ROAD AHEAD ON WOMEN’s SAFETY
Unless we come together as a society to discuss and formulate plans on this burning issue, there will be no real movement forward
By Pramod Bhasin
The services industry in India, especially the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, has thrived as a result of our demographics — and, in particular, a prodigious talent base of women. Fifty per cent of our employees are women and our companies could never have the energy, diversity of views and expertise, and the spirit of competitiveness without them.
I personally feel very proud that we have created an industry that provides tremendous economic and social empowerment for women.
Yet, it is so sickening and ugly to read the horrible news about the gang-rape. Working for years in Gurgaon and Delhi, we hear so many stories about molestations and sexual harassment late at night, and it’s just become an abominable part of our lives. What sort of society or civilisation do we live in that makes our women walk around in fear? What does all the progress we have made count for if 50% of our population doesn’t feel safe in our own cities? And what can we, as the people who run businesses, do about it?
I don’t have most of the answers, but perhaps by looking at what we and others have done across the world, we have some pointers that may help. One, this has to be on the main agenda of any company, or district or association or government that employs women. It’s not a corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity or a nice to do thing — it’s compulsory. The management has to be actively engaged in assessing risks and then coming up with comprehensive plans to protect women employees. Cost just cannot even be a point of discussion, no amount of profit is worth even if one woman’s life is being hurt in anyway at all.
I am not saying that we take on the burden of policing. We cannot do that and the law of the land has to step up to its own responsibilities (and in many cases this is getting passed on to companies, which is dangerous and will never solve the problem). But we can and must help by thinking about it deeply and putting concrete steps in place.
We have a lot of women working at night with their families waiting anxiously at home and we must go all out to help them. We will never find a 100% foolproof system — no one has anywhere in the world. Could this happen again in some form or the other — yes, it’s a terribly sad reflection of the society we live in and, frankly, I find that thought intolerable. But can we substantially improve upon the current environment? We can and must!
Two, practice Zero Tolerance. Sexual harassment of any kind — eve teasing (why do we even use this word which suggests it’s just a lark), whistling, molesting, passing rude comments — is a crime and should be treated as such, certainly within our companies. These are crimes committed by people who in turn must be treated as criminals. Don’t be soft on such behaviour because in time they lead to other behaviour — stamp this out completely so that every women in our offices feel totally safe. We practice Zero Tolerance — everyone knows it and it drives a terrific culture and it doesn’t matter if we are in Gurgaon or Bangalore or Bucharest or Dalian. No amount of “cultural differences” can condone a criminal activity. Treat it as such and really go after every offender. There’s only a red or green light, no yellow in such cases, or grey areas.
Third, build genuine, credible ombuds person networks or alternative channels that women feel very confident about using. I am convinced that if we had a credible channel for women to reach out across our cities, they would use it all the time. And respond to each and every complaint, anonymous or identified.
Provide them both local as well as head office channels of communications through which they can report their concerns. Drive awareness of these networks across all organisations. The critical issue today is that very regrettably, many women are extremely reluctant to report issues to the police or to their bosses. It’s embarrassing, the responses are not always credible and the lack of privacy is intimidating. We must provide an alternative channel. Even in our overall society, perhaps we need to provide channels for women to ask for help, through social media or networks or other means. Most importantly, the response must be swift and clear. We give no second chances to any manager that intimidates or harasses an employee — and we investigate every complaint. Yes some of them are not genuine, but unless we build a system that has credibility that we will deliver a fast and effective and fair response, our ombuds person network will not work. We have tried and tested this across the world and have learnt many lessons. Zero tolerance and let everyone in the organisation know that we mean it.
Fourth, work with government organisations in critical areas of safety. We may take great pains to verify licences of drivers, check references, ensure they drop all our employees to their residences. But in the absence of a national network, any driver whose licence is revoked in one state can get it in another state — exactly what happened in the recent rape case. How can we prevent crimes from happening if we don’t have a national network of offenders? We must build a cohesive digital platform to share information across states. If not, we are just paying lip service and passing the buck. But we must all get involved to make sure this effort bears fruit and to make our cities better places for all of us to live.
I don’t want to suggest for a moment that we can solve this ourselves — while I wish we could, given our systems and multiple authorities, we simply cannot deliver 100% security ourselves. Law enforcement agencies, the court system, society in general and awareness amongst politicians have to significantly improve.
(I am often amazed at the comments that have been made — don’t go out after 9 pm, only go out with another man, it’s your clothing that caused the problem — how ludicrous that people in authority make these comments!! )
There are so many other actions that need to be taken. Fast-track courts, increased levels of prosecution, public awareness and better policing are must. And eventually there is only message — even socalled simple cases of harassment, or eve teasing must be treated as a crime — and if all our employees know this well, they will in turn influence many others and drive awareness. We cannot call ourselves civilised if we live in cities where women feel so unsafe. And lastly, please let’s have rational, reasonable debates on such critically important subjects. We have failed in that response. This could happen again in our cities but unless we come together as a society in all its parts to discuss and formulate action plans, we will be left with only strident noise and no real movement forward.
(The author is non-executive vice-chairperson of Genpact)
(Article First Published in Economic Times on 26 December 2012