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Ungender: An initiative to help make workplaces legally compliant with sexual harassment laws

India, like many other countries in the world, is experiencing a shift in the nature of its workforce. It is seeing increased participation of women in the workforce. With this growth, there is also a growing awareness of the need for a framework to regulate issues in relation to gender, and particularly women, in the workplace. This has resulted in the enactment of The Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) and the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017.

The POSH Act came into effect from 9th December, 2013. Until the enactment of this piece of legislation, this area of law was governed by the Vishakha Guidelines, formulated by the Supreme Court in the landmark judgment of Vishakha and others v. State of Rajasthan in 1997. The Court had stated that the guidelines would remain in force until legislation was passed to deal with the issue. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 came into force on 1st April, 2017 to provide benefits such as crèche facility and work from home option for working mothers.

As a result of these enactments, companies now need to put into place compliance mechanisms in accordance with these laws. Helping companies with such compliance and implementation of workplace laws is Ungender, which aims to decode these laws, and work very closely with workplaces to adopt these laws and their guidelines in alignment with the internal industry and organizational dynamics.

The story behind Ungender

The foundation for Ungender was laid four years ago, with an earlier entity, “CloudTrain”, as an advisory for Corporates only. The current activities of Ungender, though, work on all verticals of implementation of the workplace laws.

Ungender was founded by Pallavi Pareek (pictured left) and Esha Shekhar (pictured right). Pallavi earlier worked as a Change Management Specialist and was later part of a legal education startup. “That was more than five years ago and as a legal education startup, I am glad that it had taught me more about the legal system and laws of this country as it has for thousands of individuals across the world. However, with the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, I started dealing with this specific law on creating awareness about this law, building compliance tools and industry structure and eventually took an operational exit from my first venture to focus full time on this field. Since December 2013, I have engaged with over 100 organizations to build strategies for implementing the nuances of the sexual harassment of women at workplace laws”, says Pallavi.

“For me, laws hold a huge importance. They were created for a reason and they exist for a purpose. They lose their meaning if they are not understood and exercised by the target groups they are intended for. When the government and lawmakers are done playing their role after introducing these laws, I only intend to play the required role of generating appropriate educational content for mass consumption, designing suitable communication and awareness strategy for different target groups, and formulate accessibility amongst all stakeholders”, adds Pallavi.

Esha quit her job, first as a journalist, and then as a litigator to focus on the one question that has always risen in her mind- which is how to create accessibility to legal solutions. Esha says, “From my first attempt at creating a solution to address this problem with Cliklawyer (a web application creating for helping small and medium scale businesses as well as individuals find cost effective & intelligent legal solutions), my work in the area of addressing ‘accessibility of law’ has further refined with Ungender, where we are working on unravelling gender based laws and how such laws’ objectives can reach its various stakeholders, down to the last level. Apart from promoting implementation and compliance to such gender based laws, the aim is to also create cost effective and quality legal solutions for individuals facing sexual harassment at workplace and otherwise, and help them use the due process of law effectively.”

Ungender’s Scope of Work and Vision

One of Ungender’s aims is to remove the gender discrimination from gender specific laws. Ungender’s philosophy is “what is good for one gender, is good for every other”, and it is reflected in the way it currently implements these gender specific laws.

Ungender offerings currently include compliance on the POSH Act, adopting the guidelines of amendments in Maternity Act, workplace and employment policy, and facilitating participation of different genders at workplaces. The Ungender team focuses around promoting gender neutrality and legal compliance to promote inclusion at workplaces. The formula for transformation adopted by the Ungender team is service delivery through engagements, research and advocacy, and stakeholders education.

“While service delivery engagements focus on corporates and workplaces, research and advocacy activities focus on ground level data of implementation in private and government domain. The last variable of stakeholders education aims to upgrade the skill and knowledge level of all stakeholders involved (in the case of Sexual Harassment laws – District officers, Local Complaints Committees, Police Authorities)”, say the founders.

Ungender intends to continue focussing on these two laws with refinement of offerings for industry specific needs, generating of the much required data and analytics in the field, cost effective and streamlined extension of services for individuals and experts availability to reach out to not just metro cities or tier 3 cities but cover even the unorganized population covered under these laws.

Pallavi and Esha say that in addition to compliance and implementation mechanisms, Ungender, through its Foundation work (Initiatives for Inclusion Foundation), also works in facilitating legal counselling, access to quality service and confidential mechanisms for redressals to individual men and women. Additional activities include educational sessions in colleges on this subject for both law schools and management schools to instill knowledge on this subject, create awareness on existing laws and their objectives and cultivate a gender neutral mindset amongst the future leaders.

Clients’ response to Ungender’s initiatives

Though the POSH Act makes compliance compulsory, the effectiveness of it largely depends on how the senior management and promoters work towards its implementation and the efforts they take to communicate the same internally. Thus, Pallavi and Esha say they have had a mixed bag of experiences with their corporate clients. “On the face front, we receive a very positive response to our philosophy and work activities. While some promoters and workplace leaders are open to making workplaces safe for their employees, especially women, there are many who are still skeptical about the need for having such mechanisms in place.”

They also say that the authorities such as District officers and Local Complaints Committees (responsible for implementation and monitoring of the law and its guidelines, especially in the case of POSH Act) have not been constituted.

In the absence of these authorities, Ungender focuses and spends a lot of time in helping organization leaders understand the benefits of having these guidelines in place, identifying their concerns with respect to guidelines implementation (several concerns revolve around misuse of this law and cost of implementation), and devising organization specific interventions to address those concerns. This makes the process a bit longer, but eventually, industry specific structures are getting formed to present as case studies for these thought leaders.

Working Model

Over the past few years, Ungender has worked out an efficient model of functioning. “We continue to streamline our offerings and introduce automations for us to expand our operations. Ungender has developed its online and offline services for organizations, individuals and government agencies as its advisory offerings. We provide external member engagement through different models for Internal Complaints Committees across India, design customized training solutions for effective implementation, implement our online modules for both employee sensitization and Internal Committee’s Capacity building for large and fragmented employee base organizations, provide advisory engagement in the form of compliance audits, Internal Committee Governance Mechanisms Setup, and documentation support.”, Pallavi and Esha say.

For individuals, Ungender’s focus is on providing legal counselling in cases that were not dealt properly (for both men and women) with respect to sexual harassment and gender based discrimination in workplaces. This has also helped them gain insights on where organizations are leaving gaps in their implementation of these laws and helps them to improve their corporate offerings better. They also work with government agencies like District Officers, Local Complaints Committees and Police Officers, and engage at a very subsidized pricing.

As Pallavi and Esha point out, there has not yet been any effort to quantify the impact post implementation of these laws. They say, “At some point, a number-driven approach will be required to show organization leaders a comparative cost and benefit of not/having such mechanisms in place. We are still way behind from a time when leaders will only look at the quality of engagement and not focus or worry about the preventive cost of compliances and policies. However, at present, having leaders and HR fraternity seek diversity and compliance individuals – is an era of pride for us. It makes us feel that we did something right in the past few years to contribute to this transformation and gives us the motivation to continue developing our efforts further with the changing needs of the ecosystem and at times also take the role of the flagbearer of that change.”

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