Sexual harassment as defined by The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in its guidelines is:
‘’Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
· Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, or
· Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
· Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.’’
Unwelcome Behaviour is the critical word. Unwelcome does not mean "involuntary".
A victim may consent or agree to certain conduct and actively participate in it even though it is offensive and objectionable. Therefore, sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome. Whether the person in fact welcomed a request for a date, sex-oriented comment, or joke depends on all the circumstances.
Here are some examples of what constitute sexual harassment:
· Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.
· Unwanted pressure for sexual favours.
· Unwanted deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, or pinching.
· Unwanted sexual looks or gestures.
· Unwanted letters, telephone calls, or materials of a sexual nature.
· Unwanted pressure for dates.
· Unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions.
· Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe, or honey.
· Whistling at someone.
· Cat calls.
· Sexual comments.
· Turning work discussions to sexual topics.
· Sexual innuendos or stories.
· Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history.
· Personal questions about social or sexual life.
· Sexual comments about a person's clothing, anatomy, or looks.
· Kissing sounds, howling, and smacking lips.
· Telling lies or spreading rumours about a person's personal sex life.
· Neck massage.
· Touching an employee's clothing, hair, or body.
· Giving personal gifts.
· Hanging around a person.
· Hugging, kissing, patting, or stroking.
· Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person.
· Standing close or brushing up against a person.
· Looking a person up and down (elevator eyes).
· Sexually suggestive signals.
· Facial expressions, winking, throwing kisses, or licking lips.
· Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements.
While a significant number of women in Africa are in the workforce, little is known about the extent to which sexual harassment persists in the workplace, the kinds of actions that are taken when it occurs and whether working women are even aware of possible actions they can take. The small amount of available evidence suggests that sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a common occurrence, typically perpetrated by a person in a position of authority; the majority of women do not take action or lodge an official complaint for fear of being dismissed, losing their reputation or facing hostility or social stigma in the workplace.
By and large, the topic of sexual harassment is initially met with discomfort, denial and fear of reprisals and some judgmental attitudes about women provoking the incident. At the same time, further probing suggested that women perceived sexual harassment as normal behaviour, an occupational hazard, and even harmless.
Sexual harassment as “normal” and “harmless
Many women view sexual harassment to be a normal and harmless practice, a natural part of a working woman’s life and rarely an issue requiring complaint or action.
These are some responses from a study done amongst 137 healthcare personnel in Kolkata, India.
“Women will study and enter various professions. And then men will behave in this manner [smiling]. We have accepted this is how things will continue.”
(Doctor, age 30, government hospital)
“Only a few do this [unwanted touching] so it does not matter”.
(Doctor, age 25, government hospital)
“This is harmless fun that they have… it will stop with time”.
(Doctor, age 35, private hospital)
Discomfort, denial and fear
Exploring the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace was a challenging task. A vast majority of women don’t want to discuss the issue. Their discomfort in addressing the topic is evident from the fact that most women who have been harassed in one way or the other refer to it as “that thing”.
Many of them are initially reluctant to discuss the issue of sexual harassment and many denied that incidents of harassment occurred at their current workplace.
Also, some women have fears about discussing sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs. For example, women employed on daily wages or on contract are particularly reluctant to engage on this issue. They say that sexual harassment was not a priority (compared to obtaining permanent employment).
Women blaming women
By far the most puzzling is the fact that some women have suggested that while sexual harassment at work is provoked by the woman herself, with statements like “if a woman says there is sexual harassment, then I will find out about her behaviour or her dressing”.
Despite the number of women are being sexually harassed at work, few women ever take and complain to their supervisors or to management. Actions taken in these cases were, by and large, indirect and rarely involved confronting the perpetrator or taking action to dismiss the perpetuator.
A variety of reasons appeared to endorse a culture of silence and denial. Most women were not aware of the guidelines and complaints mechanisms/formal institutions of redress. Many feared attitudes that would blame them for provoking an incident or feared the loss of their reputation as a result of complaining. They also recognised their relatively powerless positions and feared job-related discrimination, including dismissal, and withholding of promotions and income.
There is no excuse or rationalisation for sexual harassment in the workplace. It is wrong and women all around must wake up to the fact that it is an infringement on their human rights. They need to understand what constitutes harassment and adopt a no-tolerance approach to it, and seek redress, and above all, they should never blame themselves or other women for any acts of sexual harassment.
BY CHARLES AKHIMIEN