The Curious Case of Mahesh Murthy and Why Men Are Never Guilty

Mahesh Murthy landed up in a mess recently. He is a “powerful” (in a relative sense) angel investor and also a well-known speaker. The last time I heard him he spoke on how to have two t-shirts, one jeans, maybe two inners and make a very small hole in the pocket to do a foreign trip to an exotic location you are dreaming of. I have not met him in person and I don’t know him personally but only as an angel investor who is smart because he dropped out. But many came to know him even outside the startup world recently. Apart from investing, talking to founders and talking in conferences, the reports appearing in the press and also on social media suggested he had a pastime — of texting woman founders with some suggestive messages propositioning them. He came up with an explanation on Medium. The issue died as quickly as it surfaced. The media did not hound Mahesh Murthy with questions or did it pursue him in search of truth.

What I know for sure is that even if Mahesh Murthy is guilty, he is likely to get away with it. Our society and the structure we have built around it work on the premise of women protecting themselves. If women didn’t, there is hardly anyone to protect them. There are stringent laws against sexual harassment and we even saw perpetrators of rape get capital punishment. That was an one-off case where the nation came together to fight for a hapless girl, whom we called Nirbhaya, a victim of mindless violence against her body, respect, and life. If the whole nation has to fight on the streets for every instance of rape, we would have multiple protests each day and will have no roads left to drive.

In gaining a perspective rather than passing judgement, in my view, the issue gets the right spotlight. Even if I pronounce Mahesh Murthy guilty based on information available with me, there is a section batting for him believing his version of the whole incident or incidents. I am in a minority clearly.

What I found is women who undergo sexual harassment do not get the support they need from the society to fight it out. There are some feminists and activists, and some sympathizers, who support such women and their plight. But other than that, no one takes notice. Adding to this is the majority of the women who are subjected to harassment of several kinds choosing not to report it or even talk about it. It just remains a scar in the corner of their minds and maybe they would confide even years after like what Bukha Dutt of NDTV did it her book. She wrote of harassment she underwent as a child or a girl years after.

Coming back to Mahesh Murthy, he asked why would the affected women choose to disclose in public after a time lag? It is precisely the defence mechanism that is built around them in the name of their position, family, marriage, children, career prospects, parents and you could list many more that prevents them from first naming any male as a harasser. But when they do decide to make their suffering public, it is when they have crossed the threshold of their suffering. They are unable to bear with it any longer. They need a release. And they risk their barriers and throw it open. What happens afterwards is again instructive.

Two Cases.

In August of last year, six women, out of the 100 working in Rama Spinning Mills near Nallamanarkottai village in Dindigul district in Tamil Nadu, wrote a letter to the District Social Welfare Officer complaining about a male supervisor. They said, “He forces himself on us, constantly hugging us and squeezing our breasts,” adding, “Any worker who resists his advances loses part of her salary. We need this job and don’t know who to talk to about the abuse we face everyday. Please help us.”

The same news report that carried the incident says:

“There were unsubstantiated allegations against the same person around a year back by a woman worker,” said K R Shanmugavel, senior manager at the Rama Spinning Mills.

“We gave him a warning and also terminated the (employment of the) woman worker to avoid further problems.”

The report gives more information:

“There is constant use of vulgar language and other male workers are also encouraged to seek sexual favours from us,” the letter states. “Some desperate women go along with the exploitation and they are exempt from over time work. But those of us who resist are forced to complete the work orders. Any show of protest results in wage cuts.”

We are led to believe that the firm in which these women are employed doesn’t know what’s happening. The managers are unaware. Only the supervisor is secretly misbehaving with women. The senior manager seems to back the male supervisor by saying “unsubstantiated allegations” were levelled against the same person by a female worker a year back. The male supervisor was given a warning but the female employee was terminated. The warning was couched in such a language, tone, and harshness that it rather acted as an encouragement for the supervisor to carry on with hugging and squeezing rather than stop his behavior forthwith. You know which side the dice is loaded. The female employee who suffered in the hands of the male supervisor had the guts to complain but she lost her job, adding to her mental agony. The male supervisor happily goes on with his hunt as the management seems to protect him without even doubting him.

The second example involves a case of a global company that got insane valuations during its funding rounds, making it the first ever startup to attract unprecedented valuation.

Susan J. Fowler, who was an engineer in Uber, wrote a blog post that went viral inviting a statement from Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO. She wrote:

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

She adds:

When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.

