TERI (The Energy and Resources Insititute) Director General R K Pachauri has been eased out as from his post following accusations of sexual harassment. Ajay Mathur, presently Director General of Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) has been appointed in his place.
An official TERI press release said that Mathur would take up his new responsibilities as soon as he is in a position to do so.
Pachauri, 74, shot into the limelight in February 2015 when an FIR was registered against him by a senior TERI employee. A Delhi court has granted him anticipatory bail.
Ajay Mathur, the new appointee, is a Chemical Engineer from the University of Roorkee. He did his PhD from the University of Illinois and received the Outstanding Alumni Award of the University of Illinois in 2002. Prior to joining BEE, he has worked on energy research, financing, and implementation; has headed the World Bank’s Climate Change Team in Washington, DC and the Energy Engineering Division of TERI in New Delhi; and has also been President of Suzlon Energy Limited.
This is the 2nd high profile case of sexual harassment in Indian workplaces in recent times, following Tehelka chief Tarun Tejpal’s long-drawn saga last year, and a Greenpeace employee’s alleged rape by a colleague.
India is no stranger to the harassment of women, but the work arena has been relatively safe so far. Not any more, if recent reports are to be believed. In a disturbing post which details the systemic misogyny and harassment she faced while with the company, Riya Gupta (name changed), a former Greenpeace India employee, has alleged that she was raped by a colleague while she lay unconscious after a party.
Riya says that the incident occurred in 2013, and the perpetrator was someone she knew well. She’d initially hesitated to approach HR, but worked up the courage after she quit. Her complaint was bluntly rejected, claiming that that no action could be taken against an existing employee based on the allegations made by an ex-employee, and it didn’t matter if she had been an employee at the time of the incident.
The rape was only a culmination of the harassment she’d faced at the company. While on a field trip in 2012, a senior male colleague, who was in charge of making the room bookings, had drunkenly called her one night and kept insisting her to vacate her room and move to his. “He approached me physically despite my obvious discomfort, followed me around, insisted on force feeding me my birthday cake and sat next to me at breakfast when there were multiple other seats empty. At times, two of my male colleagues had to physically place themselves between the two of us to stop him from coming on to me.”, says Reetika.
Her complaints were brushed aside by her peers, male and female alike. “Female colleagues made me feel that it was all my fault, that people bullied me because I let them, that I didn’t know how to “set boundaries”.” Sexist comments were commonplace at Greenpeace. She once overheard a female employee being told that she’s ‘hysterical’ because she’s ‘menopausal’. Senior employees joked about her ‘character’ during official meetings, asking, “Who’s in her room today?” or “Is that person in her room, or in her?” When she did well in her fundraising efforts, she was told “..it’s easy for you, you just have to smile and the supporter would cut off a hefty cheque.”
She finally worked up the courage to file a complaint against the colleague who’d invited her into his room, but Greenpeace chose to not respond – for two long years. There was simply no follow up, verbal or written. The 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act clearly instructs that an Internal Complaints Committee be created in such cases to carry out an internal investigation and gather evidence. None of this happened. All Sonam got from her former employer was an email from the employee in February 2015.
“I feel, I owe you a personal apology for my insensitive behaviour towards you. You have been a wonderful colleague and friend, and I would not intentionally hurt your feelings. Please accept my apology. I hope you will be able to forgive me. I respect you and your abilities, and I hope we can continue to work well together and be good friends.”
Riya says she never reported the rape to the police, given the response she’d received regarding her previous complaint. The rape had affected her profoundly. “Going back to office was the most difficult thing. I had to face all the silent stares and smirks my rapist gave me on our work floor. I had to sit next to him and work along with him.“, she says. “I was constantly stressed. I developed low self-esteem. I spent one year in denial, trying to forget the memory of those hands accessing my body without my permission, and the pain of my resultant injuries that lasted two weeks. My previous incidents in the organization had broken me down to an extent that even the thought of approaching a hospital to treat my injuries was far from my mind.”
But in February this year, Riya took to Facebook to share her story, and this made Greenpeace come up with an apology. The apology states that Greenpeace regretted the way the incident was handled, but could do little else as the concerned employee had already left the company a year prior.
Riya came out publicly to raise awareness about the lax sexual harassment management systems at Indian companies, and to encourage other victims to speak out. “I’m fearless now. I’m stronger now. I know I’m not the only one, and I fight this not just for myself, but for the right of all women to live free from harassment, especially in civil society.“
A former Google employee has taken to twitter to highlight the sexual discrimination that she faced while at the company. Kelly Ellis, who worked with the tech giant in its headquarters in Mountain View, tweeted a series of allegations about how her superiors had behaved inappropriately with her while their team was on an offsite at Maui.
Ellis, who quit Google in August last year, says that when she tried reporting the matter to HR, Google did not pay heed but reprimanded her instead. Google has not responded to these allegations.
The Silicon Valley is home some of the world’s top tech companies. They hire the brightest minds from around the world who work on cutting edge research and solve business problems. Women, however, are a disproportionately small fraction of the workforce. A recent report suggested that women hold only 11% of executive positions at tech companies, and another said that 12% of engineers in tech are women.
While experts agree that this disparity has a lot to do with fewer women opting to enroll in STEM courses, allegations of differential treatment of women have been simmering under the surface. This has come to light in very real terms with the Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins case which has Silicon Valley watching with rapt attention. Pao, who is the interim CEO of internet powerhouse Reddit, is suing her former company Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination. She claims that she was passed over for promotions and was ultimately pushed out of the company because of a workplace atmosphere that was toxic for women. She says that an affair with a colleague that began as consensual but eventually turned sour also hastened her departure.
Large tech firms in the valley are no strangers to sexual harassment scandals. In 2008, then HP CEO Mark Hurd was forced to step down after allegations of sexual harassment were leveled against him by a contractor employed by the company. Hurd had claimed a “deep personal relationship” with the lady in question that he did not disclose to the board of directors. In the same year, Oracle was asked to pay $130,000 to a female employee who had been harassed at the workplace with a range of inappropriate comments, such as “So, Rebecca, how do you think our marriage was? I bet the sex was hot” and “You know you love me.” In 2011, a top IBM sales executive sued the company for $1.1 million for ignoring her allegations of sexual harassment and bullying for two years before investigating her claims. “He groped me. He rubbed himself against my backside when he walked past me. He touched me, put his hands up my dress, asked me to expose my breasts to get more sales,” she alleged. Another Silicon Valley bigwig, Microsoft, has had several cases filed against it, ranging from unwanted advances to office romances.
Closer home, a group of women employees working with Infosys accused a senior manager of sexual harassment.Back in 2002, Phanesh Murthy, who was then heading golbal sales for the company, had been dismissed on sexual harassment charges following a relationship with a subordinate. In the same year, two Wipro employees were fired fired for sexual harassment. In spite of these incidents, prevention measures in India remain lax, with 90% of private firms not having a sexual harassment cell to tackle such issues.
While government and private institutions are making efforts to bring more women into tech, its unlikely that more women will be drawn into this field until they receive a more welcoming atmosphere at the workplace.