India: Making Workplaces Safer For Women

Organisational mandates need to move beyond adhering to the law or meeting diversity targets. They need to go deeper, and work with the benefits of an equal, gender-balanced workplace.

In India, we have a progressive law on sexual harassment of women at the workplace (see box). But laws alone cannot change behaviours which are the result of deep-rooted gender bias, of beliefs and attitudes in society itself. Sexual harassment, molestation, abuse or rape are only the most vicious manifestations of this bias. Discrimination and unequal treatment are rampant everywhere.

Gender discrimination, sexual abuse, misogyny and patriarchal chauvinism — and the tendency to look the other way when they occur — have existed for centuries, in every geography, industry and walk of life, debilitating individuals and corroding institutions. When incidents came to light, they were ignored, suppressed, managed or glossed over.

Recently, though, those who might have once resigned themselves to such indignities have found new channels to fight, changing and confounding the rules of the game. Social media, and movements such as #MeToo, The List, and Name and Shame, have brought matters to a head. The volume, pace and tenor of sordid revelations in the last few weeks shows how deep-rooted and common this toxic problem is. Privileged, powerful men who assumed they were untouchable have been felled, soiling the reputations of the institutions they inhabited and ruled.

Problems at the top

When senior management is predominantly male, it perpetuates male role models, leadership thinking and behaviours.

According to studies in the US, since the 1980s, women have held 50% of middle management positions in Fortune 500 companies, yet today, the percentage of women in senior management remains low. In 2010, only 15% of senior executives were women, an insignificant jump from 14% in 1996, and women CEOs continued to be less than 3%. In 2012, women CEOs were still below 10%.

In India, the Companies Act, in 2013, mandated women representation on company boards. According to a 2016 KPMG study, the proportion of women directors in NSE-listed companies increased by 180% between 2013 and 2016. Yet women on boards was still just 13.7%, up from 4.9% in 2013. The needle has moved, but there's more to do.

Several problems hinder the rebalancing of this equation.

One, privilege blinds those who have it, and giving it up or sharing it is painful and counter-intuitive for all of us, even if we intellectually accept it. Two, habits take long to change: consider how long it has taken to move from smoking where one pleased to restricted zones outside offices. And three, diversity and inclusion is intensely difficult to understand, navigate and embed. Psychologists say diversity is one of the most inherently divisive, difficult things for any individual to accept. We gravitate to, are comfortable with, and understand, 'people like us'. It takes effort, readjustment and getting out of one's comfort zone to include someone 'different' in one's inner circle. These tendencies naturally show up at the workplace too.

Perhaps the best incentive to change is one that even the most chauvinistic employers can appreciate: profit. Study and experience have both shown that inclusive, gender-balanced, diversity-intelligent organisations make better strategic decisions, attract and retain the best talent, innovate more, produce better and more market-savvy products and services, and achieve superlative financial results.

The diverse workplace

As senior management in a leading IT company, a few years ago, I went through a board- mandated workshop on gender intelligence called, 'Men and women leading together'. Developed by diversity experts Barbara Annis & Associates, the workshop stunned our leadership bench with insights on the differences in the male and female brain and how they impacted workplace behaviour. The wiring of male and female brains often drive different strengths

For instance, women, being better consequential thinkers, weigh long-term outcomes and more choices before coming to a decision. It is easy to dismiss them as slower or confused decision-makers. Especially, because men are outcome-driven, think linear and tend to make faster decisions.

Again, men are usually more assertive and better at projecting their achievements than women. Women, on the other hand, are more intuitive and excel at people management and understanding the customer. Leveraging such differences of men and women through inclusive teamwork can produce superior outcomes.

Inclusion goes beyond merely appreciating diversity to encouraging these identity groups to fully participate in work life.

Just as it is not sufficient to comply with legal requirements for mechanisms to tackle harassment, it is also not enough to achieve a 'diversity quota' or have a diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy or an isolated D&I team chasing an agenda that the rest of the employees ignore. The real change in workplace behaviours will only happen with a holistic, multi-pronged series of high-impact affirmative moves and systemic working on the culture of the organisation. The crux is to move beyond rhetoric and lip service to authentic inclusive and gender-intelligent behaviour.

Bring diverse people into your organisation, then retain and celebrate them, and leverage the differences. Growth opportunities must be on merit and competence. The company must nurture understanding and appreciation for the unique context of every employee, man or woman.

