Outsourcing industry—where’s your voice post Delhi?

By March 5, 2013April 6th, 2022Archive

It’s been over two months since the brutal rape that left a 23 year old woman dead. Yet when it comes to the outcry that magnified the treatment of women in India, I cannot recall one article or blog posted in a Western outsourcing mag or rag, one outsourcing client or advisor raising their voice, or a provider doing much more than responding to a reporter’s questions.

Are we insensitive to the fact that about half the folks that support our business processes should not only make a good wage, but feel safe in their jobs? Are our providers (and captives) doing enough to make their female associates feel valued—and secure? Or don’t we think that the  attitudes toward Indian women that foster harassment are our problem, too?

Not all discussions about the outsourcing industry take place in the press– I get that. But it dawns on me that not one of us– to my knowledge– has actively questioned or discussed the implications of the rape on remote business process delivery. Tier 1 publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have discussed the implications specifically linked to the outsourcing industry. The so-called women’s issues press has also devoted column inches to the topic. So why is our industry so conspicuously silent on the topic?

Don’t we care? We rail against the conditions of factory workers around the world, boycotting the likes of Wal-Mart when they avoid paying living wages. We excoriate companies like Nike, and dump their stock, when we find out about their sweatshops.  Our organizations pursue fair trade certifications as good business, and dedicate funds to corporate social responsibility. Yet we have not mounted a public, industry-wide discussion of the issues and attitudes toward women occasioned by the Delhi rape.

Not one outsourcing client type has voiced concern in the public realm for those who work in their process factories. I haven’t read one comment in the trade press by the pundits that opine on everything outsourcing—ranging from contracts to culture (note: I too have been guilty up to now). And although outsourcing providers have responded to queries in the Indian press, who has  opened up a more public, global discourse/

Why is this?

Perhaps it’s down to the very nature of outsourcing relationships—out of sight offshore and out of mind. We might be chalking up violence against women as “just part of the culture,” sweeping it under the rug by putting it in the category of not my problem. Its implications may also be less real as we profess to contract for outcomes from our providers, leaving them to deal directly with such issues as safety, security and the treatment of their female associates. With the IT/ITES sector in India opening up careers for women and others for the first time, maybe we think we’ve fulfilled some of our corporate social responsibility by merely moving work to Chennai or Kolkata, Noida or Hyderabad. Or it could be that issues like rape and harassment are just too hot to handle. Perhaps we only pay attention when an incident within our own industry hits the press.

But even if the social implications aren’t compelling, the economic implications certainly are. According to Assocham, an Indian Chamber of Commerce office, in the few weeks after Delhi, one in three women working in the IT sector in Delhi either reduced working hours after sunset ,or quit their jobs. Further, the study estimates that their productivity may have dropped as much as 40%. With over 2200 IT and outsourcing companies in Delhi alone, employing over 250,000 women, these are big numbers that those of us onshore cannot ignore, especially when shift work to deliver work during US business hours is mandated.

And, although providers commenting in the press profess that the impact is more or less relegated to the National Capital Region, who knows how many women, or their parents, concerned about safety, have—or will– make the decision to pull out of the IT workforce in other parts of India.

We say outsourcing is a partnership, so by association violence against women becomes the outsourcing industry’s problem. And the impacts are many. Ultimately the reticence of women to work in our industry will translate into rising costs due to attrition, recruitment, and training. We’ll lose vital knowledge of client cultures and processes. Diversity will suffer as fewer women take up outsourcing careers, translating into smaller and smaller pipelines of female talent moving up the career ladder.

Let’s not lay the blame at the feet of providers– or our captive operations leadership– in India, certainly not when it comes to security. To a company, they take their responsibilities very seriously, putting in place procedures designed to protect their employees in the current social context. But security is only one dimension.

Rather, let’s look at the bigger picture, asking how we as an industry, with our buying power and influence, can help spark the necessary change in the treatment of Indian women. It’s a shame that our industry has been silent.