Are you sexually harassed at work?

Whether you are a student, domestic worker, career woman or home-maker, sexual harassment can happen so quietly that you hardly even realise it, or it can be so obvious that you are too stunned to speak out. As a life coach, brother, husband and father, this qualifies me to share a little experience on this unpleasant practice with my colleagues out there.

People Management Issues Robert Mandeya

The issue of sexual harassment at the work place is so rampant yet very little is said about it. In the absence of a gender policy in most organisations, many have found themselves in sixes and sevens when it comes to handling cases of sexual harassment at workplace. The absence of a gender policy has cost many organisations a lot of money when such cases arise. Disciplinary hearings on such cases have been hampered by the unavailability of this very important instrument.

In one of my classes at one institute, I sometimes work with, I had a group of ladies from different companies pursuing a course to do with office management who voluntarily shared some of the harrowing experiences of sexual harassment they were subjected to at the workplace. This indicated to me, the prevalence of sexual harassment at workplaces. I am not suggesting that sexual harassment only happens to women, it can also happen to men but it is most prevalent against women. In my next installment, I might also touch on sexual harassment, involving men as victims. Here I will specifically touch on women as victims.

There were some stunning revelations. I must admit that I could not help but wonder how this could still be happening in some of our organisations in Zimbabwe, given the level of awareness in our society through educational campaigns against such practices that government and other well meaning organisations have rolled out over the years. I will share one of the experiences as shared by one lady. Please note the name used in this story is not the real name of the victim;

Taby Rabamokwane said she suffered sexual harassment at the hands of her boss for a long time and the story goes; “I was a personal assistant to the managing director of a corporate firm and from the first interview, I should have picked up something was wrong. He was very flirty with me, asking if I had a boyfriend and other inappropriate questions,” she narrates. Over time his sexual intentions became obvious. “At first he would ‘accidentally’ bump into me from the front or behind and apologise. I did not tell anyone because I was afraid to lose my job. He also had not directly made a pass at me so I didn’t know how I could report it as sexual harassment,” Taby said.

“The last straw came when he tried to kiss me when we were on a business trip together. He apologised, saying he was drunk. But I resigned when we got back. I was ashamed that, as an educated woman, I had suffered for so long and kept it silent,” she confessed.

I am convinced Taby’s story sounds quite familiar for most men and women out there.

I will from here try to interrogate why and how sexual harassment occurs.

Causes of sexual harassment

Experts say sexual harassment has three causes: workplace power relations. A man may use sexual innuendos or inappropriate touching to show a woman that he is in charge. If the woman is the one in a more senior position, a man could harass her to show that he still has that masculine power.
Perception of sex roles: Susan Faludi the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Woman, suggest that male hostility toward women in work place is closely connected to male attitudes about the “proper” role of a man in society. “Some men perceive the ‘feminist drive for economic equality’ as a threat to their traditional role. Thus sexual harassment is a form of violence perceived as self protection,” she explains.

Control: The victim’s vulnerability gives power to the harasser. Sexual harassment creates a climate of intimidation for the victims and that makes it easier to control them. “A woman who is the target of sexual harassment often goes through the same process of victimisation as one who has suffered rape, battering or other gender-related crimes, frequently blaming herself and doubting her own self-worth,” says Susan in her book. For a lot of us, we might be engaging in acts of sexual harassment unintentionally or internationally.
I will outline some of the behaviour that amount to sexual harassment.

Types of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, the following types of behaviour:

Comments, jokes or insults with sexual overtones

Graphic comments or inquiries about a person’s body or sexual habits made in the presence or directed towards women in our proximity.

Indecent exposure

The unwelcome display of sexually explicitly or offensive material to women in our vicinity.

Any unwanted physical contact, ranging from touching to sexual assault and rape.

Persistent and unwelcome flirting.

When a person attempts to influence the process of employment, promotion, training, discipline, dismissal, salary increment or other employee benefits or job applicant, in exchange of sexual favours. In legal terms, this is referred to as ‘Quid pro quo harassment.

There is also the psychological sexual behaviour which manifests as follows; repeated unwanted social invitations for dinner, drinks or movies, sexual favours and requesting anyone to wear sexy revealing, or suggestive clothes.

I can go on with this subject to the classification of men and their harassment tactics but space limitations cannot allow. Maybe in my next installment, I can pursue how people in such circumstances can mitigate sexual harassment.

Together we can fight this scourge and make our working places a pleasant place to be.

Robert Mandeya is a senior executive training consultant and communication in management advisor, a personal coach in leadership and professional development with the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. You can contact him on mandeyarobert@yahoo.com, mandeyarobert@gmail.com.The views contained herein are personal views.