Studies in India indicate that among the many diversity segments — including age, culture, disability, sexual orientation, business experience — gender receives over 50% of focus of organisations over other segments. So, gender inclusion is likely to promote other forms of diversity.

Walk the talk

Inequities cannot be crushed without absolute will, and the commitment of company leadership.

Many leaders often fail to rein in high performers; they are more likely to be protected by leaders who need their talent. But it's better to summarily eject a blue-eyed boy who messes with the code of conduct, regardless of the business risk. In a major multinational, where I headed Human Resources for India, the CEO of the company's most successful international subsidiary was found to have conducted a sexual offence. The global board took an overnight decision to fire him, which sent out a powerful message.

In fact, many major organisations, have brought in D&I considerations into client or vendor selection. This is pushing more organisations in the ecosystem to pursue inclusion.

Setting tangible performance targets for diversity such as male-female ratios in teams or achieving a target percentage of women in management help set direction. They drive hiring or promotion of more women, but it is essential to make women successful and deserving.

Change the system

Thriving with diversity and inclusion needs practice, patience and persistence. A sense of belonging is created and experienced only by celebrating the uniqueness of individuals.

Diversity must be everyone's priority, and that can be fostered by creating collaborative structures. Human resources and managers of business units must work with D&I champions and teams such that every party has aligned goals or targets for diversity and inclusion. Isolated departments will not work if managers do not play their role of reinforcement.

The first step to prevent gender-linked misdemeanours is to help both men and women recognise and understand them. Unwelcome sexual moves are subjective in experience. By the law, their impact — how the recipient is affected, both personally and professionally — matters, and not the intent. A city-bred suave young professional may find sending a risqué joke or a lurid cartoon to a WhatsApp group a mundane act, but a conservative female might consider it 'sexually coloured' and 'offensive'. Watching pornography openly, or even a poster of an alluringly-dressed woman at one's desk, might be deemed harassment, if so felt. In a power matrix skewed against women in most cases, the area gets more potent.

Hence, the policy, structure and process within organisations to deal with sexual harassment needs communication. Apart from setting up and running a skilled Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the framework for redress needs ample education. For example, the complainant can choose between formal and informal mechanisms for resolutions. Or, that Human Resources or managers must guide a complainant to the ICC only, and desist from intervening.

Creating a dynamic, well-branded 'respect at work' programme, is a good idea. All forms of harassment including bullying and discrimination may be weeded out through such initiatives. It takes the discourse beyond implementation of a law or compliance.

Living in diversity is tough. What one considers 'fun' or 'normal', may be objectionable to or discomfit another. So, the mental model has to shift from the self to how another may perceive an action. The law in India points to two forms of harassment: quid pro quo (this for that) or hostile work environment. It pretty much draws any 'unwelcome' physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature under the radar of harassment. Casual touching, loose remarks or 'men will be men' actions by a male colleague are prone to sexually hostile interpretations.

In short, organisation-wide change, driven by management at all levels, is essential.

Develop reinforcing tools

Rewards and penalties for right and wrong actions are important.

Create safety mechanisms and deterrents to address exclusion. Processes must be overtly visible. Every employee must know who to go to, and all those involved in process implementation must be exhaustively trained and sensitised. Badly handled cases of discrimination and sexual misconduct (even frivolous ones) can be destructive.

Many gender offences occur, and get tolerated, due to socio-cultural conditioning and lack of awareness. Developing genuine gender-intelligence, and a grasp of why men and women think, work, expect and behave differently, will help both to work together with open, politically correct conversations, trust and respect.

Policy training and education workshops, notice boards, creative posters and collaterals, e- learning, games, quizzes and awards for diversity success: these are all great ways to prevent lapses and foster change.

Send women strong signals of intent. For example, self-defence workshops, safety initiatives, focus groups and counsellors, and mentors or coaches. Also, women may choose to recognise trivial or frivolous lapses, which a quick informal conversation can fix. A climate where men avoid women to play it safe is also not desirable; healthy workplace bonding has benefits, and only thrive in a climate of trust and dialogue. As long as the lines are understood and respected.

Don't forget the men

Male groups, especially managers, also need essential training to deal with female colleagues and build fair teams. It needs acknowledgment that men are making difficult transitions too. I have found high-performing male employees struggle with female colleagues over work and communication styles and orientation. Their 'skin in the game' cannot be about diversity targets alone; they too must see the benefits of an equal workplace where visible feminine contribution is a competitive advantage.

This article was originally published in the 6th November 2017 edition of The Hindu

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions