DEALING WITH SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE

INTRODUCTION

Sexual harassment is a challenging situation that most people, particularly women, are faced within the workplace. While it is mostly experienced by women men also experience it and the unwelcome advances can be same sex and heterosexual in nature. It is also a power relation issue that normally affects those in a weaker position more. As a result, men, particularly those who are powerful, rich and in authority are usually perpetrators, however powerful women too can be perpetrators of sexual harassment. Just like workplace bullying, which I talked about in my last article, sexual harassment can negatively affect worker morale and productivity. Therefore, everyone who wears the employee hat should know how to manage it.

WHAT IS SEXUAL HARRASSMENT?

According to Reva B Siegel (2003) sexual harassment is a social practice that has institutional and semiotic lives. Social practices have histories it is therefore important to have a historical understanding of the harassment. In this article the institutional life of sexual harassment is discussed within the workplace.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) sexual harassment is a serious manifestation of sex discrimination and a violation of human rights. It can encompass a range of behaviors that include:

  • Gendered harassment- sexist statements and behaviour, obscene jokes about sex
  • Seductive behaviour- unwanted, inappropriate, and offensive sexual advances
  • Sexual bribery- soliciting for sexual favor in return for a reward
  • Sexual coercion- coercion of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by threat of punishment
  • Sexual imposition- gross sexual imposition like touching, feeling, and grabbing or sexual assault

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines it as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission or rejection implicitly or explicitly affects your work life outcomes.

HISTORICAL PESPECTIVE

More often than not, by the time you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace you will have experienced it elsewhere- in the home, at church or in the public. You will probably think it is happening to you only, but you need to know this is a global pandemic that is rooted in patriarchy and gender discrimination. Patriarchy describes a general structure in which men have power over women throughout organized society and individual relationships. Patriarchy also affects men due to the hierarchy among men which places elder me over younger generations of men- the hierarchy varies due to different forms of power relations among men. This means that all genders – cis gendered and transgendered people get to experience sexual harassment as perpetrators or victims. Originally patriarchy excluded woman from the workplace therefore sexual harassment is one of the many ways that it still works to push women out of the workplace.

Women are the most affected group. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner. The violence typically starts early with 1 in 4 women aged between 15-24 years being in a relationship where they have already experienced violence. Workplaces mirror our society therefore this reality is true in many of them.

Intersectionality variables make some women more vulnerable to sexual harassment than others for example women with disabilities can be more vulnerable because they face disability exclusions on top of gender exclusions and poverty can increase their vulnerability. Even in the group of women with disabilities the vulnerabilities can vary due to the nature of disability. A womn who is visually impaired can be affeected differently from a woman with hearing impairments. Similarly with our different sexualities becoming more visible in today’s worklaces the vulnerability within the LGBTIQ community will not be homogenous and the history of their marginalisation cant be ignored. Other intersexctionality aspects to be considered include culture, race, nationality, religion, class, age etc.

You have a responsibility to be mindful of this historical overview when you get into any workplace. Always be midful about your own actions by watching what you say or do, be aware of your own power so that you do not find yourself perpetrating this negative trait.

EFFECTS OF SEXUAL HARRASSMENT

Sexual harassment has negative consequences for your work output, mental and physical health. Knowing that you have someone who is going to be making unwanted advances can easily make you hate your job. You can easily move from looking forward to getting down to a project with a colleague to avoiding them and any tasks where you must collaborate. In today’s workplaces teamwork and collaboration is very important. Therefore, when you are avoiding workmates and disliking your work your team members also begin to suffer.

They may start finding it hard to work with you especially if you start experiencing anxiety and depression which may result in tardiness and missing deadlines. You may find yourself angry all the time and that too will impact your interpersonal skills. Soft skills are as important as your ability to complete a task therefore the negative impact on your ability to communicate and influence is significant. There is always a threat of escalation into worst forms of sexual harassment like rape. These will have you worrying also about your physical health because of the risk of succumbing to sexually transmitted diseases.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT IF YOU ARE A VICTIM

No matter how powerless you feel you should never allow a sexual harassment situation to perpetuate itself. Below are some things you can do to manage bullying in the workplace (some of the actions under my bullying article are relevant and included here)

  1. Keep record on the sexual harassment behaviour
  2. Clearly communicate your rejection of the requests and advances. Always leave paper trail for future reference
  3. Check national policy to know the obligations of your employer on the issue and to know the policies that protect you.
  4. Check and use company policy. Once you know where to report always tell the aggressor that you are going to report them and always follow through on your word
  5. Get counselling to guard your mental and physical health
  6. There is power in numbers. Share your experiences with work colleagues to raise awareness, build solidarity and find help.
  7. Read about sexual harassment, patriarchy, and gender to empower yourself and others
  8. Leave the job if you can’t change the environment and if your safety is at risk

FOR EMPLOYERS

For some employers this may seem to be an employee problem which is none of their business. But as you have already read sexual harassment affects work output and this makes it their business. It is therefore good business to create a work environment that does not promote any form of sexual harassment. Investing in policies that promote gender equity and protection is very important. Adult safeguarding policies, whistle blowing policies, training are all good investments. Accessible and safe reporting platforms should be available and known to employees.

CONCLUSION

Sexual harassment is rooted in patriarchy, and it is important for you to know and understand how this system works. Recognise the powerplays and utilize the accountability channels available to neutralize that abused power. Employers have a responsibility to ensure an environment that does not promote the harassment of employees- they should consider vulnerable employees and establish protection measures.

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