Beyond #MeToo, there’s #WeCount

In Hindustan Times, I argue that the goal of India’s #MeToo movement is not the taking down of a few predatory bosses but a new deal for women at work. 

The resignation of minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, might seem like a victory for the #MeToo movement, but it’s far too premature for any celebration.

The former editor is accused by at least 20 women of a range of inappropriate behaviour from interviewing potential new recruits in his hotel room to sexual assault. He has denied the accusations and sent a criminal defamation notice to the first of his accusers, journalist Priya Ramani.

Akbar is not the only one to have been stung by India’s October Outing, which has, so far, been organic, volatile and apparently unstoppable.

In contrast to the government’s silence over its minister, the private sector has scrambled to act. A film company has folded up, comedy videos by offenders have been scrubbed from websites and media houses have launched inquiries, sent the editors who’ve been accused on leave and mandated sexual harassment workshops for employees.

Workplaces have as much at stake as do women. The issue is not the taking down of a few predatory bosses and entitled celebrities. The issue is a New Deal at work.

Zero tolerance for workplace sexual harassment must be a given because it is the law and because it is the right thing to do. Yet, never has the gulf between the lived experiences of men and women been wider. My many male friends, even those I consider enlightened, have been shocked at the stories that are emerging. Even more shocking to them is the everyday reality of women at work.

India’s women already fight huge battles just to study and have careers. Every step is a struggle.

There are so many existing barriers to women’s employment, from family-imposed restrictions to a disproportionate share of unpaid care work, including cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly. Add to this the tricky terrain of the workplace.

It’s bad enough for women to deal with an office culture that includes endless meetings, needlessly long hours and networking opportunities at offsites and office parties. And then there are bosses with roaming eyes and hands. Many prefer to just quit and only 70% of all sexual harassment cases are even reported, according to a survey by the Indian National Bar Association.

Despite these barriers, now is the time to ask if we can dare to aspire for more. Not just for workplaces that are compliant with the law — surely that we take for granted — but for workplaces that value women and recognise that diversity is not just a nice sounding word; for workplaces where women are heard and valued; for workplaces where we can work with dignity without being belittled by male colleagues. That is the goal.

In a few weeks from now, a new cycle of outrage will begin. Long-drawn legal proceedings will eventually be relegated to a paragraph in the news, if even that. What must remain is women’s quest for workplace equality, not just as #MeToo but as #WeCount.

This column was first published in the Hindustan Times

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