Women’s History Roundtable February 2019: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Emotional Labour, Call Centre Work, and Romantic Love” by Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy

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Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her new book “1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy” published by OUP in 2018 chronicles the labour practices, life-worlds, and media atmospheres of Indian call centre workers, and locates them within the socio-political context of the new Indian middle classes.

 

Dr. Krishnamurthy presented her work at the February edition of Prajyna’s Women’ History Roundtable. She began by describing the difficulties of entering the space of the Call Centre as a researcher and an outsider. At first, she approached the question through the lens of a dichotomy in terms of gender perspectives, examining the different reasons why women and men take on night shifts. She noted that this was particularly relevant given that most call centre employees come from middle-class backgrounds, where discussions about female respectability often include fears about pre-marital liaisons, leading to aborted pregnancies, etc. Given that these discussions are still taking place in the face of increasing globalisation, Dr. Krishnamurthy wanted to examine the place of global capitalism in forcing middle-class women away from institutions of higher education and influencing them to enter into the exploitative labour regime of a call centre, thus changing their life cycles. At first, she tried to interact with call centre employees as a researcher while doing her field work. She noted that she found it difficult to penetrate the wall of secrecy around events within the call centre. So she decided to suspend her fieldwork and began to apply for jobs in call centres. She found that she was not eligible for any of the jobs, being older than the age limit of 26 years. A friend suggested that she should apply to be a call centre American accent trainer instead, and with some help from an Indo-American friend, she was able to master the required accent. This allowed her to get a job at a call centre, and her observations on gender, capital, and globalisation in the call centre became the theme of her research, constituting her first book.

 

Dr. Krishnamurthy explained that each new employee goes through a process of acclimatisation, adjusting to the artificial environment of the call centre that prioritises “feeling good” and discourages employees, managers and others who inhabit the space from feeling otherwise through its training practices. The space of the call centre is created on the basis on flexible capital and flexible labour (i.e. interchangeable labour). Most new entrants therefore slowly come to accept flexible labour as their natural way of life. This acceptance is helped along by the repetitive nature of the work – there is no “buzz” or challenge in the actual work, but most employees seem to find it addictive and have difficulty transitioning to a more daytime-oriented routine of work. This artificial environment is created in part by enforcing arbitrary tea and lunch breaks during the night – at a time when it is not really natural for us to eat. This sort of reprogramming of the body clock encourages employees to embrace the artificial environment and schedule.

 

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s research was particularly focussed on the experience of women employees, in an environment where gender plays a major role in the constitution of the workspace. Women are encouraged to leave at the age of 22, but men often stay on for longer. This creates a highly gendered environment, as age and gender differences create power hierarchies. Young women (aged 18-21 years) make up the bulk of the female population in call centres, and are enticed by visions of upward mobility as their salaries can be put towards EMIs as they work towards building a different life for their families. If their parents are reluctant to permit them to work at call centres, the parent too receive counselling pointing out that this job offer is an opportunity for a middle class family to access social and economic progress and better their situation.

 

All these tactics work towards putting a high burden on young women. Apart from the obvious difficulties of being tasked with improving the lives of their parents and family, they often have difficulty finding accommodation due to the unconventional working working hours required by their jobs. In addition, the creation of this artificial “feel-good” environment encourages women to aspire to call centre jobs rather than college degrees, leading to a complete breakdown in the education system – in more ways than one. It is not just their formal education that suffers from a lack of college education, but call centres also take the place of colleges as a “community” which teaches young women how to socialise, especially with the opposite gender.

 

This replacement of the college by the call centre often means that romantic encounters in the workplace become a part of the “desiring complex” that is built within the call centre – the job itself is advertised as being desirable, so it is natural that romantic desire becomes entangled with job-related desire. This desire complex is reinforced in every aspect of the job – recruitment, retainment, and even exit interviews. Since the cost of hiring and training a new employee is high, the employer goes to great lengths to try an retain young women in call centre jobs during the exit interview. Especially if the employee is a “high performer”, the management often makes it difficult to allow her to move out of the job by offering high incentives to stay.

