#MeToo has hit India’s media sector, and is trickling into neighbouring industries. It’s only a matter of time before it ravages the boardrooms of India Inc. As the tide turns against tolerance for misogyny and amoral leadership globally, shareholders realise it’s not good for business. Is corporate India prepared for this new expectation from investors and consumers?
I am sharing my #MeTooIndia experience at the workplace in the hope that the challenges I’ve faced will resonate with business leaders and women in India.
In September 2017, Rakesh Sarna, MD & CEO of Taj Hotels resigned. The Economic Times claimed his resignation was related to the sexual harassment “ghost” which haunted his time there. After seven months of working with Sarna, from January 2015 to September 2015, I made the complaint of sexual harassment against him. I guess I’m the ghost. I don’t know if he was asked to resign because of my complaint, I only know that I was asked to resign because of my complaint.
I grew up in seven different countries, studied and worked in two more before I joined the Tata Group in 2009 as a 23-year-old, handling marketing and communications for TCS’s environmental management offerings. My role afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with many climate policy makers, which inspired me to pursue a masters degree in public policy from Sciences Po, Paris. I returned to work in the chairman’s office of Tata Sons, supporting government relations for the group. I travelled with COOs to meet ministers in Senegal, project managed a Big Data research initiative across the group, coordinated the group’s presence at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and more.
Barely a year into this dream job, Sarna asked if I could be moved to Taj as his executive assistant. He had recently been hired to turn around the company and was the new rock star CEO of the group. I wasn’t ready to move yet but as news spread of his request, more and more senior colleagues, and eventually the chairman, encouraged me to take the role. It came with a double promotion, and I felt it meant that the group valued me.
The sexual advances started with comments about the worth of my physical appearance during our salary discussions. Over the seven months he remarked on my looks, his attraction to me and his desire to have an affair. His advances were always verbal. And I was always clear — I was not interested. Whether I deflected, professionally requested, or burst into tears in frustration, he persisted. The environment became intolerable as we both lost our patience.
Like a textbook victim, I spent some time in denial, hoping he would bore of chasing me and let it go, a lot of the time wrapped in fear of the repercussions if I spoke out about such a senior person. On many days, his disturbing comments were outweighed by the incredible spirit of the rest of my colleagues at Taj. They were respectful, hard-working, talented, and eager to make the Taj brand and service even greater. What would happen to that future they were trying to build if everyone knew the truth? Eventually, I was having migraines and sleepless nights.
When I mustered the courage to seek support, I was faced with a dilemma. #Metoo, now what?
I found three main avenues for possible retribution, all of which were extremely difficult to navigate: I could apply for a fair resolution via my company’s sexual harassment complaint process, a court of law, or, by garnering public support through the media.
I started with seeking a resolution internally. Taj had an Internal Complaint Committee, which constituted of Sarna, four people within two reporting lines of him, and an external member from one of Tata’s closest law firms. I could go to the chief ethics counsellor instead, but that was also Sarna. Losing trust in the neutrality of Taj’s processes, I confided in Taj board members, Tata Group Executive Council members, the chairman and the senior-most HR official. The only resolution they could find was to ask me to resign from Taj, immediately. They offered me a mediocre role in a Tata Sons back office, relegated to a desk without a phone, and no assurance of my career prospects. When I said I felt I was being unfairly sidelined for speaking up, the chairman told me this was the “best we can do”. I felt as though they had nailed a glass ceiling over my head. Devastated, I quit.
A year later, the same law firm approached me to sign a letter guaranteeing I wouldn’t speak about the issue to the Press. When I refused, Taj constituted a new inquiry committee to prove due diligence. The committee failed to find any resolution and, to this day, have ignored my requests to share their process and final report — for which I have legal rights to review or appeal. Instead, the Taj board member who constituted the committee recommended that I move on with my life and let this issue rest without closure. In 2017, the male committee member even breached confidentiality to inform my new employer of his role in the case.
There is nothing about what I experienced which is exceptionally unjust or unprecedented. The fundamental issue we have in corporate India is the lack of sincerity in implementing The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. It becomes tempting to treat the woman as a liability to business, pivoting blame away from the person who actually put the company in jeopardy, the offender.
The second avenue is to pursue legal support, for which you need a legal representative who is willing (and capable) to take on a large corporation’s legal prowess, substantial proof of the harassment (which can be impossible if verbal or physical in nature), and serious amounts of personal commitment and capital to fight a possibly decade-long legal battle. There is very little precedent of a woman reaching this point. In court, you engage the legal arm of the company and not the senior management. At worst, you lose the case, your dignity and life savings. At best, you get a settlement. I do not begrudge women who exchange financial security for silence, but on a large scale, this resolution blankets the issue and can be used opportunistically by people who make false claims.
The final avenue has become a revolution: Go viral. Publish a blog like Susan Fowler or Facebook post like Tanushree Dutta. However, the public is already questioning how sticky #MeTooIndia will be. Even as recently as Tuesday, I was turned down by Indian journals who weren’t ready to take on India Inc., afraid to lose advertising and suffer the costs of defamation cases. Men, or former employers, can easily file criminal defamation charges against women or publications who speak out, a tactic used in many high profile cases in the past. In our attempt to create fair processes to protect someone from being falsely accused, we make it very difficult for the truth to be heard.
My experience at Tata derailed all my professional and personal life goals. It has taken three years to get my career back on track and learn to trust an employer again. I had to change career paths, move countries, and cry, a lot.
To have a tangible and effective #MeToo revolution in India, business leaders, officegoers, policy-makers, mothers, fathers, and friends need to come together to solve the “now what?” Generations before us fought to get women into the workplace. Our generation has the responsibility to fight to improve that workplace. This can be the century where offering a safe environment where women prosper becomes a licence to do business.
We can help companies, like Tata, who do believe in women’s rights, detangle misogyny from their systems and establish transparent processes. If you work in corporate India, do you know who your sexual harassment committee is? Do you trust them to be fair? Are they empowered to take ethical decisions? If you question this, help us fix it by asking for its review. I invite Tata’s new management to meet with me to discuss how we can ensure that my experience serves as a learning to improve their process.
We can question the ethics of law firms that use defamation cases to bully victims of sexual harassment rather than addressing the real issue head on. #MeTooIndia has led to a larger appetite to engage with the law. Let us request our authorities to efficiently manage cases, so that women can find speedy resolutions. Because, although I admire the legal experts who have come forward to offer pro-bono support to women who want to review their options, on the scale that is required to address the magnitude of the problem, this may not be sustainable. We need the legal community to help us review the Sexual Harassment Act in its entirety, and commit to making it more accessible to women.
We can reward media houses who choose transparency over cowardice, to be part of building the nation than remain a silent observer of its moral destruction.
We can encourage loved ones to speak the truth. There is so much at stake for speaking up. You can be viewed as a “troublemaker”, corporate outcaste, unemployable. If we celebrate and applaud the women stamping #Metoo on their social media, the movement will be given wings and instill confidence in every woman that her voice matters. Let’s worry less if we agree with everything everyone says in this moment of enthusiasm, and focus more on the fact that this movement provides victims a fundamental human right that has been hard to access all this time; freedom of expression.
#MeToo brings this incredible opportunity to build a better India Inc. One which is fair and inclusive, where leaders are empowered to make ethical decisions, and women employees thrive, bringing talent and diverse perspectives to strengthen our workforce.
I attended the Women’s Forum this year and they asked us whether #Metoo creates a divide between men and women. One woman said, no, it creates a divide between the people who cover up harassment and those who feel a duty to expose it. We all unanimously agreed that this is the corporate environment we want to leave behind for our daughters.