In fact, the narrative does not end here. She writes about the general atmosphere of discrimination against women in Uber. CEO Kalanick has promised to look into the matter after her blog post went viral. Uber is in damage control mode, as it terminated a senior vice president of engineering who had quit Google to join the company just before a month. While the senior executive was in Google, he left the organization without standing up to a charge of sexual harassment.

In both cases, in a remote village in India — where civilization as we know of is yet to arrive and people with raw emotions indulging in rampant discrimination exist — and in a superpower nation — the “hotbed” of civilization as we know it and the land of opportunities treating men and women as equals as we perceive it — the male supervisors who were accused of gross violation of women’s body and respect were given the “licence” to carry on with what they were doing and it was only females who had to undergo mental agony first for complaining and then for loss of dignity.

This happened despite stringent laws existing in both countries regarding sexual harassment. The law is on the victim’s side but the society and the organization that need to protect her are not. Apart from the mental agony, the added incentive is either loss of job or career prospects for the female. And the whole proposition is unfair to women who undergo sexual harassment.

***

Two studies.

Daniel Goleman, who proposed emotional intelligence as a concept, wrote a report on sexual harassment — Sexual Harassment: It’s About Power, Not Lust — in New York Times as early as 1991. He explains:

“Sexual harassment is a subtle rape, and rape is more about fear than sex,” said Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington. “Harassment is a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.”

While sexual harassment may on first glance be taken as simple social ineptness or as an awkward expression of romantic attraction, researchers say that view is wrong and pernicious because it can lead women who suffer harassment to blame themselves, believing that something in their dress or behavior might have brought the unwanted attention.

In fact, only about 25 percent of cases of sexual harassment are botched seductions, in which the man “is trying to get someone into bed,” said Dr. Louise Fitzgerald, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. “And in less than 5 percent of cases the harassment involves a bribe or threat for sex, where the man is saying, ‘If you do this for me, I’ll help you at work, and if you don’t, I’ll make things difficult for you.’ “ The rest, she said, are assertions of power.

He goes on to add:

In research with 832 working women, Dr. Gutek found that although nearly half said they had been sexually harassed, none had sought legal recourse, and only 22 percent said they had told anyone else about the incident.

Few Women Complain

Several studies have found that only 3 percent of women who have been sexually harassed make a formal complaint. “We find that close to 90 percent of women who have been sexually harassed want to leave, but can’t because they need their job,” said Dr. Paludi.

Despite company policies forbidding harassment, many victims say they believe that reporting it will simply lead to more trouble. In a study of 2,000 women working at large state universities, Dr. Fitzgerald found that most had not reported sexual harassment because they feared they would not be believed, that they would suffer retaliation, would be labeled as troublemakers, or would lose their jobs. Some women say they stay silent because they fear that reporting an incident may cost the harasser his job or his marriage.

Another reason most women who are sexually harassed remain silent is that “women feel a responsibility to be emotional managers of relationships and often want to keep things friendly,” said Antonio Abbey, a psychologist at Wayne State University.

In research with victims of sexual harassment, Dr. Paludi has found that the emotional aftermath can be similar to that found in victims of traumas like rape or assault.

“We find gastrointestinal problems, eating disorders, anxiety attacks, insomnia, crying spells in women who have been victims of sexual harassment, whether or not they file a complaint,” said Dr. Paludi. “And women feel helpless and afraid, or angry, anxious or depressed.”

While women remain silent for many reasons after undergoing sexual harassment, the patterns of their thought are similar even after 16 years. The women who had the guts to openly report harassment did not get the attention and support as we saw in the two case studies.

Behind Closed Cubicles, published by Notion Press, is a recommended reading for everyone who is interested in understanding sexual harassment in workplace in India. Its author Vijaya Hari, CEO and cofounder of Kelp, which helps organizations set up redressal committees for sexual harassment, has put together a slim volume explaining several facets of sexual harassment with case examples, most of them factual.

In ideal settings and without bias, sexual harassment complaints should be treated as serious and often entail termination of employment for people found guilty, both male and female. In one case which had several versions of the story given as complaints by four different people, the final judgement was that the girl kissed the man, who was also in love with her, against his wishes in the lift in the workplace. Both the man and his girl were terminated after the man’s sister complained. I have made this case so simple but it had several twists. Irrespective of what happened, it was the findings of the inquiry that mattered.