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion about the status of employees, particularly the relations between male and female employees, and the emotions of the women in call centres towards their colleagues and supervisors.

Notes for this Roundtable were taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy

#Metoo #Youtoo, Survivors Together by Sudha Umashankar: Campaign Edition of the Women’s History Roundtable

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Sudha Umashankar is a freelance journalist and storyteller

The December edition of the Women’s History Roundtable was a special edition of the WHRT series, designed to be a part of the  2018 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence, and was presented by Sudha Umashankar.

 

This session of the WHRT series was based on storytelling and sharing in the era of the Me Too movement, which has sparked discussions about sexual harassment (particularly in the workplace) around the world.

 

Sudha Umashankar opened her session by narrating two stories. The first one was about 17 year old Sasirekha, one of four children. She had two sisters, and a trans brother, Naresh. Their mother was a cook. The family was ostracised because of Naresh. Sasirekha, a school dropout, worked in a garment factory. Her brother Naresh, who doted on her, did odd jobs, mainly associated with deity processions. The supervisor at  Sasirekha’s workplace was a married man named Devanaiyakam. He had the habit of constantly commenting on the girls and using nicknames for girls. He would come behind the girls while they are working in the pretext of checking their work and get uncomfortably physical with them. However, Sasirekha brushed off these incidents as demonstrations of sociability. One day he grabbed her bottom, but being a habitual offender he was able to talk himself out of it. One day he called her inside his room and forced himself on her. Confused, Sasirekha didn’t know if it was love or something else. He continued to force her to have sex with him, and Sasirekha soon found she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell her family. When she couldn’t hide it anymore, she told Devanaiyakam about it and asked him to marry her. But he refused saying he was already married, and her pregnancy was not his problem. On top of that, he accused her of not being “careful”. Unable to bear the shame, Sasirekha consumed rat poison and took her life.

 

The second story was about Sharanya, a talented singer and veena player. She wasn’t popular or a playback singer but she was invited to perform in smaller events in her community. She was married with children. Though she had many professional engagements, Sharanya struggled with her high pitch. To improve her voice, she started looking out for advertisements for voice coaches and came across one in the paper. He was a young voice coach and she really liked his classes and paid in full for his workshop. One day at his class as her time was up and she was preparing to leave, he suggested he would give her the feedback over the phone in the evening. In the evening, while Sharanya sang her song, the coach gave her really good feedback, saying she needs to sing from her diaphragm and that he would show her how in their next class. She could sense that he was slightly inebriated in the phone. The next day, as Sharanya went to her class, the voice coach was alone at home and took her to a room upstairs where he made her lay on a table and started touching her middle to show where her voice should come from. This made Sharanya extremely uncomfortable and she soon grabbed her things and ran from there, forced to forego her dream of perfecting her high pitch.

 

Sudha then opened the floor for discussion, asking for comments on these stories from various perspectives. Dr. Sissira (a psychiatrist)commented on the trauma both the victims had faced. While one didn’t have the support system to fall back on, the other reacted based on her instinct. R.S.Akhila (a lawyer) was asked to comment on the legal recourses and if there was an increase in the number of women who approached for legal help post the metoo. Akhila noted that there has been an increase in the number of women who called to inquire about legal recourses since the spread of the metoo movement. However, not many women followed up these initial queries to seek legal redress.

 

Given these expert opinions, the discussion then moved on to the question of what justice entails when it comes to sexual harassment. By inquiring about legal redress or even trying to reach out to networks of support to deal with the emotional effects of such incidents, what are women looking for when they reveal incidents such as those described in the stories above, and the many similar disclosures on social media? Is it closure, justice, or perhaps revenge? While many agreed that they were indeed looking for justice, the form it takes is often hazy. What does justice constitute? It might mean different things for different people. Sudha’s stories raised important questions surrounding the Me Too movement, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of storytelling and sharing as a tool of analysis.

