On his first day of work as an intern at a media organisation, James* was told by his supervisor that he could gain a lot of experience during his five-month stint if he was willing to put in the hours.

He was also told that the company “wasn’t the perfect workplace” – among the things the supervisor informed him about was that there had been several cases of sexual harassment in the past, which he may hear about during his tenure.

He was told “not to worry about it”.

“I was taken aback. It certainly wasn’t what I expected to hear on my first day and certainly wasn’t what I expected from such a respected company. Over time, I realised that the harrasment was an open secret in the organisation – everyone knew about it but no one actually spoke of it,” shares James.

A work environment that turns a blind eye to harassment allows predatory behaviour to thrive.

For too long, sexual harassment has been a topic that has been swept under the carpet. But in the past week, since fresh allegations of abuse and sexual assault at popular radio station BFM surfaced, the subject has been discussed openly, with more people sharing their experiences or knowledge of harassment in their workplaces.

The truth is that sexual harassment happens all too often and it isn’t confined to a single company or industry – it’s endemic and it calls for immediate action.

A law on sexual harassment has to be passed to make workplaces safe for women, women’s rights activists say.

Few women speak up about sexual harassment as they risk being blamed and shamed. Photo: 123rf.com

Few women speak up about sexual harassment as they risk being blamed and shamed. Photo: 123rf.com

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to women, of course, but a large percentage of victims are women. Police statistics show that in 2017, out of the 267 cases reported, 226 (85%) of the victims were women.

A sexual harassment law would provide a clear definition of prohibitive conduct and outline the seriousness of the violation. A law could also mandate that all companies have in place proper mechanisms to protect employees and deal with harassment.

The Human Resource Ministry has a Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace but it is not binding.

“The ministry has proposed amending the Employment Act 1955 to mandate every employer to have a sexual harassment code displayed in a conspicuous area. This is a positive move but we further suggest that the ministry strengthen regulation and oversight over employers. There must be a stronger appeals process for survivors whose employers are not sensitive to harassment,” says Women’s Aid Organisation’s (WAO) advocacy manager, Yu Ren Chung.

Yu: The Human Resources Ministry must strengthen regulation and oversight over employers.

Victims stay silent because they fear consequences at work or feel that nothing will happen as a result of speaking up.

For many, these fears have proven true.

When public relations executive Melissa* complained to her manager that her superior was constantly inviting her to have work-related discussions after office hours, often over dinner or at his home, her concerns were dismissed.

“She (the manager) told me that wasn’t harassment and that I shouldn’t be paranoid. His behaviour made me very uncomfortable but that, apparently, was my problem,” shares Melissa.

After refusing the offers over a few months, Melissa felt the backlash at work. She was sidelined – she wasn’t included in meetings and discussions and was often derided for her work in front of her peers.

After six months, Melissa left the company.

Women also keep silent because in many instances, they are questioned and doubted, and often even re-victimised.

“Questions like why women remain silent or why they want to remain anonymous … that are being asked on social media and the media just deflect from the real issue at hand – the sexual harassment.

“Such questions shift the blame to the victim and this is one reason women don’t speak out. Instead, they avoid their harasser, they try and forget the incident happened or they ignore it,” says WAO vice president Meera Samanther.

An article published in July in the Harvard Business Review titled “How co-workers and HR pressure women to stay silent about harassment” reported that all 31 women victims of harassment who were interviewed had shared their experiences of sexual harassment with either a line manager, human resource personnel or colleagues.

They were all told to “move on” or to “stop raising the issue”. Victims are often told that their experiences don’t amount to harassment. Sexual harassment isn’t confined to a single person – often the workplace culture and policies are complicit in silencing and not supporting victims.

Victims stay silent also because of a real fear of retaliation, says Meera.

“The harraser is often a person in power. So women fear for their jobs, they fear they won’t get a promotion, they won’t get a job elsewhere, they will be labelled as troublemakers or that they are seeking attention. All this victim-blaming is tiresome and takes a toll on victims,” she says.

Meera also points out that often mechanisms to handle these cases protect the company and not the victim.

“You have to understand that in such cases, the burden of proof is always on the victim. These cases can become very adversarial – the defence will try to portray the victim as being somehow culpable … that she flirted or that she encouraged it.

“And if women don’t have the support or the strength to go through all this, they often give up,” says Meera.

Even when they do have the stamina to fight their case, things don’t always end up well for them.

Take American professor of psychology Christine Blasey Ford, for example, who publicly accused Brett Kavanaugh (now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States) of attempting to rape her when the pair were teenagers, and whose powerful testimony to the Senate put Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court at risk.

In a report last month, The Guardian when referencing Blasey Ford who has remained out of the public eye since the case for her own “safety, security and future”, quoted social psychologist Marianne LaFrance saying: “People who challenge the status quo, and certainly those who challenge the gender status quo, will face an aggressive response and, often, ridicule.”

Strength in numbers

The first rule in cases of sexual harassment, say experts, is to believe the victim. And support her.

But this often isn’t the experience of those who find the courage to report.

When Khatijah* reported that she’d been groped by her co-worker to her Human Resources department, she was asked during her interview, if she was “having problems with her husband” which could have caused her to seek comfort in her colleague.

“The (male) manager asked me if I’d told my husband of the incident. I said I hadn’t yet. I told him that I was still trying to make sense of what happened and that it was difficult to talk about, and he asked if I was having problems with my husband. And then he said that maybe I encouraged my co-worker in some way.

“It was sickening. It took me a month to find the courage to even talk to my superior about it and bring the case to HR, only to feel victimised again,” relates Khatijah, who works in a media organisation.

Workers protest against Google’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. Photo: AP

“We need to come together against harassment. If we don’t say anything when we see or know that our co-workers have been or are being harassed, that means that we are saying that type of behaviour is OK. We need to stand with our colleagues and together, demand that this behaviour is not tolerated. And that companies must do something about harassment,” says Marcela Suazo, United Nations Population Fund country head for Malaysia and Thailand.

Last month, thousands of Google employees, both men and women, in cities around the world – from New York and Singapore to Hyderabad, Berlin, Zurich, London, Chicago and Seattle – staged walkouts to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment following a New York Times report that the tech giant paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives who were accused of harassment. After the expose, the company revealed that it had fired 48 people for sexual harassment over the past two years. Employees collectively demanded that the company change the way it handled harassment cases: that it, among other things, was transparent on instances of harassment.

As a result, the company agreed to be more transparent in the handling of cases. They also agreed to end the policy of forcing workers to sign away their right to take a sexual harassment case to court and instead promised to provide live support for victims and a dedicated site for reporting.

However, their new policies don’t cover third-party workers which make up about 50% of Google’s workforce, which means that the new and improved policies need to be further reviewed and more inclusive.

* Names have been changed