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"I had a feeling that I was in no way inferior to a man, so I must prove myself."

Thursday, December 13, 2018
Photograph by Azad Shrivastav

Corporate lawyer and President of The Ladies’ Wing, Mohana Nair is a woman who has worked her way to the top and is paving the way for other women to rise. Also an external member of several ICC’s at companies, she talks to Tanishka Sodhi about sexual harassment at the workplace, obstacles faced by women at the workplace, and how women can fight for their rights at the workplace

There is something so enduring about a woman in a position of power who paves the way for other women, to help them rise. Mohana Nair, corporate lawyer and President of The Ladies' Wing (LW) of the IMC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, does just that. It is no secret that women have to work twice as hard to prove their capabilities in almost all fields. The Ladies' Wing, a professional women's organisation with over 2,200 members, encourages women in entrepreneurial and business fields to reach better heights, lending support in all ways possible.

"We help women in several ways, including assisting them to go about approaching the government when needed, and taking grants. Often, housewives look for opportunities at a second career that needs just the push that we provide," says Mohana. A woman who has worked her way to the top, Mohana still maintains a gentle optimism about the ways of the world. She is modest about her achievements, but determined about making a difference. She tells us how most women don’t just want to sit at home now, they want to work. "Many highly qualified young women give up their careers after their kids are born. It gets difficult to restart your career later on. We had an event on second careers recently, which various companies attended. We want to catch the corporate to help them suitably tap talent. More than anything, it gives these women a platform," she says, smiling. The LW has business events once a month as well as events around art and culture for  women.

Mohana Nair is also an external member for a lot of Internal Complaints Committees of companies. Employees can approach the ICC to complain about sexual harassment at the workplace, who will then receive and address the complaint, according to The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. While it is required by law for every company with more than 10 members to have an ICC the victim can approach, several companies are yet to incorporate this. As an external member, Mohana is required to go through the complaint and sit with the committee when they look into it. "We hear the complainant's side first, and then the accused. Of course the latter usually denies the harassment, but others in the office are usually aware of the situation. Unless emails are sent, actual documents as proof are usually not there. We decide among ourselves who seems more believable. It's tough but as a lawyer I know how to judge people," she explains.

As an external member, Mohana helps companies set up  sexual harassment policies as well. A common critique of the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, is that it applies only to women. Some companies choose to include men in the policies too, as they rightly believe that men can also be victims. "The recent wave of #MeToo in India has really shaken up companies, who are now hurying up with forming the required policies and sensitizing their employees. Me Too is a great movement. Women are getting the courage to talk, which they didn’t have earlier. At the same time, it shouldn’t be treated as a way to get vendetta against a man - it can spoil and dilute the movement," she says, adding, "Men in power have been taking advantage since years now, thinking they can do anything and get away with it. This movement will act as a deterrent."

Is harassment of women at the workplace increasing, or are we only talking about it more now? "It has always been there. Even in my generation, as a lawyer in courts, we have had people trying to take advantage of women. Men have not changed, but women are getting more bolder now and are not ashamed to talk about these things as they know its not their fault." She believes that the victim shaming practiced by society as a whole is decreasing, of late."If men are being careful now, it’s a good thing! Just because you wear short clothes doesn’t mean a man can do what he wants to you. That has to be instilled in the man, he has to be taught this right from childhood," says Mohana.

Besides sexual harassment policies, companies are expected to have sensitisation of men and women regarding sexual harassment at the workplace. She tells us,"You have to be very clear while drafting these policies about what is sexual harassment. You need to let the employees know that if it makes them  uncomfortable, they should complain."

Mohana narrates a module used by a company, where they tell the employees exactly what they expect them to do, harassment policies too. New employees are also briefed about the same, and every single employee is made to give it in writing that they will abide by the same. "By the end of the year, the company saw that the number of complaints had come down. The awareness, as well as  being consistently told that certain things are not acceptable really helps."

Besides The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, the Equal Opportunities Act, 1976,  National Commission for Women Act, 1990 and The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 are some of the laws that women should be aware of, says Mohana. "Most women do not know this, or that they can fight for equal pay. Even if you’re working from home or if you’re a vendor going to the company, the sexual harassment act applies to you to," she says, adding that the pay gap is gradually becoming smaller in companies.

"Very often, we have to work extra hard to prove that we are equal to men. Unless the work in a household is divided, you are expecting too much out of a woman. And then the company cribs about the time a women takes to take care of her child. Women have to try harder to make sure you’re not taken advantage of." she says, shaking her head. A multitasker herself, Mohana juggles her own law firm, her responsibilities as the Ladies Wing president, being the external member of ICCs, as well her family. "It's not easy.  I had a feeling that I was in no way inferior to a man, so I must prove myself."

Mohana is inspired by her father, husband, and every hard working woman she comes across. She tells us how supportive her family has been towards her career, even her mother-in-law. "My abilities as a lawyer have often been doubted because I am a woman. Men used to hesitate before taking my advice sometimes," she says, laughing about how at least the grey on her hair has helped with that. "I have had times where I'm advising a client who will only look at my male junior and talk, even though the advice is coming from me."

"Often, you don’t get the opportunities men do. Even when you do, there are so many constraints that pull you back — especially if you’re a married woman with kids. You have to prioritise sometimes, but will receive flack if you prioritise work." Mohana says, also expressing the high winning a case gives. "Women are sensitive sometimes but that can be our strength. These days, women are more ambitious and more outgoing and ready to get what they want. My generation was scared to ask for what we deserve."  

Concluding the discussion, Mohana says, "I think in every field women have to push themselves more. You don’t have to be aggressive, but you should be firm. Sometimes, you just don't get that initial push to start off. Feminism means being aware of your rights. You can fight for your rights and nobody can ever take that away from you."

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