India Inc. Leaves the Mad Men Era Behind—One Act at a Time

June 16, 2014

Scene 1. Today is Peggy’s first day as Copy Chief of the new Creative department. As she walks down the hallway, abuzz with excitement, she wonders what kind of team she’ll have and eagerly anticipates beginning her new job. Reaching her office, she stops at the door in dismay—someone has taped a handwritten sign that says “Coffee Chief” to it.

Scene 2. Joey has been scolded by Joan before for making sexist comments and jokes. He accuses her of dressing like she “wants to get raped.” Later, he draws an obscene cartoon of her and tapes it to her office window.

Fans of the TV show Mad Men, which is set in New York in the 1960s, cringe when watching scenes like those described above. Younger women watch in disbelief and older women watch with painful recognition. The show portrays a time when women were frequently victims of male bullying in the workplace, ranging from sexist jokes and comments to outright sexual harassment. So what has changed in the United States that makes the Mad Men work culture seem so anachronistic to US viewers?

The passage in 1964 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), went a long way towards reforming the US workplace. It was a crucial first step that led to a gradual cultural shift in attitudes towards women, particularly working women. It’s been 50 years since the passage of Title VII, which, despite the anxiety it provoked in many employers when it was first proposed, has proven to be instrumental in accelerating culture change at work.

When it comes to women’s rights, the United States is far from perfect. But most US workplaces would not tolerate the behaviour exhibited on Mad Men today, which is now considered not only illegal but indecent and unprofessional.

India now finds itself at a crossroads similar to what the United States faced in the Mad Men era. Despite the recent rise of several powerful women role models in India Inc. and in political leadership, sociocultural barriers to success persist for the average Indian working woman. Women in India routinely face sexual harassment on their way to work as well as in the workplace itself. As much as 17% of working women in India have experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job, and the majority did not formally report it for fear of retaliation. A recent survey conducted in Delhi revealed that the majority of younger, more educated women have encountered sexual violence in Delhi’s public spaces (and almost 60% of Delhi women experienced some violence in the past six months).

Until the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (SHWWA) was passed in December 2013, employees who were sexually harassed at work had little recourse, unless their organization had a proactively enforced anti-sexual harassment policy. The requirements of this new Act have ruffled feathers. Reactions have varied: while some have embraced it as a welcome step, others worry that it has gone too far, and some have even decided that it may be better just not to hire women at all to reduce the risk of having an employee who files a complaint.

At Catalyst, we believe that such reactions are simply part of a new India Inc.’s growing pains. This India Inc. will be more inclusive, understand the full benefits of gender diversity, and maximize its talent pool. With widespread implementation, fair enforcement, and the support of senior leadership, the SHWWA Act will eventually reform India’s workplace culture—and, via a ripple effect, alter society as well. Overcoming persistent barriers to women’s advancement requires more than individual effort. Organizations also have a key role to play—and forward-looking companies will welcome the new Act as a crucial first step in making change for India’s women and Indian business.

Catalyst’s new suite of tools, Making Change in India, examines three sociocultural barriers to women’s progress and provides insight into how both organizations and individuals can make change. While we in India enjoy watching Mad Men, we are eager for a time when we don’t have to relive its more disturbing plotlines on a daily basis! How are you and your organization making change in your community?

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.