The casual attitude to Sexual Harassment in Startups and its women casualties

The casual attitude to
Sexual Harassment in Startups and its women casualties

The Indian working woman is a celebrated reality in our country and even if many women leave their careers before their male counterparts due to various personal reasons, most of us were under the impression that the decision is a voluntary one. Well, not anymore.

On March 12, a former employee of The Viral Fever (TVF), which is a known digital media giant, accused its CEO, of persistent “abuse and molestation” over a span of two years which led to her quitting the company, in a post on blog-platform Medium.

This anonymous account by the ‘Indian Fowler’ inspired by Susan Fowler who relayed her sexist experience at Uber, was dismissed by TVF on the same post on Medium, 50 other women have since recounted similar inappropriate experiences with Kumar, according to a Mid-day report.

When a company starts, there is so much going on that putting up a Sexual Harassment Committee in place, is the least of the founders’ worries.
In many cases, there aren’t any women to start with, or start-up with, to really focus on gender-centric issues.

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Similar to Silicon Valley, women are a rarity in India’s startup ecosystem with less than 9% of its founders are women, according to a 2016 study by startup database Xeler8.

Women founders or CEOs are even a further dismal number with out of the 670 Indian startups that received funding in 2016, just 3% were founded by women alone.

The casual workplace culture prevalent in start-ups where some start-ups have no work-hours, in-house bars or even no dress codes does have its pros but the cons, open up like a can-of-worms, case-in-point with TVF’s founder Anurabh Kumar.

Sexual Harassment in the workplace becomes more muddled when the formal boundaries are crossed, easily in the case of start-ups.
This startup work culture doesn’t seem to change in many start-ups even when they grow multitudes in size and popularity, which is relayed in their aggressive stance to harassment claims.

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“We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations.’’ TVF wrote in response that created more backlash on the issue.

TVF and its employees remained skeptical about Indian Fowler’s claims, and did not change it’s discouraging stand; the severity of the situation increased as allegations came from women in the open on Facebook.

How to handle the situation, badly starring TVF

According to the Vishaka Guidelines which is a set of mandatory guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace, the complaint should be handled by an Internal Complaints Committee, which every organization that hires more than 10 employees must have. Most start-ups do not have this committee in place and if reports are to be believed then, TVF doesn’t even have a proper HR department.

Ideally, if a corporate company does have an Internal Complaints Committee, the complaints should be addressed by them internally and action should be taken according to H.R. policies.

This committee should be headed by a woman and at least half of the committee should be female.

Nidhi Bisht from TVF was the only person from the company who suggested that an investigation will be conducted after more women started emerging with their horrendous experiences in the company. This suggestion hasn't be confirmed by TVF anywhere.

Sexual Harassment cases are shocking but they’re definitely not new and such cases prompted the country to pass the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act in 2013 but the implementation of the law remains lukewarm with the harshest penalty a molester may face is losing his job.

According to an FICCI-EY November 2015 report, 36% of Indian companies and 25% among MNCs are not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 and this is the corporate reality today.

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Arunabh Kumar response to the allegations was simply of that of an entitled influential man comfortable in the patriarchal society who thinks he has done nothing wrong: “The kind of insinuations the FB post makes are untrue. I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she’s sexy. I compliment women. Is that wrong? Having said that, I am very particular about my behavior – I will approach a woman, but never force myself.”

The Vishaka Guidelines state that creating a sexist environment and passing lewd or sexist comments including jokes also constitute sexual harassment. Maybe the ‘cool’ start-ups need to realize that this isn’t the college canteen anymore where they sat around and ‘checked out’ girls, this is the workplace.

If they’re made uncomfortable, the guidelines state that in such cases, women should be given an option to shift to other office branches or be granted to take leave up to a period of about three months.

In start-ups, who are very small usually ranging from 10 to 100 employees, their decisions revolve around what their founders think is ‘fitting to the company’s culture’ which is more often than not, relaxed to the extent that sexual harassment amounts to ‘jokes’ or ‘teasing’ or as Kumar says, complimenting someone, even if all they wanted to do was work.