Shreya, an Indian woman IT employee’s fight against Wipro

This news story from May 2016 is relevant today for an example and inspiration for IT employees to take on their multi billion dollar corporate employers. Please read and share.

The story of Shreya Ukil might not be typical of all Indian women IT employees, but many will identify with some or other of her experiences at work.

Shreya began working at Wipro in Bangalore in 2005 before moving to the London office in June 2010 to work in the European sales team. Shreya joined a team managed by Mr Vinay Firake, Wipro’s sales manager for Europe.

What is the issue?

According to Shreya “Wipro has ‘a deeply predatory, misogynistic culture in which men are encouraged to have affairs, attend strip clubs, shout the loudest and support each other”. Wipro fostered an atmosphere which “requires women to be subservient” Shreya says.

Shreya says she had suffered because she is “a woman, an Indian woman and one who submitted to the advances of a senior, powerful man in the company with friends at the top”, and that she was singled out because she “dared to complain that she had been the victim of discrimination, intimidation and harassment”.

‘Women who are confident, capable and express their viewpoints are often called “emotional”, “psychotic”, or “menopausal”. Women who support them are called “lesbians”.’

How Shreya was harassed?

When Shreya moved to London in 2010, she was bullied by her team leader Vinay, who blocked her promotion attempts. She was described as a ‘bag carrier’ in meetings and was routinely subjected to sexist remarks by senior colleagues who called her “shrill’, ‘shallow’, ‘un-European’ and ‘bitch’ among other names. Shreya earned £75,000-a-year as a sales executive while her male colleagues were paid up to £160,000-a-year.

At the end of that year she was advised by a colleague to speak to Mr Punja, who had just been appointed global head of sales, about her treatment.

Mr Punja, 54, a chief executive at the company, eventually carried out an “aggressive, planned pursuit of her”. On a number of occasions he persuaded her to drink late with him after business meetings and invited her up to his hotel rooms.

On a trip abroad he told her she was a “distraction”, and looked “like one of those seductive dancers from Indian mythology, Apsara, who tested the celibacy of the great saints”. “He told me that the silk top I was wearing was too tight for my body shape as I had the curves of a Russian body and big breasts.”

On subsequent meetings Mr Punja told her he was lonely and separated from his wife, and urged her to take his daughter under her wing and give her professional coaching. Another time he turned up at her home and asked to stay, displaying behaviour which was “highly pressurising, odd and sexually advancing”.

When she refused his sexual advances he told her that she had insulted him like nobody had insulted him in a long time. He said that she was forgetting who she was talking to. Shreya ended up in a relationship with him because he was “utterly manipulative”, that it was “a complete abuse of his power”.

The company takes action, by punishing the victim

When the company did find out about the relationship, it decided to make Shreya return to India from the UK, against her wishes, and she was blocked from finding other positions within the UK outside the BPO business.

She eventually resigned, but this was refused – only for her to be sacked a week later for gross misconduct, which Shreya said was a “retaliatory response” by Wipro.

She ended up in hospital, seeing a psychiatrist and on medication, and filed a grievance procedure against the company. Shreya approached Central London Employment Tribunal in October 2015 complaining about her treatment by the company. The tribunal’s judgment makes the observation that Wipro’s pay policies appeared to be “tainted with gender discrimination.” The tribunal used this to uphold the charge of unfair dismissal. But it dismissed the charge of wrongful dismissal.

Shreya implicated a number of senior Wipro executives in the case and they were variously found guilty of victimization, unfair dismissal and sex discrimination. These include vice chairman T.K. Kurien, chief legal counsel Inderpreet Sawhney, former VP and global head George Joseph, GM Sid Sharma and Saurabh Govil, president, global HR, among others.

Some sense of justice?

“I hope that following this judgement, companies will again reconsider their treatment of female employees, ensuring they are treated fairly and equally,” says Shreya.

“I hope that this verdict will encourage women everywhere at every level to raise their voices and be heard. It is undoubtedly a struggle and a very hard one but the only way to change this equation is by ensuring that it is brought to light. No organization or person is too big that they can get away with unethical and illegal behaviour. It was a fight for respect and equality and as hard as it has been, if I had to fight it again, I would, with all my heart,”

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