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A working woman’s burden

It’s time to consider safety along with social and economic variables to explain the skewed gender ratio

A woman’s career stagnates after she experiences harassment at the workplace. Photo: iStock


A woman’s career stagnates after she experiences harassment at the workplace.

Earlier this year, Susan Fowler opened the floodgates. A blog post chronicling her experiences as a female engineer at Uber set in motion events that led to the chief executive officer’s dismissal. From that lone voice almost a year back, the conversation around workplace harassment has now become mainstream. With the #metoo campaign bringing to the surface a new name every week, thousands of women all over the world are openly sharing experiences of the harassment they have faced in society and in the workplace.

Cathartic as this process is, the public shaming doesn’t do justice to the victims. Once the surprise and outrage wears off (“him too?”), it’s worth pondering over the careers of the women that were stunted or destroyed by such behaviour. Harvey Weinstein was unmasked after more than a dozen women suffered serious physical and mental harm. For every Matt Lauer, there were multiple co-anchors who stepped away from a lucrative career.

The loss of talent is real. According to data collected by sociologist Heather McLaughlin and her colleagues, about 80% of women who experience harassment leave their jobs within two years. Their research also indicates that a woman’s career stagnates after she experiences harassment at the workplace. These women often choose to work in an environment perceived to be safer, but perhaps disconnected from their field of interest.

Has India fared any better? Unlike the US, India doesn’t have a body overseeing workplace equality. The sexual harassment law, while welcome, is fairly recent, with little or no oversight. It’s not easy to bring class-action suits to hold powerful men accountable. The burden of reporting harassment at work or in society lies on the individual facing it. Faced with the prospect of a long and frequently insensitive legal recourse, most women choose to move on. In the process, their careers suffer.

There’s data to support this view. A recent study of over 4,000 students from the University of Delhi showed that women are more likely to choose a college that is perceived to have a safer commute, even if it isn’t the top choice academically.

Policymakers frequently lament the dismal number of women students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Girls formed only 8% of the total students enrolled in the Indian Institutes of Technology in 2016. But Indian girls consistently outperform their male peers in the higher secondary examination.

Perhaps it’s time to consider safety along with social and economic variables to explain the skewed gender ratio.

There is also a long-term cost on a woman’s well-being. Successive studies have documented the mental health impacts of being a victim, from depression to loss in confidence. More importantly, scientists have found evidence that harassment early in the career has long-term effects on depressive symptoms.

And it’s not just the employee that suffers. In the US, employers paid about $125 million in the past two years to settle claims through the equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC). One of the major cases that was settled in court included damages of $167million to a single complainant. Data on Indian companies is also starting to emerge. The figures don’t include the loss of productivity and morale that such behaviour imposes on the company.

Not surprisingly, women, not men, are the solution for alleviating the epidemic of sexual harassment. The increasing number of women in leadership positions has a direct effect in preventing harassment.

In male-dominated industries such as mining or construction, far more women report sexual harassment than in other fields. In comparison, female-dominated and gender-balanced fields, such as education, harbour less tolerance of hostile behaviour.

This correlation is more pronounced with other underrepresented groups. Male-dominated management teams are more likely to tolerate, sanction or even expect, aggressive behaviour from peers. This leads to what we often call the ‘bro-culture’—a culture of complicity where complaints are not taken seriously. Companies with a diverse leadership are more sensitive to such complaints.

In the US, it has been widely observed that a lot more African-American, Latina and other minority women leave after bringing forth a complaint as they find very little support and protection within the company. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the implications for disadvantaged groups in the Indian workplace.

Finally, in order to fully understand this phenomenon, it is important to understand the profile of a harasser. While it’s impossible to build a simple model that identifies would-be harassers, there are clues.

A study involving shooting video games showed that lower-skilled or poor-performing males were more hostile towards female competitors whereas higher-skilled males were more positive. So, perhaps, in the end it is a question of hurt ego and the display of power to salvage it.

But if the #metoo movement is to be a watershed in workplace equality, the harasser, not the harassed, should suffer the consequences.

Ishani Roy is the founder of Serein Inc., a diversity and inclusion consulting company.


Source : LiveMint

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