The alarm has gone off again (to rip off from a tea brand’s ad). The cofounder of new-age media company TVF, Arunabh Kumar, has been accused of sexual harassment. At first, through an anonymous Medium post, but later corroborated by many other women disclosing their real identities. TVF denied the charges and Kumar came up with the lame “When I find a woman sexy, I tell her that.”
This comes close on the heels of Mahesh Murthy, an entrepreneur and investor, being accused of “misconduct” by women who looked up to him as a potential investor or mentor. He was more articulate than TVF in rubbishing the claims. But the case can, by no means, be closed. The infamous R K Pachauri case might be old news by now, but by no means forgotten.
In the first case, the immediate and insensitive public communication from the company perhaps sealed the case in the public mind against the accused. But in most other cases, we are left confounded. While it is right to take a moral stand against the harassment, dealing with it within the organisation in question is incredibly difficult.
The origin of sexual harassment may be in perpetrator’s personality, but the part that makes it a difficult workplace issue is the power dynamics. Perpetrators usually choose victims over whom they have some kind of power. So, almost by definition, perpetrators are more valuable to the organisation than the victims.
Otherwise they may never have reached that position of power. Whether as a corporate employee working up the ladder, or as an entrepreneur who has become reputed enough for others to look up to him. For an organisation, what can matter more than talented people who can contribute to their business?
Their halo effect is our undoing. We can’t believe that our favourite celebrity can be a ruthless law-breaker. We can’t believe that a guy who is so much fun to work with, or in other cases, who is so graceful with everyone, could be a perpetrator. It creates uncomfortable, almost irreconcilable, discomfort in our minds when we have to deal with a nice person, possibly a close friend or colleague, as a perpetrator. I can tell you a thousand times that it happens, but that doesn’t reduce the discomfort.
Even if the victim were given a fair hearing and the perpetrator punished according to the law, the process will be debilitating for her professional life. If she* continues to work with the perpetrator, the discomfort is obvious. If one of them has to be moved, given the power dynamics, it will most likely be her. Being moved without a good professional reason can be not only demoralising, but can disrupt and damage your career plans and paths. Besides, she may be made to feel like a nuisance — someone who disturbed normalcy by complaining.
Professional women, who come across as strong, have almost internalised the idea of “not behaving like women” at workplace… And raising a hue and cry about sexual harassment is the extreme form of displaying “woman-like” vulnerability
It can be a client, for example. Even if you are a concerned employer, would you lose a client for the sake of punishing one of their errant employees? Or would you rather move your vulnerable employee to safety? But then, losing a project has never been an achievement for a professional, has it?
Reactive laws are necessary, but not sufficient
The victim may not speak up on time. Or she may find the legal route to express their grievances difficult, draining and troublesome. It may devolve into a “he-said-she-said” situation. The more powerful anyway always play the law to their benefit.
It’s time to start focusing on prevention, and not just take reactive measures. It’s time to actively start sensitising people towards the wrongness of sexual harassment.
Here is the hard reality: Sexual harassment at the workplace today is similar to what slavery was at one point of time. It is all-pervasive… It has to be prevented and eliminated