After a short reading from Roxanne Gay’s book, Not That Bad, participants concluded that women are more than just their body. However, in the eyes of the government and law, women have been infantilised. Social conditioning through childhood and adolescence lead most women to brush off such incidents, and many are encouraged to  “move on” from the bad experience. Of course, responses to sexual harassment can vary and the best course of action depends on an individual’s vulnerabilities and strengths. Many voiced the need for teaching the children at home and at school to break free of gender stereotypes in order to address how best to minimise sexual harassment. As a society, we fail to invest the social and money capital on women. The men have survived the metoo movement, whereas the women are still surviving.

Notes taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy.

Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi

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Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.

 

Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.

 

At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.

 

Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.

 

In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.

 

Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.

 

This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

 

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

#GenderEqualityElectionWatch: Manifest(o) Misogyny: The INC Manifesto for the Himachal Pradesh 2017 Assembly election

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Election Manifesto 2017

In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress is seeking re-election so their manifesto opens by asking: Why the Congress again in 2017? The answers are not very persuasive, the content repetitive and the language weak. But never mind, because this is a gender audit and what we really want to know is what the Congress is promising to women and what its approach is to gender issues. On that note, in the introduction we are told that with the UPA, schemes have been introduced and implemented for the welfare of every section of society including women. They have gone, we are told, beyond the promises of their last manifesto. The introduction reassures us that women will be provided with respect and safety.

The Congress manifesto has a section “For Women” in which it promises:

  • Academic support to meritorious girl students.
  • Hostels for working women in cities.
  • Pension schemes for orphaned girls, girls and women with disabilities and widows.
  • Appropriate justice and administrative measures to fast track cases of harassment and misdemeanours against women.
  • Access to credit for self-employed women.
  • Self-defence training centres in every district to train women.
  • Women’s police stations in every district.
  • Anganwadi Centres in every village to take care of women and children.
  • Expansion of the free ambulance service for pregnant women.
  • A ‘Woman Safety Application’ will be operationalised for women’s safety.
  • Women’s organisations will be strengthened in every way.
  • The grant given for the marriages of the daughters of widowed women will be expanded.

Under the category of health care, it is promised that more women will be trained as nurses.

Overall, there is less text devoted in this manifesto to women (as compared to the BJP) but women for the Congress are students, workers and entrepreneurs. They are professionals—police and nurses. Their health-care needs, at least as mothers, are addressed. Self-defence and safety are addressed here, rather than the patriarchal attitudes that lead to violence, but the tone is less paternalistic.

Talking gender equality at election time (1)

Going by the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist however:

  • Again, the numbers of candidates are low.
  • It is not clear how much support they are getting.
  • Misogynistic speech is a non-issue.
  • There is no promise to end impunity or to bar those who are charge-sheeted for crimes against women.

#GenderEqualityElectionWatch – Himachal Pradesh Elections 2017 – Where are the women candidates?

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This 3-part article is written for prajnya.in as part of the Gender Election Watch Project on Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections

Earlier this week, I and Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan from Prajnya began to investigate gender statistics on the forthcoming Himachal elections that are due to take place on the 9 November 2017. Subdivided into 12 districts and 68 Assembly Constituencies (ACs), the state will witness a single phase election. Electoral battles are often a face-off between two key national parties – the Indian National Congress (currently led by the incumbent state Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (led by Prem Kumar Dhumal). With little space for a third alternative, voting remains largely restricted between these two parties; both parties assembled a total vote share of 81 percent in the State Assembly elections in 2012 which the Congress won.

voting

File photo from India News. http://bit.ly/2iNxZyM

An unforgiving observation, however, is the disproportionate gender imbalance in the electoral mechanics. So far, our research has identified merely 15 women candidates from three major parties contesting in the polls – 4 from the Congress, 8 from the BJP and 3 from BSP vis-a-vis a total number of 400-odd male candidates. Although the list expands to 20 when we include independent women candidates, yet the ratio of men to women contestants have remained disproportionate .

