Safer workplaces- a reality or a dream? #SheChat with Ishani Roy, Founder, Serein

22nd Oct 2018
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This conversation is a part of the weekly #SheChat series by HerStory on Twitter. Last week, we were in conversation with Ishani Roy, Founder of Serein on "Safer workplaces- a reality or a dream?" 

The #MeToo movement has taken the media but art, advertising, Bollywood, and other industries by storm. With some of the top men in these industries being labelled as "predators", the issue of workplaces being safe for women has taken on a new meaning. Not only are there questions about what continues harassment, is there a thin line we walk on and how do we seek redressal.

To answer some of these questions, invited an expert on#SheChat (a weekly twitter chat).

Ishani Roy

Ishani Roy is Founder of Serein, a Bengaluru-based consulting firm that uses a data-driven approach to diversity and inclusion. Here are some of the questions that Ishani was asked about making workplaces safer.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. Can you tell us what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace?

Ishani: Sexual harassment is defined as "unwelcome sexually tinted behaviour, it can be any form of physical harassment - sexual contact (brushing, pinching, grabbing etc.), sexual advances, molestation, rape. Sexual harassment is not limited to physical forms of harassment. They can be verbal in nature - sexually coloured remarks, sexual jokes, misogynistic humour. Often it is propositions of sexual nature.

Harassment can also be non-verbal or gesture-based - vulgar/indecent jokes sent over e-mails/WhatsApp, innuendo and taunts, letters, phone calls, text messages. Leering or staring at someone's body parts would also constitute sexual harassment

Q: We know that the lines are blurred, so could you please tell us what does NOT come under the umbrella of sexual harassment?

Ishani: According to Indian law (Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace, Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal 2013,) gender discrimination or discrimination towards any other minority group DOES NOT fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment. 

Q: Please tell us about the setting up of the internal complaints committee in every office.

Ishani: An Internal Complaints Committee has to be set up by any organisation with over 10 employees. Should be comprised of 4 internal + 1 external member, with at least 50 percent women. The ICC is not only supposed to conduct enquiries but also provide interim protection, protection from retaliation and maintain confidentiality.

Q: What do you do when a male colleague is continuously impinging on your private space but it's subtle... do we call it harassment and how does one address it?

Ishani: It is always subtle! Sexual harassment is never black and white! Invading on private space, subtle touch, brushing against body all constitute sexual harassment. If you are uncomfortable and the behaviour is unwelcome, try to say no. If not speak to your ICC. Confronting harassment, especially subtle forms are not easy to confront. If you can't confront, speak to your ICC. They will know how to either speak to the person and stop the behaviour. Otherwise, they will help you raise a complaint and conduct an enquiry.

Q: Yet if the signs are subtle - how do we draw the line between casual flirting/complements and harassment? It's a blurred area.

Ishani: It can be casual flirting until the moment it makes you uncomfortable. If you feel helpless, in a situation where you want it to stop - your line of consent has been crossed. Speak up!

Q: What can you do if you feel that an internal committee's findings are not adequate and you find yourself working for the same individual after a gap?

Ishani: In that case, you can appeal in court. If the leadership has not acted upon the recommendations of the Internal Complaints Committee, you can also appeal in the court.

Q: Are there legal aid cells that help with this in case you cannot afford a lawyer?

Ishani: Yes, there are lawyers who are happy to take cases such as this pro bono. Please send me a message, I will share the list.

Q: How do you hold an organisation responsible where the ICC is a complete farce?

Ishani: You can appeal in court - putting up an ICC which does not meet the criteria according to the law or is likely to show bias or conflict of interest violates the law and makes a company non-compliant.

Q: Is this in a civil or criminal court?

Ishani: It is in the labour court. The Act has notified the labour commissioner.

Q: For young women who join as interns or those just starting out, what steps they should they take to address cases of trouble or difficulty?

Ishani: Organisations are supposed to protect not full-time employees but interns and contract workers too. Companies should make ALL employees aware of their rights and provide a safe environment. Remember even a canteen, vendor meeting place, virtual-platforms are workplaces

Q. How do leaders, both men and women make it an easy and safe environment for young women to work in?

Ishani: Great question! It is often not easy for younger women, or women (or men) who have joined a workplace recently to confront harassment. If you are a bystander, whether older or senior, do not stay quiet - speak up! Least of all direct them to the ICC so a formal complaint can be filed.

Q. How do you address an incident that involves a colleague BUT outside the workplace? For example, at a private party?

Q. What would be your suggestion on incorporating sexual harassment policy by startups - mandatory or optional?

 If the startup has crossed 10 employees (even if there are no women) it is mandatory. Law mandates - 1)Policy 2)Form IC 3)Train IC 4)Train employees 5) file an annual report to the DO #SheChat @herstoryYS #MeToo

Q: How often should companies have workshops on sexual harassment? Are they useful?

Ishani: At regular intervals. Before an organisation files the annual report to the DO at the end of the year they should make sure all current employees - full-time, part-time, contract workers - are all trained. Checkbox trainings are never useful. It should be an open dialogue for it to be impactful. Training should touch on the subjective nature on harassment, making sure questions and scepticism are addressed.

Q: Does commenting consistently about what you are wearing at work - by a senior male colleague - count as harassment?

Ishani: Absolutely! Commenting on clothes or looks often make you uncomfortable, if it is from someone senior there is always a power dynamics to it. If you feel it's unwelcome do speak about it, or speak to the ICCwho knows how to address these situations

Q: If you feel unsafe to work with a certain person at the work place, can we step back? How do we do it without jeopardising our career?

Ishani: Speak to your ICC. There is an option of informal complaints. They will make sure (in a sensitive way, protecting your confidentiality) that you will not have to work in an unsafe environment.

Q: Do you think men should be part of the internal complaints committee? And how do you differentiate between fake claims and actual ones? 

Ishani: The law requires 50 percent women, in my experience, it's imperative that men be part of the ICC - especially engineering managers/men from group, which are predominantly male. It's also a great opportunity for men to be champions on PoSH. The law is quite detailed, a trained ICC knows how to find facts and decide whether harassment has occurred or the complaint is false. Studies show that close to 90 percent of complaints don't get filed - chances of false cases are extremely low.

Q: In the time of #MeToo, how can I seek redressal for sexual harassment at the workplace?

Ishani: Direct your complaint to the ICC - there are two redressal options - informal (think mediation) and formal (think enquiry).

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