-president and head of legal at Mizuho Bank (India).

Read more:

A call to arms – Lawyers and in-house counsel discuss how companies can stamp out sexual harassment and empower victims to come forward and file an official complaint in line with the POSH Act

Blowing the whistle – How HR and legal departments should work together to resolve harassment complaints