No Name of the Party Number of Candidates contesting
1 Bahujan Samaj Party 32
2 Bharatiya Janata Party 68
3 Indian National Congress 68
4 CPI/CPI (M) 30
5 All India Trinamool Congress Data not available
6 Nationalist Congress Party Data not available
Total Number 198*
Total Number of Women candidates 20*

*Based on nomination data from the Chief Electoral Officer, Himachal Pradesh

In the Himachal state elections since the turn of the century, the number of contesting women candidates contesting have remained roughly around 8 percent. In other words, for every 100 people contesting in an election, there are merely 8 women candidates. Elected women candidates average roughly around 6 percent of the total 68 elected representatives in the Himachal State Legislative Assembly. Interestingly, the figure was the lowest in 2012, when only 3 women candidates were elected alongside 65 male representatives.

https://infogram.com/gender-election-watch-himachal-state-assembly-elections-2017-1gqo2qn3kvgw278

This statistic is further intriguing considering how female voting numbers have been traditionally higher over the last three assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh. In 2003, 2007 and in 2012, the percentage of female voters was nearly 75 percent vis-à-vis male voters who were nearly 70-71 percent. Why are parties not fielding more women candidates? The state is yet to see a women Chief Minister.

Where are the women contesting from:

No Party Name of Women Candidates Place they are contesting from
1 INC Asha Kumari Dalhousie
2 INC Viplov Thakur Dehra
3 INC Champa Thakur Mandi-Sadar
4 INC Anjna Devi Una
5 BJP Reeta Devi Indora (SC)
6 BJP Sarveen Shahpur
7 BJP Indu Bala Palampur
8 BJP Kamlesh Kumari Bhoranj (SC)
9 BJP Vijay Jyoti Sain Kasumpti
10 BJP Shashi Bala Rohru (SC)
11 BJP Neelam Nayyar Chamba
12 BJP Vinod Kumari Chandel Doon
13 BSP Pinki Devi Nagrota
14 BSP Saroti Devi Barsar
15 BSP Manjana Devi Jawali
16 Indpndt Nirmala Chauhan Karsog
17 Rashtriya Azad Manch Renuka Dogra Kullu
18 Indpndt Roshani Sharma Mandi
19 Lok Gathbandan Party Paro Devi Sarkaghat
20 Indpndt Kumari Vandna Sullah

Does the system discourage women from participating? What seem to be the barriers to entry? We find that reservation for women candidates can encourage more women to contest and win in elections. The results of the Panchayat and Zila Parishad elections – where reservations apply – illustrate this clearly, as a 2015 State report highlighted:

“In Himachal Pradesh there are 3243 Gram Panchayats, out of which 1639(50.54 per cent) seats have been occupied by women in the 2011 Panchayat elections. Out of total seats occupied by women, 987 (60.21 per cent) occupied by general women, 421,(25.68 per cent) scheduled caste women, 104 (6.34 per cent) scheduled tribes women and 127 (7.74 per cent) occupied by OBC women. Similarly, out to total 77 Chairman Panchayat Simities seats, 42 seats (54, 55 percent) of the seats in this category have been occupied by women. Among total seats occupied by women in Chairman Panchayat Simities category, 20 (48 per cent) occupied by general women, 13(31 per cent) by scheduled caste women, 4 (9 per cent) by scheduled tribes women and 5 (12 per cent) occupied by OBC women. Out of the total 12 seats chairpersons of Zila Parisad seats, 6 (50 per cent) of the seats have been occupied by women in 2011 elections.”

End of Part 1. Part 2 will track media coverage of these women candidates, and Part 3 is a post election piece.

Stats calculated based on public available data on candidates, and from previous Election Commission Reports.