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Why women are wary of reporting misconduct at workplace

By Kanika Datta
August 04, 2016 18:08 IST
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In a world in which men still dominate the institutional landscape, gender-neutrality is as much their responsibility as women’s, says Kanika Datta.

Sheryl Sandberg is only partly right in her yawn-inducing book-length advice to women to “lean in” and demand their entitlements as equal professionals in the workplace. 

One of the more depressing realities to emerge from a triad of recent events is that “leaning in” needs male colleagues to lean forward and meet women halfway in the interests of establishing any modicum of gender-neutrality in the workplace.

This much was clear from Donald Trump’s confirmation as the Republican nominee for US President even as rape and harassment charges and certified misogyny loom large in his record, Fox News founding CEO Roger Ailes’ ignominious resignation on multiple sexual harassment accusations, and a Caravan cover story setting out in relentless, headache-making detail the awesome effort former Teri chief R K Pachauri expended in strategising ways to importune sundry women colleagues for sexual favours.

The paradox about these three men is that they were not necessarily gender-biased in their judgement of talent.

They frequently did promote women in professional roles and held a genuine belief in their abilities.

Yet gender-neutrality is the last thing for which anyone will give them credit.

The wilful obfuscation in which Mr Trump habitually indulges makes it difficult to verify his claims that Trump Organisation has more women than men in executive positions and that they are in equal or higher pay grades (corroborating documents? zero).

So it is possible to dismiss his glamorously banal daughter Ivanka’s assertion at last week’s Republican Convention that her father was “colour blind and gender neutral”, provoking much hilarity on Twitter. 

Mr Trump was, however, the first major realtor to put a woman, Barbara Res, in charge of the construction of his signature Trump Tower - that too, in the 1980s when construction sites were all-male strongholds.

Ms Res, who now runs a construction consultancy, is one of several women executives who loyally attest to Mr Trump’s non-discriminatory dealings.

Set against complaints and law suits from a long line of women who were associated with his business ventures and his modelling agency, this image is hard to sustain.

At the time of writing, Mr Trump leads Hillary Clinton by two percentage points in the polls at 39 to 37 per cent.

If he wins in November, the signal going out from the world’s most powerful office is that sexual harassment is A-Okay.

Mr Ailes, once a media consultant to Republican stalwarts and overlord of one of America’s more unattractive TV networks, appears to have been, simultaneously, a promoter of women in his media empire and a douche-bag of Bill Cosby-esque proportions.

Then came sacked Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson’s volcanic sexual harassment lawsuit against Mr Ailes, alleging that her dismissal was the result of spurning his sexual advances.

That set off, like hot lava, serial accusations against Mr Ailes – some dating from women he met in the sixties and seventies – all of which his office denied.

His career cratered when Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor who was the recipient of a particularly offensive comment by Mr Trump as well, confirmed that she had been subjected to similar advances by Mr Ailes.

Some suggested that Ms Carlson would not have filed the suit had she not been dismissed.

This is circular reasoning, since her dismissal was not the result of falling ratings, as the network alleged; the actual numbers showed otherwise.

One point that was overlooked in this sorry episode is that Ms Carlson had reported similar boorish behaviour from her male co-host and was punished for doing so.

This incident is a good representation of the organisational culture that is created when the leader is also Sexual-Harasser-in-Chief.

The practice then gets embedded enough to attract amused tolerance, indifference and occasional emulation by men, and denial or resigned acceptance from women.

Everyone seems to be bound in some kind of Omerta - until a victim chooses to raise her head above the trenches to complain.

As in Trump Organisation and Fox News, in Teri, Mr Pachauri’s conduct was an open secret but no one thought fit to lodge a generic complaint with the sexual harassment complaints committee.

Ms Carlson’s experience at Fox News and the fate of the complainant at Teri explain why women are wary of reporting misbehaviour.

But few men felt obliged to risk their jobs to bring to anyone’s notice the Neanderthal behaviour in the corner office.

Though several men expressed their aversion to Mr Pachauri’s behaviour to Caravan reporter Nikita Saxena, none of them spoke out before.

Several others thought the whole thing a “huge” joke and couldn’t wait for the next office party at which Mr Pachauri was prone to lifting women as a demonstration of his strength.

Perhaps it is time for men to step up and be counted.

In a world in which men still dominate the institutional landscape, gender-neutrality is as much their responsibility as women’s.

Photograph: Reuters

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