by Sharon Florentine

How one brave woman fought sexism — and won

Jun 02, 2016
CareersIT JobsOutsourcing

Sherya Ukil stood up to the sexism and discrimination she faced at Indian outsourcing giant Wipro in court. In this Q&A, the courageous woman shares advice for other females in similar positions.

Have you heard of Shreya Ukil? If not, it’s a name you should know. 

Ukil filed suit against Indian IT professional services firm Wipro in the London Employment Tribunal in October 2015, alleging that she was subjected to a “deeply predatory, misogynistic culture” at the outsourcing giant. The tribunal found the company guilty of unfairly dismissing Ukil, direct sex discrimination and multiple instances of victimization, according to The Huffington Post.

Though a similar 2015 sex discrimination case 2015 brought by Ellen Pao against VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers was not ruled in Pao’s favor, it served to bring the issue of discrimination into the spotlight in the United States, as Ukil’s case has in Europe and Asia. I contacted Ukil via email, and asked how she thinks her win might impact the IT industry, as well as what she hopes it does for other women in similar situations. Here’s an excerpt from our electronic conversation. What do you think this “win” means in the larger context of discrimination against women in the IT industry, and in the global workforce in general?

Shreya Ukil: We need to learn from these lawsuits and implement meaningful and lasting changes.Even though the recent Ellen Pao lawsuit failed, it brought some key issues to light which certainly resonate with me and, I am sure, with most women in male-dominated industries such as finance or tech — women being described as “a bit too opinionated” when, in fact, they are being self-assured and confident. Or being asked to do administrative tasks like note-taking during a meeting, when that’s not their role. Or being criticized for having “raised their voice.”

Despite the current momentum around these issues and growing awareness within the tech community, and the efforts of women like Sheryl Sandberg, Christine Lagarde and Emma Watson overall, sexism continues to eat away at women’s confidence and advancement like a cancer. What frustrates and angers me is that we’re still fighting for things like equal pay — when women have traveled to space, served as heads of state, as CEOs. In 2016, it should not be a matter of pride that your company treats its employees fairly and equally. It should be expected. So many women, when faced with this kind of discrimination, would not be brave enough to speak up. Do you think this case will help empower other women who are experiencing similar discrimination?

Ukil: I really, honestly, hope it will inspire other women to take up the challenge. My win has certainly helped to blow away the charade of Wipro as an ethical company in the eyes of many, and I think it’s made them afraid that this will embolden other women to challenge them in the courts. 

I have so much sympathy for women in this situation. Raising a complaint of discrimination in the first place, even before you decide to go to court, takes a degree of mental strength. There is fear that your grievance will be ignored by your employer, or even worse, that you might be victimized or retaliated against as a result. Many women are forced to either suffer the humiliation in silence, or seek employment elsewhere. But what if the culture of discrimination is the same at the next company, and the one after that? Should women just keep moving on and putting up with this? I decided I wouldn’t put up with it anymore, and I wouldn’t run away. 

So many women have written me with similar tales and they all say the same thing: “I wish I had done what you did.” I fully understand why they were unable to go down this path, and I thank them for their messages of support. What advice do you have for other women in IT or in greater workforce on how to combat discrimination when they see it?

Ukil: My advice to women is this: If you are clearly the victim of discrimination, and there is evidence, document it, follow company policy and report it. That does not guarantee you success, but it does offer a chance of resolution.

In the end, for me, 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. And 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 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 these challenges and are willing to offer advice, help and support. 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 others up to stand tall next to us.

Ukil’s experience as inspiration for other women

Of course, for every Shreya Ukil whose case makes the news, there are many, many more women who remain silent, choosing to simply leave STEM and IT careers or put up with poor treatment for fear of reprisals. I hope Ukil’s example inspires other women to speak up, about their own experiences and to lend support and guidance to anyone who’s victimized.