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Why I 'Dared' To Take On Wipro

13/05/2016 12:20 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Shreya Ukil

Editorial note: Amid conflicting reports on the outcome of a sex-discrimination suit against IT giant Wipro in London, plaintiff Shreya Ukil recounts her fight.

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The one question that I am being asked a lot recently is, how did I manage to overcome the many hurdles of taking on such a large corporate as Wipro? Even before I filed the [sex discrimination] lawsuit, I was advised by well-meaning senior leaders of the industry that it would be best to walk away and not take on an entity like Wipro that has all the financial and political muscle power that I obviously do not.

[M]y credibility is being questioned. Every inch of my personal life is dissected to find some dirt on me...

My family and friends feared for my health and future chance of employment. These fears were not entirely unfounded as even today the media carries reports that Wipro is "mulling" suing me and claims it has "won". Behind the scenes, nameless spokespeople of Wipro are making statements dismissing a press release issued by Slater & Gordon, a top global law firm. The facts of the London Employment Tribunal judgement go unreported or disputed, and my credibility is being questioned. Every inch of my personal life is dissected to find some dirt on me; the compensation which is yet to be decided by court is already the subject of speculation.

Of hurdles and triumph

If we don't accept, we'll never change. That's the first hurdle. However, my triumph is that there are only a very few who are shouting from their ugly, dark pits. They can't see the light. The rest of the world is standing with me and offering help and resources to bring about meaningful change.

My strength comes from an absolute conviction that money and power cannot fight truth or the law.

I know we live in a highly cynical world and the gap between what people say and do seems to grow ever wider. My strength, however, comes from an absolute conviction that money and power cannot fight truth or the law. That belief was ingrained in me from childhood by my father who was a respected barrister and former government pleader for West Bengal -- man who fought all his life supporting people who had little or no means to take on large corporates that treated them unfairly. I am proud to call myself my father's daughter. Even though his illness took him away from me in the final weeks of the Employment Tribunal hearing, his values never left me and it helped to strengthen my resolve to see this litigation through to its successful conclusion.

My mother, my rock, my sanity in times of darkness, who heard me crying as I described the verbal abuse and sexism that I faced at Wipro over our long-distance phone calls, was pained and worried but never once did she ask me to walk away from what is right.

Two other remarkable women of great strength, intellect and kindness -- Kiran Daurka, my lawyer and Schona Jolly, my barrister -- also went beyond their call of duty to support me and stand by me. Since this case became public knowledge in October 2015, I have also received innumerable messages of love and support from men and women across the world (including current and past employees of Wipro) who have given me the strength to carry on. My thanks go out to all these extraordinary people.

[C]orporates flash and flaunt their diversity awards and policies as if these can excuse the abuses of the law.

The inconvenient question

Here is what frustrates me and continues to drive me: the fact that even today in 2016 when women have travelled in to space, they still have to fight for equal rights. It has been 150 years since the women of the Kensington Society famously started the suffragette movement for women's right to vote. But we are still fighting similar battles.

The Equality Act 2010 (enacted in England and Wales) ensures that women are paid equally, and that right to equal pay is enshrined in EU law also. Other countries (including India) have their own laws based on similar principles. Yet, such laws are broken casually and frivolously every single day, while corporates flash and flaunt their diversity awards and policies as if these can excuse the abuses of the law.

Wipro is particularly proud of its Nasscom 'Corporate Award for Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion 2016' and its Ethisphere 'World's Most Ethical Companies' awards. I'm not clear what criteria Nasscom applied when making this award but it disappoints me greatly that a company such as Wipro, which according to reports has the highest number of sexual harassment cases against it amongst Nifty companies, has made it on to the list at all. Indeed, Wipro's recent press announcements highlight that none of the recently promoted presidents of business units are women. Should NASSCOM not ask these important questions before bestowing awards? Surely we can do better than that as an industry which has the largest number of women entering the workforce every year?

The tribunal found that comments made by male Wipro employees, on separate occasions, reflected an "extra undercurrent of sexism in their attitudes" towards me...

This brings me to the particular part played by senior leaders who investigated my complaints by their internal Ombuds process.

The tribunal found that comments made by male Wipro employees, on separate occasions, reflected an "extra undercurrent of sexism in their attitudes" towards me, with remarks that "plainly conveyed a sexist innuendo." It was noted that comments about me being "extremely shrill, shallow and un-European" were "sexist" and potentially amounted to race discrimination.

The Tribunal stated that "Ms. Cherian [the investigating officer] found the complaint unfounded despite compelling evidence to the contrary" and that "this amounted to detrimental treatment because the claimant [Ms. Ukil] had made the allegation". The Tribunal concluded that the dismissal of my allegations was in itself an act of victimization.

In light of the role played by the then Wipro CEO and president, global Head of HR, and chief legal counsel in my unfair dismissal and victimization, I urge both Nasscom and Ethisphere to reconsider the merit of these awards to Wipro.

It was noted that comments about me being "extremely shrill, shallow and un-European" were "sexist" and potentially amounted to race discrimination.

Deeds not words

There is no more time for complacency. This is beyond doubt a critical time for actions and not mere words. As Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Women and Equalities at the UN Commission, beautifully said during her speech on International Women's Day, "I wish we could bottle the courage and the vision of those early campaigners (the suffragettes) and use it to counter the tiredness and cynicism of much public debate on gender equality". Data from none other than the World Economic Forum states that the gender pay gap will take another 118 years to be bridged at the current rate of progress. What appals me most is that it has increased from 80 to 118 years since 2014. We are actually regressing because of a lack of action.

My message to women in the workforce: do not give up on your dreams and ambition. You may feel small and insignificant but the law does not discriminate...

I would request the lawmakers of India to once again revisit parliamentary bills such as mandatory disclosure and independent audits of gender pay gaps. At the same time, reforms are needed in the law for stronger representation of women in mid to leadership levels in the private sector. I am aware that our President, Pranab Mukherjee, is keen for women to achieve 33% parliamentary representation. In my view, there is no reason why a similar threshold should not be mandatory for senior leadership positions in the private sector. After all it is not just about being fair and equal towards women but the established fact that research shows that having more female leaders in business can significantly boost financial performance.

My message to women in the workforce is this: do not give up on your dreams and ambition. You may feel small and insignificant but the law does not discriminate between big or small, male or female. Build a network of mentors. Always support other women. And when you do reach the top, do not forget to extend your hand to pull those up who are equally talented and qualified to stand tall next to you. As Fritz Gerlich once wrote, "The worst thing we can do, the absolute worst, is to do nothing."

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