Have we outsourced sexual harassment?
As Western companies increasingly turn to Indian labor, they must be willing to acknowledge and confront widespread sexual harassment of female employees in India.
The next time your customer service call is picked up by a female voice in India consider this: Is she safe?Skip to next paragraph
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We know about the desperate situations experienced by India’s poorest living in remote villages, lacking education and food to thrive. But what about the women who write software, answer calls, and process transactions inside the billion-dollar outsourcing industry inside India?
According to The Hackett Group, the United States and the European Union lost 1.1 million jobs over the last two years. While some jobs disappeared entirely because of poor economics or innovation, most were outsourced. Hackett expects 1.3 million additional jobs to disappear by 2014. Moving these jobs to lower wage markets looks great on balance sheets, but it’s time to ask: Have we also outsourced sexual harassment?
88 percent suffer harassment
In November 2010, the New Delhi-based Centre for Transforming India reported that 88 percent of women inside India’s outsourcing community experienced sexual harassment on the job. Most, 83 percent, never reported it.
Sexual harassment in India is not a new problem inside India’s information technology community, which is largely composed of Indian outsourcers and a few Western firms. In 2008, outrage broke out when MJ Sonia committed suicide and left a note behind implicating two of her superiors for repeated sexual harassment that had become so untenable, she took her own life.
Nokia Siemens, a European firm, was her employer.
Nokia Siemens’ communication head in India, Poonam Kaul, was quoted by Daily News Analysis as saying “It was not a sexual harassment case. Nokia have an operational grievances committee and a Site Development Council at Chennai and Bangalore centres.”
Hard to complain about your boss
As told by Kaul, Nokia made the assumption that because it established the structure for reporting, MJ Sonia would have reported the problem. What Nokia Siemens failed to say, which is well known in India, is that it is socially unacceptable to complain about your superior. According to statistics compiled by the Centre, more than 91 percent of women who experience sexual harassment do not report because they fear victimization. When they contemplate reporting the boss, who is the perpetuator of sexual harassment 72 percent of the time, women again and again choose not to.
Nokia Siemens did what most firms do when entering India; they brought their homegrown human resource practices with them, setting up a structure that failed because of cultural inhibitors. These structures are modeled around the principal that women will report. Women fear reporting the problem and organizations, however accidentally, continue to make it hard to overcome this obstacle.
Firms like Nokia Siemens, if they are looking, will find it challenging to understand best practices that work inside India. Infosys, one of India’s largest outsourcers, established an Anti-Sexual Harassment Initiative (ASHI) around the same time this suicide occurred, offering a reporting mechanism for employees. Infosys well understands the costs of sexual harassment: In 2003, it paid out $3 million to an assistant of Phaneesh Murthy, an Infosys board member at the time, after she sued Murthy in the state of California for sexual harassment.