Meet The SHEROES - Shreya Ukil
Truth or Dare! Childhood games that may make you shiver! But to Shreya Ukil, it was all she had. Believing in herself and daring to fight against the mighty firm. After a long-drawn legal battle, she emerged a winner! This “Bengali Tigress”, as she has been rightly been named, is an equal pay campaigner and fights against gender discrimination. She filed a lawsuit against her firm in 2014 demanding “equal pay”. In May 2016, the UK tribunal ruled in her favour for equal pay, and against discrimination on the basis of sex, unfair dismissal and victimisation. Read on to know more about her story and the exceptional courage and grit she has shown through all these years.
You have fought a long and grueling battle. How have you felt since the win?
I feel happy, but most importantly, vindicated. Reading the verdict is cathartic as well. It reassures me that everything I went through was worth it. I did the right thing by standing up for the law; it was time.
What was it like at Wipro, and how did you find out that you were being discriminated against? It was a courageous step to take. Where did you draw the inspiration to take this challenge head-on?
I loved my job, my colleagues, and worked harder and harder each day! However, that was not the whole story. At the back of this job which I loved so much, I was also fighting a very ugly battle on my pay equality with Wipro since 2011.
The fact that my clients appreciated my work and that I was successful in winning large contracts for Wipro made it even more difficult for me to understand the pay gap. My initial reaction was confusion and hurt. "Am I not good enough?" Like many, I didn't know that I was unlawfully discriminated against because of my gender. I had multiple discussions with my manager, HR and eventually with the leadership. At first, there were denials and false assurances that I was under wrong notions. There were meager salary corrections over four years, which still left me with a gap of almost Rs 20 lakh annually when compared with the salary of my male colleagues.
As the conversations became repetitive and Wipro realised I was not going to let go, the situation around me deteriorated very quickly. I was subjected to verbal abuse by my male colleagues; they conspired to push me out of my job and especially out of the position I held at the UK office. As also stated in the court judgment, the "direction had come from the very top and was followed through with considerable resolve".
I was victimised because I raised some inconvenient questions. The deputation pay policy called the "India grid", which Wipro uses to pay Indian employees, is significantly less than what they give "the local hires" (international hires). There was no logic in this policy, and there was no evidence of it being even implemented properly; the tribunal found that it was merely a sham or an excuse to pay women less. There was no real logic behind paying someone less when they are doing the exact same work in the same location. The cost of living cannot vary based on the origin of employees.
The tribunal deemed Wipro pay policy to be tainted and plagued with gender discrimination.
To further my troubles, I was asked to sign an indemnity clause by Inderpreet Sawhney. It stated that I'll never bring any sexual harassment claims against Wipro.
After this, I had no respect left for Wipro because the ugly truth of exploiting loyal employees had come into light. The only feeling I carried in my heart was of distrust. There was a complete breakdown of trust and respect.
I couldn’t understand why the company--which didn’t miss any opportunity to call themselves ethical, built on philanthropy and integrity--took such a step. They victimised me for speaking up and continued to defend their stance.
My strength and conviction came from my father. He isn’t here anymore, but I know he has blessed me. He was a great father, a humble and kind man, and a highly respected barrister. He always encouraged me to fight against injustice, always be humble. He once told me that dreams come true for those who work hard to realise them.
When strangers from across the world message you offering their support, it boosts up your confidence. A big thanks to all my friends who connected with me from different parts of the world and offered unhindered support.
How do you think women could know if they are being treated unequally or being discriminated? Are there any cues women should look for and report them?
The biggest indicator is how many companies have women in their mid to senior leadership roles. How many directly report to the CEO? In Wipro's case, you can see that there are hardly any women in business roles directly reporting to the CEO. There's usually some representation of women in HR and support functions, but not in business and sales roles or as profit-and-loss (P&L) heads. Do not fall for marketing propaganda on gender diversity awards and policies; look for facts and numbers. Any previous history of lawsuits is also a red alert. Speak to other women who have been employed in the past who won't have the fear of speaking up.
What advice would you give to our readers so that they do not face such a situation--before joining a job or checking on a regular basis? In such situations, what women should do?
Women should help women. Build a network; if it doesn't exist, volunteer to create one. Reach out to senior women in the company and ask them if they are happy to mentor. Do not underestimate your instincts or skills. You are as good as anyone else, and--if I am to go by any research--better in many respects. Thrive on that data.
No organisation or person is too big to get away with unethical and illegal behavior. It was a fight for respect and equality, and as hard as it has been, if I had to fight it again, I would, with all my heart.
Women need to be aware of the law that’s already there to protect their rights. I don’t think they are aware of it much, not in India. Fighting a lawsuit is the very last option. It was indeed sad that Wipro could not see the difference between the legal and the illegal.
However, my advice will always be to try and resolve internally first. If you are lucky there will be someone, another strong woman, who'll help you through.
After filing a case against Wipro, did you look for other job opportunities? If yes, were they biased on knowing what you were upto? If not, why?
I did look for jobs. But it's hard to find a job when the company you are suing puts out a press statement saying the lawsuit is a "scurrilous allegation", and that I was fired for breaking the code of conduct, especially in the Indian outsourcing industry.
Thankfully, the judgment has cleared all that up. It wasn't scurrilous allegations after all. Not from me, anyways!
These intimidatory tactics from Wipro continued even after the verdict, which had multiple counts of victimisation, with media reports appearing that Wipro is celebrating victory and "mulling to sue" me! However, truth, like water, always finds its way.
This lawsuit is also a litmus test for me. Organisations which are serious about women's equality will appreciate my courage and will be happy to hire me. The ones with skeletons in the closet will call me "trouble" and run for fear of lawsuits!
It was a long battle. Were you ever scared of character assassination and thought of actually dropping it?
No, I wasn't scared of anything once I realised how unlawful and unethical Wipro has been. I was determined to see this through and expose the ugly truth behind Wipro's diversity policies and awards.
When I was called a manipulative b****, I didn’t feel down. I just made sure that I prove disrespecting a woman has a steep cost attached to it. I didn’t work anywhere else also, because I couldn’t have committed myself fully. I treated this lawsuit as a full-time job. It was also not a simple case, it ran across issues from 2010 to 2014, and had nearly all aspects of sex discrimination law in it. The documentary evidence against Wipro was extensive and needed a careful and thorough understanding of its implications.
What next? After a big fight, a break or preparing for something new that your fans could look forward to?
Although I didn’t work for anyone else, I have been working on something that is in its final stages now. It’s a non-commercial initiative that should help address some of the issues I had faced. I want this experience to translate into something meaningful for a larger group of women who can benefit from my fight.
I have a 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.