Shreya Ukil: I faced abuse and sexism at Wipro

Shreya Ukil took on one of the biggest Indian MNCs - Wipro - accusing the management of sexism and discrimination. She also alleged she was being paid half the salary of her 'predatory and misogynist' male colleagues before being asked to leave the company. She filed a lawsuit claiming 1 million pounds in damages against Wipro in London and won the legal battle.

Shreya Ukil: I faced abuse and sexism at Wipro

Shreya Ukil, a 40-year-old Indian woman who was formerly associated as a director and head of sales with Wipro, London, won a lawsuit in a British tribunal against the Bangaluru based tech company for sacking her on the grounds of gender discrimination, unequal pay and sexual victimisation. Ever since she has been an equal pay campaigner. The valour and courage with which she fought against this mortifying discrimination and ignominious treatment is something which should reach every working/non-working women out there who in some form might be falling prey to gender discrimination and abuse of dignity at office.

She has today become a figure of inspiration to many, by challenging gender discrimination at work place and by standing up against the ill-treatment and predatory work environment as described by her in court that can lead to personality breakdowns. Shreya spoke to Narada News describing the whole legal ordeal, the challenges faced by women at work place and what they should do if they find themselves facing a similar situation. Excerpts:

Do you think that there is workplace discrimination against women? Is it a reality especially when you think of companies like Wipro and in your case in a place like London / Europe?

As recent as in May 2016, Monster released a gender wage cap survey for the Indian private sectors and the gap is highest in technology and manufacturing sector at 34%. It’s a shocking and deplorable number to have against any sector or country. The report further states, some of the reasons behind this gender pay gap could be the preference for male workers over female employees, and preference given to male employees when it comes to promotions to supervisory positions. The gender wage gap is a quantifiable indicator of sexism and sex discrimination and only law, compliance a stringent penalty can fix these deeply rooted biases.
It's depressing that even in 2016 as one of the largest democracies, India is still carrying such patriarchal bias.

Wipro has always boasted of its gender diversity policies and awards. I am tired of these awards being used as marketing propaganda. If you have no pay transparency, no published and independently audited pay gap and if you have less than 30% representation of women serving on your board or in your senior and middle management leadership teams, then I see no reason for an award in the first place.

Tell us in brief about the discrimination you faced at Wipro.

For many years, I held the firm belief that Wipro was a great company built on the fabric of ethics and equality. I took it as read that I would be treated equally and fairly. I was successful across a range of roles including as Director and Head of BPO Sales for the Manufacturing and Hi-Tech Sector in Europe, as CMO for ex-CEO and Vice Chairman Vivek Paul at his social media start-up, KineticGlue and as head of Product Marketing, when I helped launch Wipro's first retail laptop range, E.go. I won numerous performance awards.

It came as a shock therefore when I learnt in early 2011 that I was being paid half of what my male colleagues were being paid. That knowledge, and Wipro's refusal to address this and subsequent issues that I raised with HR and the Wipro leadership team, were the start of my equal pay and sex discrimination battle against Wipro.

The worst and the most painful cases of discrimination that I experienced and stay with me even now, occurred in November 2013 and January 2014.

In November 2013, after single handedly and successfully leading a full day financial workshop in Helsinki with my client, I managed to secure a firm commitment from the client on Wipro's first BPO deal in the Nordic countries.

As I came out from the workshop high from the win, I was confronted by a colleague who accused me of being a "manipulative bitch" for managing to secure a letter of intent for the deal. I remember coming back to the hotel alone and crying all evening.

The next incident was a similar one two months later when I was working on another large and complex 100-million-dollar bid and I was working very hard to pull all resources together during this time. One of the Wipro VPs used sexist innuendo to imply in front of colleagues that I was using something other than my ability.

The dismissal of my well founded ombuds complaints was heavily criticized by the UK Tribunal, calling it an act of victimisation.

 When did you decide enough is enough?

Even though I never had any second thoughts about fighting discrimination, it was never my intention to be thrust into a lawsuit. What made me fight was the hard evidence of my discrimination, personal intolerance towards inequality and my absolute conviction that the judiciary would give me the respect I deserve.

My decision to go to court came once I realized I had exhausted all possible avenues in Wipro and they were simply not going to address my grievances fairly.

It was clear that Wipro had no intention of recognizing the legitimacy of my grievances against them. The only way to prove that I was right was to take them to court, where all the evidence could be presented and independently assessed.

It took a long time for me to realise and accept that Wipro was not the ethical company that I had believed in and worked hard for. To discover that I was being paid 50% less than my male colleagues for doing the same work was shocking.

The chauvinism that I had to contend with at the hands of Wipro colleagues, Sid Sharma and George Joseph was appalling. That my well founded grievances were never addressed by Wipro was both disheartening and distressing. But the worst was yet to come. It was only as a result of finally being forced to take my case to the UK employment tribunal, that I learnt the full extent of Wipro leadership’s involvement in my discrimination and victimisation.

