It's Now #UsToo (Op-Ed Deccan Herald 8 March 2019)
It is heartening to see how #MeToo grew to recognise overall inequity, unfair playing fields and led to collective ownership of #UsToo, not just a women's issue. The #MeTooIndia impact was initially slow but exploded surprisingly fast, almost like a fire with many large individual and proximate blazes.
Two things that fanned the flames: the clearly suppressed angst of women through the past few decades and the shrug of acceptance from the establishment on the skewed nature of work and sexual politics. The tsunami impact ensured that we perforcedly had to start afresh and on a new slate as the only thing to do. While one can grieve over the destruction wreaked on the land it covered, a new landscape emerged - and there was also a completely blank page to start afresh. This time, possibly with a kinder pen. Yes, that's perhaps one way to look at what the #MeToo movement positively created in India's corporate and work scenario. Apart from the obviously salacious details that lent itself to easy reading, the facts really spoke for themselves, and the discomfort and obnoxious pressure that women have been subjected to was clear as daylight.
New boundaries are drawn
How much it affected work, skewed the playing field, became another painful dynamic to juggle for an already stretched working woman, started getting nods of empathy. Along with that, one of the highly polarised debates happening offside had constant references to why now, even why at all often questioning the truth of the statements. An important aspect of this was that women were seeking expression, venting frustrations and not always seeking restitution, started speaking for itself. There was really nothing to gain by revealing anything now except spoiling two sets of reputations. And there was a lot of grief and pain on both sides, I can tell you. But still the poison within the surface needed to come out, if only that future generations may not have to face it or hold it with them anymore.
What then is the real impact?
Anything this widespread, this endemic and clearly this controversial will need some settling down before the impact is seen. But clearly, awareness is at its all-time high, and across both genders. That in itself is a huge step forward. There is far more nuanced behaviour across the sexes now, and far greater respect as boundaries have been drawn. Companies dealing with the implementation of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment laws now had the additional layer of defining workplace dynamics across genders and developing informal frameworks to protect themselves as well as their employees. As always, implementation and true acceptance is another story altogether, but that is anyway true of most big changes. I think the intent and the framework will go far as an initial response to clean up the Augean stables of dicey professional conduct.
Companies already complain about how awkward professional situations can become, and how stilted office relationships and partnering are getting to be. So the alternative is far too dark to contemplate and therefore if there is awkwardness, if there is hesitation, if there are questions and concerns, so be it. Companies are merely gearing up to accept and acknowledge this new reality while making a more robust framework for implementation and suitable action.
Increased discomfort in team navigation is being seen in both company and social interactions already. A simple handshake is looked at with concern. There is often an embarrassed giggle or an uncomfortable titter on any infringement of space. Some people, both men and women, are uncomfortable that this may be going a bit too far and affecting easy work relationships and teamwork, but they also must be cognizant that the post #MeToo adjustment will come at some initial cost, and that it is a small price to pay.
When can we go back to 'business as usual'? Things have already quietened down this year as compared to the initial impact in 2018. I say this in a positive way because changes are already getting widespread and far-ranging and across the board. If respect on a personal level and strong frameworks on the legal and company level are made possible, it is very likely that harassment in the workplace that has ruled the roost for so long will no longer be a major concern. And that is what we need to aspire to. Let's go back to the smoking ban in India. No one expected that to work so successfully across-the-board overnight. But look at us today. It was not just the rules or laws that made the changes, but the receptive grounds on which it fell; the stronger, more health-conscious framework of companies and offices were easily implementable and amenable to the demands of millennials for self-determination and mutual respect.
I doubt you will see an office in India where someone smokes openly. And however far the comparison it might be, it just might be the fact that this is exactly what will happen to workplace harassment and sexual bullying in the future. After all passive smoking affects others too, so peers will object. It will occur if at all in a few pockets and, it will be frowned on. There will always be talks of cancer, and the large majority will do what they think, their peers feel and their lungs feel, is right. In addition, the penalty is far too high. And that's how change happens. What's right will just happen and we may have a sanitized safer environment in the future, sooner than we know.
(The author is managing partner, Multiversal Advisory & Women's Leadership Champion, Bengaluru) Read more at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/it-s-now-ustoo-722142.html