Taking a Strong Stand against Workplace Sexual Harassment

When I read Indian Fowler’s post, I was sad. Then I read Arunabh Kumar’s response:

And I was angry, and perplexed. Is he stupid? Obviously, not. He is well educated, has created a hugely successful venture, and been funded by top investors: he cannot be stupid!

Then, what creates the arrogance that it is his right to say what he wants to say to anyone? It is not freedom of expression if you harass someone else. But, Mr. Kumar feels that there is nothing wrong with what he does.

I was thinking of this hot-shot, rich (/well-funded), arrogant, male CEO who thinks, nay, knows he’s God’s gift to women, and I realized where I had seen this picture earlier. It is all around us in popular literature, media and reality.

Remember Tony Stark?

Here he is, CEO of Stark Industries, making his assistant extremely uncomfortable.

And, yet again, in the next movie, he’s flirting with a new employee at his company.

Pepper warns him about a sexual harassment lawsuit, but our hero does not care. Come on! Who can resist or object to Tony Stark’s advances?

(Aside: Iron Man has been one of my favourite characters from the Avengers series, and I had not consciously recognized the inherent sexist / sexual harassment nature of his character earlier. He has lot a fan now.)

This is not limited just to fiction. Look about, at some of the high-flying CEOs who were accused of sexual harassment. They are still around us, being invited to litfests, continuing to be on the panels that should investigate them, receiving lifetime achievement awards and being recognized as industry pioneers.

There’s no downside, it appears, of causing sexual harassment, even if you are publicly outed. The chances that the women at the receiving end of harassment take action is already low. And when they do take the brave step of complaining, there is just no fear of retribution.

The law may take its course. But in my view, Mr. Kumar’s statement above clearly shows he is in violation of the laws and standards related to workplace sexual harassment. Even if I were to not believe a single word of Indian Fowler’s post, Mr. Kumar is still guilty because of his “confession” of unacceptable workplace behaviour. Those who wield organization power due to their seniority in hierarchy have a huge responsibility to set the right tone for values and culture. For a senior person, even a “consensual” relationship with a junior person is a likely case of sexual harassment due to the asymmetric power equation.

At the same time, all of us have a responsibility too. A responsibility not to rehabilitate such people who seem to show no signs of remorse or change. By behaving as if it was nothing much, or treating such incidents as “a lapse of judgment”, we are not only encouraging them to repeat their offences, but also creating wrong role models for the next hot-shot CEO.

Let’s not make heroes of Tony Stark or Arunabh Kumar!