Published in 4 February 2017

As evening descended, a group of young professionals assembled near the Wipro circle in Pune’s Hinjewadi area on Wednesday. Holding candles and placards with messages such as “Justice for Rasila” “We need safe workplace” and “Employees are not slaves”, the gathering of men and women information technology professionals protested against the murder Infosys employee Rasila Raju, who had allegedly been strangled by a security guard in her office on January 29.

Though it was her day off, 25-year-old Raju had come to the Infosys office in Hinjewadi, the city’s IT hub, for the 2 pm to 11 pm shift on Sunday to work on a project. Company security guard Bhaben Saikia, who was arrested for her murder, allegedly strangled her using a computer wire. Raju had earlier complained to company officials about Saikia, her family said, but no action had been taken.

This is the second murder of a woman techie in Pune in as many months – in December 2016, 23-year-old Antara Das, an employee of Capgemini, was killed outside her office in Talwade.

Safety concerns

“We are not safe even in our office premises. Who should we trust?” asked a young woman, asking to remain anonymous, who had attended the vigil for Raju’s death.

A woman standing next to her asked: “We want to know why Rasila was working in office on a Sunday, that too alone. Why was she not provided a temporary laptop to work from home?”

The woman, who did not wish to be identified, said that for newcomers and those who were just starting out, it was hard to turn down projects, even if it meant working on weekends. “Still, why was Rasila made to work alone?,” she asked. “After this incident, we are scared, and do not sit alone at work. We work together in groups where we feel safe.”

Infosys, in a statement, said “this was an unfortunate incident is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted, and we are continuing to seek recommendations and suggestions from different stakeholders.” The statement cited existing safety measures such as a helpline, CCTV cameras on the premises, safety committees, background checks and night travel arrangements for women.

Women IT workers at the vigil for Raju said they appreciated the facilities provided by their companies but expressed concern over inadequate safety provisions. “Companies fail to reinforce their own dictates,” a female recruiter for an IT company said. “For example, if a company decides that women need not be at the workplace beyond 6pm – the practice is permitted for sometime – but is stopped later. ”

Confronting the glass ceiling

Women in the IT sector said that apart from security issues and sexual harassment at the workplace, they also have to contend with ingrained sexism and a glass ceiling that prevents them getting their due

“If a woman wants to leave early, a male colleague might say that he works longer hours and receives the same pay,” said Gunjan Shukla, a 36-year-old IT professional in Pune who has worked in the industry for the last 15 years. “But women are expected to make up by working harder, from home, and on the weekends as well. They also do much of the house work too, which means they are constantly balancing the pressures of work and home.”

The Maharashtra IT Professionals Forum, an informal group of IT professionals issued a statement after Raju’s murder, which spoke of “the structural injustice in the IT industry where long working hours are expected from employees. Men can stay back till late and thus have an unfair advantage over women.”

According to the National Association of Software and Services Companies, an IT industry trade body, women comprise 30% of the workforce. However, Shukla said that though the representation of women at the entry level may have increased, their presence is marginal at the higher levels.

“How many women do you see with 20 plus years of experience in the technical field, or on the boards of Fortune 500 companies?” Shukla asked. “Even coding and programming areas of the industry tend to be male-dominated.”

Shukla said that sexism is manifest at the workplace in the way women employees are perceived. “If a project has 30%-40% women employees, the project manager might say that the risk of the project is high, since the women could take leave for marriage and maternity.”

Arun M of the Maharashtra IT Professionals Forum said that some companies also strive for greater representation of women in certain projects to woo clients. “This is done to get business from international telecom companies like AT&T and KPN, which have strict requirements about women’s representation in the companies they work with,” he said.

That does not always translate into the creation of a more equitable workplace, however. “Women in some companies also face a harder time when they return to work after their maternity leave – they see their appraisals being affected,” Arun M said.

Despite such challenges, women continue join the IT-BPO sector. According to Nasscom, one in every three employees in the sector, which has 3.7 million people, is a woman.

But the gender gap in technology companies cannot be denied, said Geetha Kanan, managing director of the Anita Borg Institute India, which works on promoting women in technology. “While we do see many more successful women in the IT sector, there is there is also no denying the glass ceiling, for which the reasons are complex,” she said. “Technology innovation powers the global economy and women are crucial to building technology the world needs. Organisations need to focus on hiring more women and including them in the workforce.”

With regard to women’s safety at the workplace, Kannan said the law entails some policies and processes, which some IT companies complement with their own measures. “Companies take steps such as providing sufficient male and female security staff at the office premises, senior manager’s approval required to work late, and staff background checks,” she said.

But as the Pune incidents show us, such measures can often prove inadequate, costing a young woman her life.

Cover photo: Urvashi Sarkar

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