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When men said #MeToo and nobody listened

Harassment is about power, not gender. Do women who yield power never misuse it? Pallavi Barnwal recounts horror stories where men were at the receiving end

As a woman writing this column, I hold back for a moment. There is no doubt that the #MeToo molestation and harassment stories that have come out are brutal, inhuman, and atrocious. I too have my fair share of such stories: in a swish 5-star hotel room, in an MNC office cabin and other places where predators roam. So I stand with the survivors.

But I’m also left wondering if #MeToo is a gender issue, or is it about abuse of power? In all the stories that have come out in public, there is an inherent abuse of power that is being reported. Men of influence have used their clout to subjugate female subordinates. But power in itself is not linked to gender. Power can belong to anyone, irrespective of their gender.

In my decade-old career, I have managed hundreds of male team members, who reported to me, a female boss. I did their appraisals, reviewed their performances, and issued warnings when needed. Like me, there are many women, who work in powerful positions and manage male staff. I once worked with a female manager who would micro-manage everything, inculcated a high level of mistrust within her team and abused her male juniors for no reason.

In my stint at a global internet giant, it was a mandate for the entire staff to undergo ‘Sexual Harassment Training’. One particular module in the training, talked about punitive action for ‘false sexual harassment accusation’. It said that a woman must not bring a false charge against anyone because of an unrelated grudge. If proven, the woman can lose her job.

In light of this information, I relooked at #MeToo with a gender-neutral stance. I spoke to HR leaders who head Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) – POSH at Work. I spoke to feminist friends. And this is what I learnt: Men also suffer because of gender-biased climate at certain workplaces when it comes to sexual harassment.

General Manager HR, Leading Pharmaceutical Giant

“I had carried out two enquiries where allegations were found to be wrong.

There was a manager in our marketing department and there was an intern taken under him. Her probation period was extended after 6 months because of her poor performance. She was unable to draft even emails. We arranged refresher training for her but even then there was no improvement. After completion of one year, her manager said he couldn’t keep her on probation because she was unable to come up to the expected level.

When he did not take her on probation, she filed a sexual harassment case to HR, and reported that this incident happened almost 10 months back. If you report a matter when your confirmation time has come and you had not reported anything in the past one year, it does raise doubts. And there was no confined place, no cabin where the alleged incident had happened. Everyone worked in open cubicles.

She alleged that he touched her feet. Unfortunately, we did not have cameras at that particular place. The manager said he was perhaps harsh in his use of words but had not done anything wrong. She was simply trying to settle scores. We took feedback from other female team members and everybody said the manager was a decent man. The presiding officer gave a clean chit to him. The woman in question then approached her fiancée who was a policeman and then the media. Political pressure was also mounted on the company to get him sacked. We had no option but to fire the gentleman.”

“In another case, it was consensual. Intimate conversations and pictures were exchanged on WhatsApp from both sides. The woman said once when they were travelling on an official tour, she did not agree to a sexual act but he forced himself on her. But the man disagreed. He said it was consensual and they were in a live-in relationship. They had a fall-out later, so she filed a false complaint.”

Female Marketing Manager, Indian e-Commerce company

“A very dear friend called me up and broke down. He said he has got a call from the HR department and he had been accused of sexual harassment. He said you are presumed to be guilty if you are a male. He said he was friends with this girl who has brought the charge against him. Once he went with her and the rest of his team to a bar. At the bar, he showed her a photo of her fiancée. The girl was unhappy that he was engaged. She later alleged that the man took her out for drinks alone and molested her. But my friend had the bill to show it was a team outing. Her charge was proved to be false. A three and half month investigation was carried out by the HR. The man was acquitted. The girl was found to be a stalker. Wherever he went, she followed him. This was proved through CCTV footage. The girl was obsessed with him and was not able to take the rejection. In the end, she was asked to leave.”

“In another case, the woman would take a cut from the dealers after every sale. When the new boss came to know that most deals were going to a select group of dealers, he got suspicious. He started an investigation and she was caught red-handed. She filed a false allegation of sexual harassment. As a team member, I got a call from the HR team. They asked me 10-15 questions, conducted a psychometric test as well. I gave a clean chit to my boss. He was acquitted.”

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