“Can we not even compliment or flatter a woman now? What about flirting?” asked one of the men in the seminar room of Nacre Software Services, in the southern city of Hyderabad. Another asked: “If women dress seductively, it will naturally disturb the men in the office. Shouldn’t the law say something about women’s dress code at work?”
At this, their female colleagues shouted, “No!”
“I know you do all this outside, but now you can’t do this in the office,” said the workshop facilitator, Suman Sayani, as the men tried to hide their laughter.
Such workshops are a sign of India’s increasing attempts to tackle pervasive sexual harassment. The effort reflects an unprecedented national conversation about the abuse of women set off by the
horrific gang-rape of a young student in December.
The broad public outrage over that rape has led to the passage of several laws, including the one against sexual harassment at the workplace approved by Parliament in April.
The debate is occurring as a growing number of women are entering urban service jobs in information technology, banking, retail and health care — transforming what were once predominantly male occupations. The number of female office workers increased threefold in the past decade in Hyderabad, according to the census.
“The new law was really prompted by the huge anger unleashed by the Delhi gang-rape victim, and the government needed to show action,” said Lira Goswami, senior partner with the New Delhi-based law firm Associated Law Advisers, who instruct companies on the law. “But the biggest challenge for the Indian woman is cultural.”
When a woman is harassed, she added, “her family tells her to hush it, ignore it. Others say it will blemish her reputation. Our society is always telling women to cover up the abuse, even though it is rampant.”
Awareness about workplace sexual harassment is relatively new in India, where men in powerful positions routinely make passes at their female subordinates, grope them and crack off-color jokes.
“Despite this new law, companies are still very squeamish to talk about this,” Sayani said. “They say that their male employees feel targeted, that the topic is too sensitive and may spread unnecessary negativity in the office. Many companies request me to counsel the women, instead, to take better care and somehow avoid such propositions.”
But many hope that the IT industry in business-friendly, globally connected cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore can show the way for the rest of India.
“The culture of IT companies here is different, and they can be early adopters,” said Rajwant Motikar, chief executive of AdminCorp, a business management consultancy that has begun formulating sexual harassment policies for small IT companies in Hyderabad.