From the moment that I raised a grievance against Wipro, which included allegations of sexist treatment, the decision was taken by TK Kurien, Saurabh Govil and Inderpreet Sawhney to move me out of my role and block all job opportunities in Europe. So all possibilities of bringing any legal claim against Wipro ‘would be most effectively contained or averted.’ The judgement stated that the “direction had come from the very top and was followed through with considerable resolve.” It was painful for me to discover this conspiracy as these were the very people I had reached out for help over and over again. And they had acted out their role very well. None of this would have come to light had I simply accepted this unlawful treatment and chosen to walk away. I know I wouldn’t have forgiven myself for not standing up.

My final grievance was to Mr. Premji. I wrote to him raising my concerns because I felt as chairman of the company and a highly respected industry leader known for his philanthropy, he will understand and take necessary action against the individuals. He assured me that a fair and independent investigation will be conducted, further going on to say that I should have no fear of any retribution.

However, outcome of the grievance investigation which was led by Inderpreet Sawhney, Wipro chief legal counsel, was completely opposite.

I realised I am wasting my time and that only the Tribunal will serve justice now.

 Who has inspired you in this journey?

History for me has always been the source inspiration of awe. How did we come this far, so many battles so many stories of valour and honour. Men and women who fought for their rights, even when they had to define and write the law with their own sacrifices. How at every step history records the triumph of human spirit and righteousness against abuse of power and oppression. These leaders didn't have the technology, resources, education or finances that we have today. Yet they chose to fight rather than turn a blind eye. From Jane Eyre to Rani Laxmi Bai to the Suffragettes, I salute these women for what they have left behind for us. Today we are engineers, scientists, astronomers, doctors. We are everywhere. And it's because somewhere in time someone went beyond the path most taken and challenged status quo. They took upon themselves to speak for the voiceless. Even if it meant personal sacrifices.

I am none of these. I have merely followed the law. I was privileged that I that my parents behind me urging me to do the right thing, I had access to the best of employment lawyers. The only thing I brought to table was my conviction in justice and perseverance to see this through.

 Did you get support from your family members / colleagues?

My strength 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 goes out to all these extraordinary people.

There are many women and men in the office who supported me and stood with me. Some are worried because they have seen what Wipro have done to me, but most of them remain in regular touch with me and pleased that I have won.

 What was your experience during the trial? It must have been tough how did you survive that period? Was it challenging financially?

It was distressing yes. More than stress it's painful because one needs to relive the discrimination and victimisation over and over again during the lawsuit. It's not suffering it but also writing about it in your witness statements, being cross examined for days on your statements. For me the most painful moment was reading through the legal disclosure files of Wipro which exposed the emails between the leadership team that were exchanged behind my back in order to get rid of me. These were emails that I wasn't aware of because to me these same leaders were giving me words of assurance and pretending to help. There were days when I could not read anymore and had to shut down. I could not believe what I was reading

 Many women succumb and don’t pursue action owing to financial difficulties / dependence of family on them. Your views?

I absolutely understand that.
This may sound strange given all the difficulties I have highlighted but my advice to women is this. If you are clearly the victim of discrimination (and there is evidence), follow company policy and report it. That does not guarantee you success but it does offer a chance of resolution. Try to resolve politely and patiently. A lawsuit is indeed lengthy and draining on resources and no one wants that unless you are left with no chance of resolution. For me sadly, I couldn't resolve things with Wipro; I just couldn't make them see that what they were doing was unlawful.

In the end it was the prolonged nature of the discrimination I faced and Wipro’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of my grievance that left me with two choices – walk away or go to court. I'm not a woman to walk away or back down.

What I do not want women to do is to give up on their dreams and their ambition. We may at times be made to feel small and insignificant but the law does not discriminate between big or small, male or female. I would urge women to build a network of mentors, both men and women who recognize the challenges and are willing to offer advice. We live in a competitive world but that never excuses demeaning or humiliating other people. I would ask women to support other women. And when we do reach the top, we should not forget to extend our hand to pull those up who are equally talented and qualified to stand tall next to us. After all, their success is our success and a reflection of the success of the company.

Are laws (Indian / International) sufficient to protect women from discrimination at work place? If not what changes are needed in your opinion?

Yes laws are in place everywhere however its implementation is not and that's the challenge.

There remains a lack of transparency with regard to corporate disclosure of the gender pay gap. The employment tribunal system unfortunately is overly lengthy and expensive, which only makes it harder to fight against deeper pockets. Wipro has appealed the equal pay verdict three times and lost. But they have succeeded in drawing the process out and delaying the financial resolution.

Both US and UK have proposed a bill which will make average gender pay gap disclosures mandatory. I think India needs to think in similar lines and given the scale of the problem the sooner, the better. Not having enough women in the workplace is costing the economy and the companies as multiple studies have proven.

If companies proactively accept gender pay gap disclosures and womens’ representation mandates, then the pain and shame of enforced change will be far less. I believe a fair workplace always creates a positive and productive environment. The energies of employees will be directed towards serving customers, being more innovative, creating for financial value rather than infighting and launching damaging and expensive lawsuits which will completely erode trust and reputation for these companies.

There are very few women at board level. Do you think a percentage presence of women should be made mandatory?

Yes absolutely and as of yesterday, 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.
Christine Lagarde said "The more women in senior managerial positions and in corporate boards, the more profitable firms are."

What are your future plans? Has this impacted your career?

I have few things planned. All I can say at this point is, watch this space. This is the beginning, not the end. For all of us. I have miles to go before I sleep.