Aparna Jain - For everyone who asks why women delay harassment complaints, remember the TERI case

I can’t remember the last time I was so infuriated.  I had just heard the news of RK Pachauri being reinstated as executive vice chairman of TERI by its governing council. It was even more galling because the message that was being sent out to women in the corporate world was this: No matter what an internal prevention of sexual harassment committee finds, we will protect the accused. The safety of women in the corporate workplace is not a priority.
With this callous action, the governing council of TERI has reinforced what most women in Corporate India have been told for years: If you want a decently remunerated career, you will have to put up with whatever we dole out, everything from bias to bullying to full-scale harassment.

I have spent the past 18 months interviewing over 170 women for a book on the experiences of women in the workplace in Corporate India called Own It, and almost everyone had a story to tell, relating to everything from discrimination to verbal harassment and sexual transgressions. And yet, despite the pervasive incidents, these stories were narrated under a shroud of silence, with my firm reassurance that I would not name them. That in itself was telling.

Many women had complained — only to be told to move departments where “things would be easier” or that things would improve after a “chat” with the offender. When I asked women why they did not use the internal harassment machinery and committees to complain, they laughed, saying the committees were an eyewash, in existence only because of mandatory laws. They served the interests of the company, of the rainmakers, of the senior executives and not of the complainants.

One woman was approached by a large MNC to be on their internal committee as the external person for a specific case. But she was groomed and given a backstory about how the company felt about it. In other words, she was being quietly informed about how the complaint had to go: Unsurprisingly, in favour of the senior male leader.

Another woman was offered a large sum of money to keep quiet and leave quietly. With EMIs to pay and being clear that no resolution would be reached internally, she took the money.  This is why I was so infuriated.

The governing council among which are stalwarts like Naina Lal-Kidwai and Deepak Parekh condoned Pachauri’s actions by reinstating him. Why? Why have they not commented on what made them take this action? What was their motivation? Why was the complainant not protected? Why did they choose to succumb to external motivation and not adhere to the ruling of the internal sexual harassment committee that proclaimed Pachauri guilty?

I can only imagine the platitudes. A greater good? Much more complex than what it seems? Reputations and business? External pressure?  What’s more, for months, no one in the media has asked tough questions of the governing council members. The standard answer has been: “No Comment”.

I know how dogged our media can be when they want a story. We have powerful editors who can pick up a phone and speak to these council members to get to the truth. These are important explanations that need to be heard. But no one has done this, as far as I know. The reasons are obvious. How can editors afford to ruffle their feathers? What will it mean for media organisations in terms of corporate patronage? I was appalled when I brought up this case with a well-reputed feminist who dismissed this saying the case was just an “old man thinking he was in love and getting carried away”. How quickly we make peace with those old men.

Why do we get caught up in the bigger picture when the core of it is simple? A 75-year-old man harasses a girl young enough to be his daughter. Evidence piles up. Women in the organisation resign. Murmurs about Pachauri float far and wide. Yet the man has the gumption and ease of confidence to enter clubs and entertain foreign guests unflinchingly.

The woman who complained, however, has been branded a troublemaker and, of course, it will be very difficult for her to find a job elsewhere. Here, responsibility lies at the feet of the people who reinstated Pachauri. But it also rests in the complicit silence of everyone who does not stand for the complainant, everyone who perceives a complainant as a troublemaker, and who is not willing to hire someone who has made a complaint to a committee.

Our society has always laid the onus of the responsibility on the victim.

Every second woman I know has a story to tell about how they were touched or harassed in their childhood or young adulthood by a person of power: A parent, a relative, a teacher, a neighbour. And what were they taught? Keep quiet, because no one will believe you. Or in many cases, the perpetrator is said to be important and the family needs to stay in his good books. So child, hold on to your pain, hide it away and move on.  The shame hangs with you. And the perpetrator carries on.

It is this very attitude that moves seamlessly into Corporate India. The shame is for the complainant. Let us find ways to brush damaging reports under the plush expensive carpets that line our offices.

It takes conscious and committed leadership to lead a company that is not influenced by norms that exist in our society as a whole and to create more gentle productive work spaces – for all.  I haven’t seen a single instance of it yet. I hope workplaces have the gumption to tear up their plush carpets and to confront whatever is hidden there.

And for every person who passes judgement on women who keep quiet, remember the Pachauri case.

For everyone who asks why women move on quietly and sometimes accept payoffs, remember the Pachauri case.

For every person who questions why women delay complaints to a committee, remember the Pachauri case.

For every woman who has evidence and is yet condemned to leave the company, remember the Pachauri case.

It is a case that encapsulates so many of our complicit silences.

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