Women’s History Roundtable September 2018: Diversity and Inclusion in the IT Sector by S Shakthi

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Shakthi’s paper examined the Diversity & Inclusion policies in the IT sector. She talked us through the processes behind how and why gender policies are framed, with a specific focus on  workplace sexual harassment in the sector. Her presentation was based on her research and fieldwork analysing how the 2013 law on sexual harassment is interpreted and implemented by IT companies in India.

Tracing the growth of IT sector in India, Shakthi spoke about how the it has become an important driver for India’s economic growth in the recent years. With 34% of employees (i.e. about 4 million employees) being women, the sector’s workplace sexual harassment policies provide interesting insights. Using semi-structured interviews, Shakthi was able to gather data from a variety of employees at various levels in the organisation, including non-managerial junior employees, managers and key members from a diverse group of stakeholders.

Unlike the Vishakha Guidelines, which only prescribe rules to make workplaces safe and are not binding, the 2013 Act makes it legally binding for companies to put into place  a number of measures to address workplace sexual harassment. However, there are a number of inadequacies in the conceptualisation of the Act as well as its specific articles. For example, the Act lays emphasis on the formation of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), rather than searching for ways to change the broader workplace culture. In this way, the Act focusses on the nitty-gritty of procedure to address complaints, but does not foster an inclusive workplace environment.

Shakthi noted that in order to change the overall climate of sexism in the workplace, companies need to go above and beyond the minutiae of the articles in the Act (such as the formation of ICCs and provision of cabs for safe transportation of women employees). Simply adopting these concrete measures is not enough to address the larger problem of workplace sexual harassment – which continues to be trivialised.

While acknowledging that the Act has helped bring the topic of workplace sexual harassment into the realm of public discourse, and that women feel emboldened by it; Shakthi noted that it is still riddled with loopholes. One example is the ‘false complaint’ clause. Conceptually, it is seen as a way to safeguard alleged harassers against false accusations by (mostly) women, who are portrayed as being likely to use the Act as a tool of ‘revenge’. Shakthi critically pointed out that this clause overlooks the power dynamics in a corporate environment. These unequal power dynamics are not based solely on gender. In her interviews, Shakthi found that the role of caste & language in creating hierarchies in the industry was significant. Additionally, the use of acronyms like POSH – prevention of sexual harassment – also trivialise the issue.

After a broad examination of the Act and its shortcomings, Shakthi’s paper also touched upon the specific local conditions that affect the execution of workplace sexual harassment policies. Factors such as structural inequalities, the importance foreign clients ascribe to adhering to laws, and brand image management. These factors affect the implementation of the Act, as the ICC factors in the interest of the complainant, status of perpetrator in the organisation, the company’s market status, and media coverage while overseeing complaints.

The Act, unfortunately, has little information on how to train people and who should be trained on workplace sexual harassment guidelines. It also empowers corporate agents (rather than the judiciary) to mete out punishments for acts considered criminal offences in India. Interestingly Shakthi’s paper also talks about the impact this has had on ICC members. Responses ranged from “emotionally draining” to a “sight of tension” as members grappled with the challenges of taking on the role of proxy judiciary.

 

This report was compiled by Nandhini Shanmugam and Sweta Narayanan

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