Monday, 30th October 2017

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Ex-employee sues Wipro for £1m over 'predatory sexism'

The headline in today's Daily Mail, alongside a photograph of Shreya Ukil, a 39-year-old Indian woman, sums it up: "IT executive 'forced into sleeping with her boss then made to quit'."

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 8.10.15
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Shreya Ukil

London, Oct. 7: The headline in today's Daily Mail, alongside a photograph of Shreya Ukil, a 39-year-old Indian woman, sums it up: "IT executive 'forced into sleeping with her boss then made to quit'."

The Daily Telegraph uses an even bigger photograph of Shreya: "Woman sues for £1m over culture of 'predatory' sexism at IT firm."

British newspapers, which incidentally did not have a single word to say when Mamata Banerjee came calling, have splashed the story of how Shreya, a "business development leader" at the UK headquarters of the Indian IT giant, was allegedly pressured into sleeping with Manoj Punja, 54, a "married senior vice-president".

In her statement, which has been made public with her approval, she said she was forced to have sex with Punja, who initially tried to sweet talk her by suggesting she looked like a "seductive dancer from Indian mythology" and "had the curves of a Russian body and big breasts".

Punja's attempted compliment has not been returned - she said he suffered from bad body odour.

Shreya, who said she tried to resign but was sacked, has now taken Wipro to the Central London Employment Tribunal, claiming she was a victim of "sex and race discrimination, victimisation, sexual harassment, unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal".

The case is expected to last 10 days, which means Wipro is likely to become a household word in Britain. Already, Shreya has dished out plenty of dirt. She is being represented by solicitors Slater and Gordon.

Wipro normally gets a mention in the sober financial pages because its much respected chairman, Azim Premji, gets into the international "Rich Lists". He will now presumably take a closer look at the extracurricular activities of his London staff.

The British media are delighted there is a local angle to the story and involving football, too.

"Last month, Wipro announced a partnership with Chelsea Football Club to provide IT systems at Stamford Bridge and digital products for fans," the Mail pointed out helpfully. "The club hopes Wipro's reach in India will increase its fanbase."

A spokesman for Wipro told The Daily Telegraph: "Wipro does not comment on its ongoing lawsuits and Wipro is committed to the principle of equal employment opportunity and provides all our employees with a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment of any kind. Wipro is defending these allegations before the court."

In her statement Shreya said "she was paid far less than male staff, earning up to £75,000-a-year rather than the typical £150,000 paid to male equivalents".

According to her LinkedIn page, Shreya said she had 15 years' experience at the highest levels of the technology and outsourcing sector. She won plaudits for her achievements and in 2013 was named one of the top 50 Women in Technology in Europe and the Middle East.

She was named top performer at Wipro and won awards for outstanding contribution to business. She also received recognition for innovation and marketing.

In her statement she said she was "belittled", bullied, sexually hounded and harassed at the company, where she said there was a "deeply predatory, misogynistic culture".

She said she had suffered as "a woman, an Indian woman and one who submitted to the advances of a senior, powerful man in the company with friends at the top", and that she was singled out because she "dared to complain that she had been the victim of discrimination, intimidation and harassment".

She began working at Wipro in Bangalore in 2005 before moving to the London office in June 2010 to work in the European sales team. But there she said she found a sharp division between the sexes, with women paid far less than their male colleagues for the same roles.

Female colleagues felt they belonged to "an underclass, were underpaid" and called "emotional".

A sexist culture existed, she said, and she was blocked from going on a business trip to Las Vegas, where colleagues said they went to strip clubs.

Shreya said her boss, Viray Firake, bullied her and deliberately hampered her career progression, belittling her in meetings and calling her a "bag carrier" to undermine her.

In 2012, after she had moved divisions, she developed a friendship with Punja, but he eventually carried out an "aggressive, planned pursuit of her".

On a number of occasions he persuaded her to drink late with him after business meetings and invited her up to his hotel rooms. On a trip abroad he told her she was a "distraction", and that she looked like a "seductive dancer... who tested the celibacy of the great saints".

"He told me that the silk top I was wearing was too tight for my body shape as I had the curves of a Russian body and big breasts," said Shreya.

She was left shocked when a senior colleague described an overseas conference in a telephone call. "He told me that he was having a lot of fun because the main events at the sales conference were getting drunk, visiting strip clubs and attending some meetings. I was quite shocked at his mention of strip clubs. He told me that it was quite normal at the sales conferences he had attended to visit strip clubs," she said.

"It was a boy's outing," according to Shreya. "He also told me that one of the senior leaders, the global head of the banking vertical, had got very drunk and had misbehaved with one of the Mexican dancers at the awards evening during the conference. He told me that it was very embarrassing to observe a senior leader who could not behave himself after a few drinks." The conference was "pretty much exclusively male", she went on.

At subsequent meetings Punja told her he was lonely and separated from his wife, and urged her to take his daughter under her wing and give her professional coaching. Another time he turned up at her home and asked to stay.

When she refused his sexual advances "he told me that I had insulted him like nobody had insulted him in a long time. He said that I was forgetting who I was talking to".

"I have no hesitation in explaining that the relationship arose purely because of the way in which he had pursued me," said Shreya.

Punja was technically savvy, it seems. He told Shreya to keep their relationship a secret or they would both get sacked. He ordered her to use WhatsApp and Viber on a personal iPhone to hide their communication from Wipro, she claims.

She ended up in hospital, seeing a psychiatrist and on medication, and filed a grievance procedure against the company.

She eventually resigned last year, but this was refused - only for her to be sacked a week later for gross misconduct, which she said was a "retaliatory response" by Wipro. The company's culture required women to be "subservient", and that "women who are confident, capable and express their viewpoints are often called 'emotional', 'psychotic' or 'menopausal'. Women who support them are called 'lesbians'."

PTI quoted Wipro as saying in its statement: "Following an impartial inquiry, both were relieved from the services of the company after it was established beyond reasonable doubt that they had violated the stated policy."

The statement further said: "Wipro takes serious objection to the scurrilous allegations made against the company...."

Punja resigned last year.