India Inc.’s damning silence

They represent the collective wealth and clout of India’s corporate titans. When they speak, even Prime Ministers listen. Which is why the silence of India’s powerful industry associations like the Confederation of Indian Industry, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India on the raging debate on sexual harassment at the workplace is all the more stark and telling. The #MeToo debate is occupying centre stage in both traditional and social media right now — so much so that it is the only topic of conversation in office canteens. On WhatsApp, every new allegation is forwarded and discussed, and the #MeToo stories are beating ‘good morning’ messages in volume. But industry biggies, either individually or through their collective avatars in industry and trade associations, are conspicuous by their silence. Maybe they’re hoping that if nobody says anything, the problem will go away or simply not involve them. Unfortunately, there’s little chance of that happening. As more women get the courage to speak out, it is only a matter of time before #MeToo skeletons start tumbling out of corporate closets. Waiting for the inevitable India Inc. knows this. As we speak, HR departments across the country are frantically looking for external “resources” to hold “sensitisation” workshops for staff; old circulars are being emailed again; town halls are being held and Internal Complaints Committees, mandatory for half a decade now under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, are being quickly constituted. India’s business and industry are like a deer caught in the headlights of a rushing train: they know the train is coming, they know it will hit, but they continue to stand paralysed, either by fear or indecision or both, waiting for the inevitable to happen. There are several reasons for this. The first and biggest reason is that most corporate institutional environments are overwhelmingly male-dominated and patriarchal, where misogynistic behaviour is more often than not normalised. This is true even in places headed by women or in places which have a higher proportion of women in leadership roles, since being one of the boys is, more often than not, a prerequisite for breaking the glass ceiling. The second is that corporates tend to have an exaggerated fear of their reputation being damaged. There is little evidence to suggest that this actually happens (think of all the famous cases of sexual harassment you can remember or predators you can name, and then the companies they worked for). Most companies fear that publicly acknowledging cases of sexual harassment at the workplace or, worse, taking action against offenders will somehow damage their public image or their brands, and impact business. This is why cases are brushed under the carpet, offenders are quietly asked to leave rather than publicly fired, and complainants are victimised. Somehow, the act of complaining — and thus potentially damaging the company’s public image — is seen as an act of deliberate disloyalty and it is the victim who ends up paying the price.

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