Do women feel safe in offices?
Earlier this month, I was a guest on a podcast titled Not Here For, a series by Kotha Bangladesh, that calls out injustices that we have historically faced and continue to face in this country today. Their recent series has been on the denial of feminine rage — rage that is an outcry against injustices and discrimination. Feminine rage is powerful, not only because of how it energises us but also because it informs us of the changes that are necessary to address injustices (violence, discrimination, abuse, harassment) that women face in our society. What makes working women angry? Is there space for feminine rage in the workplace? How has the anger and rage of women been denied and suppressed in the professional sphere? These were some of the hard-hitting, but often ignored, questions that we pondered on during the episode. While doing research for the podcast, I reached out to former colleagues and friends and realised the sheer magnitude of the collective anger we hold internally against the injustices we face at work. We, especially women, often excuse and digest the discriminatory, degrading and offensive behaviour of our peers and colleagues. Our culture, both at home and at work, teaches us to treat these issues as normal. We rarely get the space or encouragement to think or realise that what we face is unacceptable. To understand and break down this anger, I looked back at my own experience of working at one of the leading research institutes in Bangladesh. What are some of the things that made me, or, in hindsight, should have made me angry?
It was when a project lead removed another female colleague and me from a project without any real explanation, citing that it would require far too much quantitative analytical skills. These skills are stereotypically not associated with women but rather seen as more of a masculine trait. From a young age, we hear from our families and teachers that boys are better at technical subjects or mathematics, while girls are better at arts. These stereotypes, unfortunately, can spill over into our professional lives and continue to dictate the opportunities that we get. It was when I went on a remote training programme where I faced repeated online harassment by a fellow trainee and then had my anger and complaint denied and discarded by the organisers. They informed me that they would not be able to take any measures against the man as there was no “hard” evidence, even after I showed them the disturbing messages I had received. It was when a colleague lingered uncomfortably close during meetings and touched my arm, making similar unwanted physical contact with other female colleagues as well. It was when I got on the elevator with a senior male colleague, and he said, “Oh, I did not recognise you at all with that red lipstick on, you look so good!” It was when I placed first in some of the sports activities during a work retreat and the head of operations at that time said, “But I thought you were the chubby, lazy girl!” I stood shocked as he laughed and walked away. It was when a male colleague sent me an email detailing how he, along with other colleagues, had discussed my clothes, my body and how modern and attractive I looked in my western outfit at a work picnic. He felt at ease to not only discuss my physical appearance with others but also to send an email to inform me about it, telling me to take it as a compliment. It was when a female colleague confided in me how she was messaged on Facebook by a married male colleague to engage in a sexual relationship so they could “satisfy each other.” He told her it was no big deal because she probably was not in a happy marriage anyway and that there was no need for her husband to hear about it.
Women are not only harassed or discriminated against, but many are also undervalued for the work that they do. I saw it at my workplace, when a colleague did not receive due credit, time and time again, and was called shrill, loud and unpleasant by the senior management when she demanded that her work be recognised. There was plenty to be angry about; I was furious, hurt and horrified, as I navigated through this maze of toxic and harmful behaviour. And I was not alone in doing so.
The current mainstream discourse on workplace harassment primarily centres around extreme forms of sexual harassment such as rape and physical assault. In doing so, it often overlooks the range of harassment, discrimination and violence that can and do take place. Kotha Bangladesh has been shedding light on the nuances of this issue. According to them, misogynistic comments, seeking out personal information and commenting on physical appearances, any form of physical contact without consent or requests for sexual favours, photos taken without consent, persistent attempts at making plans outside of work even through online platforms, coercion to establish romantic or sexual relationships, can all collectively be considered sexual harassment in the workplace. These different types of behaviour and actions all demean, objectify and degrade women. Unwanted sexual behaviour towards a person has to be considered as sexual harassment and must not be tolerated. Only focusing on extreme forms of physical violence gives the false notion that women in offices are safe since extreme violence is not the common form of violence that these women experience. To tackle this issue, it is important to keep in mind that even subtle forms of gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace can be extremely harmful and detrimental for women. Understanding these different contexts is essential in enforcing accountability and ensuring a safe working environment.
Harassment is not only restricted to the physical boundaries of an office. Women are vulnerable to abuse and harassment from their colleagues and peers during work-related trips or even on social media. I faced this not only from my colleagues but also from men from other organisations who had interacted with me during work events. For instance, I received disturbing messages on Facebook along with a photo he had taken of me from a journalist after a press conference. I was severely distressed by the fact that not only did he take a photo that was in no way journalistic but tried to phrase his message as a compliment. This form of harmful flattery or sexist compliments is largely ignored when we discuss workplace harassment because people consider these acts trivial or harmless. By limiting the scope of this discussion, we are telling women that they have no choice but to accept a toxic working environment. The fact that it can happen anywhere, at any time, adds immensely to the psychological trauma associated with harassment. While BRAC, ActionAid and others have, in recent times, encouraged and initiated discussions around these issues through research and advocacy campaigns, there is more work to be done.
