Published on Tech in Asia.

Photo credit: pwjamro

We can all admit that India has a bad reputation for sexual harassment. Global newspapers have called Delhi the “rape capital of the world” and most tourists ask one thing before coming to the country: is it safe for women? Whether they’re CEOs, political figureheads, or police officers, many male figures of authority come with long rapsheets of sexism.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons that India’s startups promise so much hope. They’re youthful and don’t subscribe to the stale hierarchies of old companies. They’re so open that they leave room for innovation, self-discovery, and second chances.

Some are even attracting venture capitalists from across the world – and even better, employees. That means that cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi are suddenly home to people from countries that are nowhere near India.

The flipside of having extremely high hopes, of course, is how low letdowns can be. This past weekend, I met with a woman who had moved from New York to India to help a local startup with its operations in the United States. The company is well-funded with young founders from the IITs – India’s elite universities. I’d visited their colorful, hip office before and had even attended one of their events – these would seemingly have all of the makings of a progressive work environment.

A few minutes into our conversation, she admitted to me that she’d resigned from her job. She had been feeling targeted and sexually harassed by the CTO, she explained. She was still on the fence about whether she wanted to file a legal complaint and requested me not to name the startup.

Every time she raised the issue to HR, or higher management, or the CTO himself, she felt dismissed. At one point, the CTO went so far as to explain that his behavior was a “cultural misunderstanding” – that, in Indian culture, they used “different words” and that he meant things in a “nice way.”

The differences in culture, they all insinuated, were something that she could not possibly understand.

Legal action

Conversations about implementing laws against sexual harassment in the workplace were initiated in 1997, when a few people brought the case of Bhanwari Devi to court. In 1992, Bhanwari was working as a social worker when she found out that a child was being forced into marriage. When she tried to stop it, she was gang raped. In response, activists and NGO leaders decided to come together to start a petition for women’s rights in the workplace. They called themselves Vishaka.

In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was passed. Today, all companies that have more than ten people need to comply with it and create what is known as a “Vishaka panel.”

“Each panel needs to have an odd number of people, like 5 or 7,” Pavithra Srinath explains. Pavithra is an advocate who helps companies comply with the act. “That helps settle confusion. One person needs to be an external member – someone who has worked at a women’s NGO, or an advocate – and the others are from within the company.”

Companies that haven’t complied with the act can get a penalty – around INR50,000 (US$745).

I brought up the Vishaka panel to the woman mentioned before to see if that was an option, but she was well aware of its existence. “At one point, HR asked me if I’d like to go through with it, but I didn’t,” she explained to me. “That’s because the number of people that were from the company on the panel was overwhelming, and I didn’t feel like they’d vote for me against the CTO. I didn’t want to open up about what I’d gone through and have them reject me.”

It’s that gray area that is troublesome, she explained – one of those things that can only really be solved by finding deep solutions to improve work culture and attitude.

Creating a comfortable, global work culture is a conversation I’d had before with Anand Anandkumar, who is the CEO of Bugworks. Bugworks is a biotech startup that creates solutions for bacteria that have evolved to resist current antibiotics. It is operational in both Bangalore and the United States, and he’s managed other companies that work across borders.

His response to my initial email was immediate. “I have always maintained a ZERO TOLERANCE attitude about sexual harassment in all the companies I’ve been associated with,” he wrote back. When I recounted the incident over the phone to him, he was a bit more thoughtful.

“We had an incident once where the IT guy kept standing too close to one of our employees,” he reminisces. “She felt like he was breathing over her shoulder. We called him into the office and told him what we weren’t happy with it. We didn’t fire him, but we gave him a few pointers that absolutely had to be changed. She never made a complaint again.”

Anand was also careful when I asked him for advice about the earlier situation with the woman and her CTO.

“We don’t know both sides of the situation, but I do think it was handled poorly,” he says.

“Most importantly, the founders should have addressed her problem,” he adds. “There are different sensitivities around the world – and it’s important to learn about them to move forward.“

Find a solution

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a story like this. One American friend worked for a startup in Bangalore where the CEO would repeatedly use the women’s bathroom. When he heard that she and other employees were uncomfortable with it, he dismissed them, explaining that the women’s bathroom was closer to his office than the men’s bathroom.

And those are just stories from the few that have felt comfortable enough to open up. There are a lot of gray areas that initiatives like the Vishaka panel can’t cover. What about an uncomfortable feeling? Or a hand that stays too long on your shoulder?

While workplace sexism exists across the world, from Silicon Valley to Singapore, there are certain things that companies on the throes of rapid globalization can do to make sure that things don’t get out of control.

Say sorry.

This is a hard thing to do in all aspects of your life, but particularly difficult when it comes to the office, where your reputation counts for everything. If someone feels that you’re taking things too far, say sorry and figure out what you can do to fix it. Take ownership for your mistakes. “In most situations, it’s best to apologize for the misunderstanding,” explains Anand from Bugworks. “Focus on finding a solution.”

Take complaints seriously.

After an Uber driver raped a woman in Delhi, the police did a background check of him. It turned out that plenty of riders had reported him for being “creepy”. If an employee feels uncomfortable, it doesn’t hurt to take it seriously and explore their reasoning.

Validate feelings.

It’s already difficult to open up about the very intimate details of harassment. If an employee opens up to you, make sure you show that you understand them, and that you’re looking for the best solution possible to make them feel better, and for the office environment to be safer.

Don’t hire anyone until you’re ready to juggle different cultures.

This may be the most important point of all. That glitzy hire with great coding experience from Brazil may sound like a good idea, but you’ll have to be vigilant about keeping them feeling included and understood. If you’re not ready to rough the waters of misunderstandings and complications, don’t waste your time and money.