This excerpt has been translated and minimally edited for clarity by the TrustIn team.
TrustIn: Take sexual assault seriously to keep women on the jobI meet Meghana Srinivas at the Happiness Café in Koramangala. She lives here in Koramangala — not far from Billionaires Street, she tells me. The most expensive real estate in the city, Koramangala 3rd block, home to some of India’s richest people.
Before we go into the cafe, I notice we have to take off our shoes when we enter, like visiting a temple. Inside you sit on thin mattresses covered with colourful Indian cloths, at low tables. There is some yummy, vegan Vietnamese iced coffee with coconut milk.
Meghana grew up in Bangalore. Like most others in the city and country, she also faced two choices when she had to decide what to study in college: medicine or engineering? She decided on research instead, and was fascinated by biochemistry and cancer research to solve complex problems for humanity.
That’s why she chose to study at UC Berkeley in the USA, and interned for a pharmaceutical company for a while until she realized it wasn’t about curing illnesses. Dispirited, she left the domain and ended up working with an NGO, Teach For India, and cofounded her own nonprofit. She now became aware that her work has an ‘impact,’ and this was increasingly important to her.
The birth of TrustInThanks to her lived experience of workplace trauma and the secondary harassment that arose when she tried to report it, Meghana began researching and building effective ways to solve for this problem. The first version of TrustIn was developed as a side project alongside her VC-accelerator job —she based on it on the model of Project Callisto, an American product that victims of sexual violence used to report incidents and act together against perpetrators. Was it hard to build this alongside a full time job?
“It’s very typical in Bangalore,” she says. “Even if you work eight hours a day, many people still have a weekend side project.” She started talking to all sorts of people about her idea — from lawyers to HR leaders and managers to employees. “Sometimes I just sat in a café with one placard that said ‘I’ll buy you a coffee if you talk to me for 30 minutes’ — and included three suggested topics. Quite often people came who didn’t have the coffee at all, but they wanted just wanted to talk about their workplace issues. She learned a lot from their first-hand accounts. In late 2018, the #metoo movement hit India and some POSH committees sometimes received up to 20 cases a day — most of them anonymously.”
Since many companies did not take POSH seriously until then, some have not yet set up proper committees that can take care of all the cases. Meghana sensed her chance to develop her product and asked a friend, a software developer, for help. Things went quickly from there, and soon Meghana had the first five paying clients in early 2019, making it possible for her to work full-time on TrustIn. During the corona pandemic, she got a state government grant that helped her further develop her product.
TrustIn, her start-up, has been around for three years and now has 42 customers. The services consist of three parts — in English the three Ps: policy, program and product. They develop and comply with policies to prevent sexual harassment, security and general codes of conduct, in close collaboration with companies. “Larger companies already have policies like the ones we set up. Our customers are especially social enterprises or start-ups in the seed stage — these are companies that are in the first round of financing with around 100 to 200 employees.
These companies do not yet have legal departments that can compile detailed policies or codes of conduct. Because of this, they approach us,” explains Meghana. The second P is the program. To enforce the POSH law, TrustIn takes care of the annual awareness trainings, reports implementation directly to the government, and is also part of the committee.The third part is the product: “Let’s assume you are in an uncomfortable situation,” Meghana explains to me. “You’re not sure what your options are or whether you should report the situation. And of course, trauma response plays a big role during this.
That’s why you can talk anonymously with our chatbot and it’ll explain what opportunities are there — such as switching to another team and getting paid leave. Once you feel more comfortable with the process, you can submit your complaint to the committee. In doing so, we ensure that with the way we ask questions and which words we use, it all stays very trauma informed.”
The committee then conducts an investigation, interviewing witnesses if needed, and ensuring the case remains confidential. Finally, the committee makes a verdict based on the facts, that the company’s management must enforce. Of course, this approach can lead to problems. “We got our fingers already burned,” says Meghana. “That’s why we now make sure that companies we work with have a female quota of at least 50% have senior management. And when we work with a start-up, usually there’s a female founder or leader.” In doing so, they ensure that the company follows the practices in both letter and spirit of the law.
Younger generations in particular are now much more aware and courageous when it comes to addressing sexual harassment, says Meghana. “At the age of 22, if I had a colleague who looked me up and down- called ‘elevator eyes’- it would have made me uncomfortable, but I would have tried to just forget about it.
It’s different now. Young women are more likely to report these cases to get justice. And they get it. This in turn ensures that women can remain in the company and not, as in the case of Meghana, as victims leave the company. Because before it happened more often that cases didn’t were treated confidentially. Even if the perpetrator was fired, the victim was punished in the court of public opinion.” The TrustIn platform makes it easier to handle the case discreetly and for victims to complain against the perpetrators afterwards, in case of any retaliation.
“We establish contact with trauma therapists so that both victims and accused perpetrators receive support. Because this is a stressful and life-changing time for both parties,” said Meghana. The accused perpetrators are not always ready to change. Many of them feign ignorance and sometimes even react aggressively, explains Meghana. However, sometimes they are apologetic and want to change their behaviour.
“They are often aware of their behaviour, but still choose to cause people damage. They know what ‘consent’ is, but they don’t care. This willful exploitation of power is the worst case. They often know the right and ‘woke’ things to say in front of the committee, but continue harassing and causing issues.” What often happens then is that a sort of secondary harassment occurs. Because the perpetrator told a colleague about it, he is now taking revenge via representatives. Even though the perpetrator knows that his behaviour is wrong, he is angry because someone dared to complain.
“I’ve learned a lot about human psychology in the last three years,” she explains. “I’m not a lawyer. Because of this, I had to certify myself to deal with civil law first. Then I had to acquire technical knowledge and then the psychological part — concerning the survivors and corporate governance. I’m starting to understand now to the psychology of perpetrators. I notice that many on the committee are ignorant of secondary harassment. And that leads to the survivor leaving the company anyway, and then is in such bad shape that she doesn’t last for several years at a later job. She might choose to work as a freelancer or not at all.” Workplace sexual harassment is an invisible and pervasive cause of low women’s labor participation that many researchers do not delve deeply into.