If you weigh this case of a simple kiss that is seemingly consensual as the two persons involved are in love against the two cases in Dindugal district and in Uber, the scale of harassment in the two reported cases is overwhelming and serious. In both instances, women’s dignity took a severe beating. But the outcome is strange: men are not guilty. Even Mahesh Murthy claims with regard to two instances of his conversations with Pooja Chauhan and Wamika Iyer that it was a mutually agreeable conversation between two people and the problem is with the people who view it differently. The whole problem has been how the two women involved view it.

In every case of sexual harassment reported and unreported, the society is passing the same judgement — the men are unlikely to be guilty. More often, the suspicion veers towards women: Did they give space for men to invade? Did they dress in a manner that provoked men to violate their sworn morals? Did they act, speak, or walk in such a way that the men perceived it as a permission to go as far as possible? Did the woman at her weak moment give into the man? Did the woman, of loose morals herself, seduce the man?

The society’s attitude towards relationships and touch keeps changing with times. In today’s world, social hugging in urban environments is widespread than before. Films take the relationship between men and women to unimaginable planes, licensing and permitting any behavior including the two ending up in bed outside of socially accepted norms. Films have evolved from even treating a touch as a violation in the 1950s and 1960s to accepting embrace in the 1970s and 1980s and much beyond afterwards. The gaze at the woman has taken on several meanings. The woman’s body has been progressively exposed in films, which surely has an impact on men’s attitude and behavior. While films may not be the only reason for men to wrongly court women, the surrounding narratives today make it much easier with relaxation of distance and even high proximity leading to intimacy in workplace. There are studies of increased intimacy as the women spend more time in office than at home. I infer that more men violate today even in white collar settings. In blue collar settings, the women suffer more, most times very silently.

***

Remedies.

How can women handle the positions that is always ranged against them? As we saw in several cases of rape or sexual harassment, unless there is concrete evidence of wrongdoing backed by witnesses, the legal recourse is not going to yield results. The well-known IPS officer K.P.S. Gill getting indicted for suggestively patting a woman IAS officer on her back was the only case of right closure in my memory. The woman IAS officer had the persistence to carry the case for at least a couple of years. Our criminal justice system has too many loopholes and a judicial fight would turn into a nightmare in my view.

Coping with harassment is important and such coping should strengthen women rather than make them go weak. Self-confidence takes a huge hit and women begin to suspect even innocuous gestures afterwards. Getting help from peers helps a great deal. Some women, senior in age and experience, would help the younger women understand the behavior of men better. I would think the affected women can do the following.

· Confide in someone you trust. This has the psychological effect of not stuffing it up and undergoing a silent suffering. The person to confide could be a peer, or a sibling, or in some cases, the mother. I think it’s important because bottling it up is going to cause other types of stress-related problems.

· Speak up if you are confident. If you are bold enough, get out there and point your fingers. That is another form of release. If there is enough evidence, the male is likely to be at least censured for his behaviour and unlikely to indulge in similar behaviour at least with the affected woman.

· Come together to fight a common enemy. If women are fighting a powerful male, it is important for them to come together. By forming a peer group of victims of sexual harassment by a single male, they can seek help from each other. Some would have known excellent coping mechanisms. It’s important not to lose morale and motivation and perceive the self to be weak. It needs just that guts to get up and face the world again. Refuse to be put down by perverted men.

· Find a solution and get on with life. Even if you are not going to achieve much, gather as much support as possible. If you are extroverted, talk it out with friends and family. If you are an introvert, confide in a friend. All these are avenues for you to get a solution. Always think you are in no way inferior in any sense.

· Take to law only if you have strong evidence and witness. The police machinery exists and legal recourse is present. It’s at the end of it your call as to how far you are willing to stretch. If you feel you can go the distance and fight it out, you should do it so that it deters men from indulging in reprehensible behavior.

I wrote this because I empathize with helpless women who are subjected to harassment just because they happen to be people of a particular gender. Being a woman is an advantage in some situations. But when you see that the society doesn’t take a favourable position toward women, it is a tough fight against odds. I always believe in the power of the self. Stand up there and fight it vocally or silently. Win over it because if you compromise your dreams for perverted men, I think you let someone win against your will for no reason and against your will. Don’t ever let it happen. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. And no one can act against your will endlessly. You may be physically weak, disadvantaged, and vulnerable to attacks by men, but your inner steel is no match to their perversion. I conclude by saying don’t be distracted by men. Teach them a lesson if you can, but importantly pursue your life and dreams as if it was an aberration.

The harasser can only make up stories after indulging in it. And the harassed can shame the harasser by speaking out. Brave women who speak up deserve our praise and support because they do it against all odds.

[The original post was modified with fresh inputs and corrections.]

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