When we discuss the challenges of workplace harassment, one argument that comes up almost immediately is that women do not report cases of harassment enough and that they should speak out more about the injustices they face. It is a legitimate argument, but first, we must answer this – is there space for women to express and channel their anger against those injustices? This refers to the formal complaint mechanism – committees that oversee complaints about workplace harassment and take measures for redressal; sexual conduct policies that set out the rules of what behaviour or actions are not acceptable at work; general HR rules that can help to minimise the scope for harassment and discrimination. The High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh released a list of guidelines for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace based on a petition filed by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association (BNWLA). The guideline states that every workplace should form a five-member sexual harassment complaint committee led by a woman to curb the incidence of harassment. That was 11 years ago, in 2009. While I was working in Bangladesh, I came across no such committee in my organisation where my colleagues or I could lodge our complaints. In 2019, Bangladesh supported the ILO Convention 190, which recognises that everyone has a right to a violence-free and harassment-free working environment. In late 2020, it was further ratified to demand a zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment (the ratification is yet to be done by Bangladesh). On paper, Bangladesh has taken major steps to address the issue of workplace harassment; however, in reality, these have not translated into organisational level action due to a lack of enforcement and awareness. Both the HC guidelines and the ILO Convention should be concretised into law if we want to see any changes to the current prevalence of harassment.
While it is paramount to put the right laws and policies in place, it is equally important to pay attention to the underlying office culture. The institutional measures will be effective only if there is an office culture where women feel like their voices will be heard, where they will not be judged and ridiculed or face backlash for speaking out. Individual behaviours or instances of harassment certainly hurt and need to be confronted as such through formal measures, but the real issue is the larger toxic culture that allows and normalises such behaviours to take place at all. This culture is perpetuated not only through the harmful actions themselves but also through the inaction of others who ignore, accept or discard the severity of the issue of workplace harassment. When speaking about instances of workplace harassment such as the examples shared above, we should be outraged not only about those men but the culture at the workplace that enabled these to happen. Why was it normal for those men to discuss the appearance and body of a female colleague? What made him feel confident to admit this to me in the email later? What aspect of the culture at that research organisation, empowered the other man who messaged the female colleague for sex? There is something terribly wrong with the way an organisation is run if someone thinks it is a safe space to be a predator and harass others. The same culture also made me and my fellow female co-workers feel unsafe and uncomfortable to speak out and think that our voices would not be valued. Why did my female co-worker not have any space to share what had happened to her without fear of backlash? Why was silence her best option?
Colleagues who neither take part in harassment nor stand up for victims, have to take responsibility for this culture. This is because their inaction sends a clear message: it is acceptable for such things to happen. It is simply not enough to not demonstrate harmful behaviours unless we are ready to challenge and call out every instance of injustice when we see it in front of us and demand a cultural shift in our workplaces. It is crucial not only to have the formal measures to handle workplace harassment such as HR policies, code of conduct, complaint mechanisms and committees but also to invest in and prioritise creating an environment where employees know that any form of misogyny, discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated and that victims feel like their voices will be heard without judgement.
It is doubly infuriating when the same people who subject others to harassment and toxicity see no irony in undertaking research and publicly commenting on issues of justice and gender-based violence. Their professional work becomes their defence even if they privately inflict discomfort or harm on others. In Bangladesh, NGOs, INGOs, research organisations and policy institutes, are highly invested in the mainstream discourse on women’s development in the country. The men in these organisations conduct research on gender inequalities, inclusivity, women’s rights, and violence. They go on talk shows, roundtables and public forums and speak about their research on the many hurdles that women face in our country. They present their arguments on what policies need to be implemented to improve the status of women. These same individuals are the ones perpetuating gender stereotypes and misogyny in their personal lives – this includes their conduct in their workplaces and interactions with female colleagues or employees. Take for example, the man who worked as a facilitator and conducted gender sensitivity training in his organisation. On a work trip, that same man told female co-workers that they should be spectators as the men played games because sports is not for women. To him, conducting those training sessions was “work” and had no connection to his behaviour beyond those sessions. Or, the man who would touch female colleagues without consent and make them uncomfortable at work and then would go on to speak about rape culture in Bangladesh in TV interviews. It is problematic when we allow the behaviours and conduct in these two spheres – the professional and the private – to exist independently, because we are not holding these men accountable.
How can we do better?
l Workplace harassment awareness campaigns – organisations must take the responsibility to integrate anti-sexual harassment and gender sensitivity training into their HR policy to better educate employees on acceptable code of conduct and inform them of their rights.
l Zero tolerance policy – organisations must have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of harassment or discrimination in the workplace. This should be disseminated to all members of the staff regardless of designation. Combined with other measures, this type of policy can help create a culture where victims feel confident to speak up, and perpetrators know they will be held accountable.
l Provision of relevant resources – all members of an organisation must be provided with resources and guidance and other tools on harassment and discrimination that make it easier to understand, detect and prevent any form of harassment or discrimination. This can be done through posters and flyers around office spaces for easy access to information.
l Formal redressal mechanism – As the HC directive recommends, every workplace should have a formal committee with representation from independent organisations that work with harassment and violence.
l Gender balance in leadership roles – organisations must employ women in leadership roles as the underrepresentation can lead to unequal gender impacts.
The discourse around violence against women and women’s safety cannot be limited to extreme forms of physical violence. The discourse must be pushed to include the larger culture around violence and discrimination against women. Working women have a right to be enraged. We must listen to their stories and hold those who harass and oppress and discriminate accountable for their actions. We must ensure that we work towards creating a safer and more inclusive working environment for all.
Kaneta Zillur is a researcher and Master’s student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
Source: The Daily Star