MUMBAI — A few months ago, Indian filmmaker Ruchi Narain was visiting Los Angeles when she was asked when Bollywood, as the Hindi film industry is known, would have its #MeToo moment. It had been over a year since allegations about Harvey Weinstein had lifted the lid on the issue of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
“I said it would take another 10 years to happen in India,” Narain recalls. “I thought our society isn’t there yet, the system is too loaded against women.”
Narain was soon proved wrong. In September, Indian actress Tanushree Dutta accused a veteran actor of misconduct on the set, a complaint that triggered first a trickle and then a flood of allegations about sexual misconduct by men in India’s media and entertainment industries. By mid-October, two senior editors had resigned from top newspapers, a film company had been dissolved, and a comedian’s performances canceled.
In the most high-profile case, MJ Akbar, a minister of external affairs in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, resigned from his post after allegations by multiple women who had worked under him through his decades-long career as a newspaper editor. Soon after, the Indian government formed a group of ministers to look into improving policies to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace.
“I am beside myself,” Narain said. “I can’t believe it’s happened already.”
Five years after the gang-rape of a young woman in New Delhi triggered nationwide protests and led to more stringent laws on sexual assault and rape, the arrival of the global #MeToo movement in India seems set to reshape attitudes toward another aspect of gender inequality: sexual harassment in the workplace.
The apparent speed of #MeToo’s impact in India reflects broader social changes in the country, including generational and demographic shifts (such as an increased number of women in industries like the media) the rising power of social media (where most of the allegations have been first published), and newly available legal resources.
“It’s not that women never spoke up before,” says Laxmi Murthy, a veteran journalist who also trains companies on sexual harassment policy. “But social media has amplified their voices. And people are listening now. There are institutional responses.” In late October the holding company for the Tata Group, an India-based international conglomerate, cut ties with a famous marketing personality, a leading university suspended a prominent scientist, and a premier music academy canceled performances of well-known classical musicians – reactions that might have been unthinkable even five years ago.
Part of this response is due to long-developing policy shifts, including a 2013 law that made it mandatory for companies with more than 10 employees to create internal committees to handle sexual harassment complaints and create awareness about acceptable behavior. Most large companies now have such committees – the media industry has notably been lagging – though sometimes they may be more in letter than spirit.
A 2015 EY survey found that 40 per cent of companies surveyed had not trained their committee members, considered critical for dealing with complaints. “They form a committee to tick the box,” says Rituparna Chakraborty, executive vice president of manpower company TeamLease. “But they don’t necessarily undertake the training and awareness initiatives that are needed to change the enabling environment.”
There have been cases, says Chakraborty, of companies hiring executives despite learning about sexual misconduct allegations. “That sends a message that the management doesn’t care, or that they’re OK with this behavior.”
Urban workplace culture in India, as in most countries, has been dominated by men. Many women now in their 40s and 50s recall that they were the first female, or one of a handful of women, in newspaper, advertising or corporate offices. Being the minority meant adjusting to the “boy’s club” culture of the majority, they say.
“Even 10 years ago, we were under pressure to ‘be a sport’ about sexually charged jokes,” says a human resources manager with two decades of experience across Indian and international companies, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Many women battled to simply be in the workplace, making harassment a less pressing issue. Veteran women journalists recall fighting for the right to work night shifts and get toilets for women. “The women’s movement laid the foundation for what is happening today with “MeToo,” says Murthy, who was part of an early drafting committee for the country’s sexual harassment law.
India still has a way to go on various gender equality measures. Despite the country’s rapid economic growth, women are lagging on several fronts, including health measures and work participation. Female labor participation rates have declined in recent decades, due to a complex set of factors, including rising education levels – more girls are in school and for longer – a lack of appropriate jobs for female high school students, public safety issues and patriarchal norms. Work participation for females is highest in India among illiterate women, who do manual or farm work, and urban college graduates.
Even in the corporate sector, where women have increased their presence, gender diversity dwindles at senior levels. A BCG survey of 1,500 employees across 25 large companies found women made up 17 percent of senior management in India compared to 26 percent across the Asia-Pacific region. The BCG survey also found significant divergence in the way men and women view gender-related issues. For example, the survey showed men viewing quotas as a key strategy to improve gender diversity, but women rated policies on child care and flexible working hours as more important.
The economic ramifications of gender diversity are far-reaching – the International Monetary Fund has suggested that India would boost its gross domestic product by 27 percent if more women were in the workforce.
That wouldn’t surprise Sandhya Menon, a seasoned journalist who helped trigger the wave of #MeToo stories after she shared her own experiences in early October. Menon says her Twitter account has received a flood of stories from other women – many, she adds, who live in a repressive climate of fear and guilt. “Women would be more productive if they had a safe working environment.”
Still, the office culture may be changing for women in India. “Younger women seem less willing to put up with harassment, and are aware they have recourse,” says Menon, noting that social media has helped crowdsource lawyers and counselors to help victims file a complaint or deal with trauma. “Even a few years ago, I did not think I would be believed.”
Two editors she has named have resigned from their respective institutions.
Menon and others hope this moment will be an inflection point. There’s evidence to suggest it may be. A YouGov survey of 1,000 urban Indians conducted after the #MeToo stories broke found 76 percent of respondents said they believe sexual harassment to be a very serious problem. More young people see it as a problem than those over 40 years of age, the survey found, indicating generational shifts. And one in every two men said that they would be more careful while interacting with someone from the opposite sex.
TeamLease’s Chakraborty believes #MeToo will reshape workplace policies on sexual harassment. Where companies only reacted to an incident before, they will be more proactive, she says. “They can’t afford the damage to their reputations.”
Murthy agrees: “The bottom line is getting clearer, more people know what’s acceptable and what’s not.” But more work needs to be done for change on the ground, she says. “Social media flashes need to be followed up on.”
Narain, the filmmaker, is optimistic that will happen. When she started her career more than 15 years ago, she was the only woman on her film set and had to constantly avoid the “landmines” of inappropriate behavior from male colleagues.
“Women dealt with it because we wanted to be there, we wanted to do the work.” Now times are changing, she says. “People who keep up with the times will survive, those in denial will automatically fall behind.”