Georgina and Norma’s story…
When Georgina’s boss Dan made advances at her, she brushed it off and opted to deal with it the best way she knew how – through silence.
As his demands became more pressing, she maintained her silence. Georgina knew the signs of sexual harassment all too well, yet she chose not to report. The hand that crawled down her thigh and squeezed her knee, or strayed too far down her back and landed on her rump, the hugs that were tighter than normal around the chest and left her feeling defiled, the furtive stroke of her cheek when no-one was looking or the gesticulations that conveniently brushed past her breasts, the veiled threats and the distasteful sexually suggestive remarks, yet she still maintained her silence.
When a younger colleague, Norma who was experiencing the same abuse confided in her, she advised her to be quiet. A new colleague, Norma was on a short term contract and needed it renewed. Georgina feared that her young friend might lose her job, as the contract renewal rested solely in Dan’s hands.
“Look, it happens to all of us. Don’t ever breathe a word about it to anyone. Do you understand?” she whispered to Norma, as if she was afraid the walls would hear them and carry their conversation to Dan’s office, more than 250 metres away.
“But he’s abusing us, there is strength in numbers, can’t we do something about it? Surely we can report him,” Norma persisted but Georgina retorted with a stern warning. “Do you still want your job?” Sure Norma wanted her job, but not at the cost of being abused, yet she would not dare to report without the support of her colleague.
Both knew they were being sexually harassed and the reporting channels for such cases. They were bombarded with information on how to protect themselves regularly, yet they still opted for silence and justified it in their own ways.
Georgina (55), driven and highly specialized, was at the apex of her career and would not let anything stand in her way. No organization could match her current salary and benefits, while she felt her age made it more difficult to find a new job and start afresh. She could not afford to jeopardize her job and was unsure of the repercussions of reporting Dan.
A mother of two, who was undergoing a brutal divorce and would soon be a single parent, her confidence was severely battered and she could not face another battle. So, she chose to focus on the positive aspects of her career and threw herself wholly into the only comfort she knew and the most successful aspect of her life at the moment – her work.
On the hand Norma (30), strong willed and choleric, with an acute sense of justice, felt they should report but was reluctant to face the battle on her own. She believed in the mantra “united we stand, divided we fall.” Her colleague’s reluctance to join hands held her back.
Norma had received a partial scholarship at a university overseas and needed to save up for her tuition so she could resume her studies.
Both were unsure of the consequences of reporting but lacked the assurance that it would not jeopardize their jobs. Although all cases were treated with strict confidentiality, the two did not have faith in the system. Besides, since Dan was abusing both of them, they would both incur his wrath when he was called up for his actions, regardless of who reported, the other would still bear the brunt. Most discouraging though, was the fact that the burden of proof lay with the two women and while each case was investigated thoroughly, it was extremely taxing on both the victims and the perpetrator.
Feeling angry and helpless as they sat in Georgina’s office, the two spent the rest of the day in depressed silence and ate imported chocolate, their shared comfort food.
A few months later, Norma could not take any more of the harassment and had an outburst. Dan could not fire her because he had to provide compelling reasons for doing so and her performance at work was outstanding. The morning after the outburst, Georgina and five other female colleagues sneaked to Norma’s office to congratulate and thank her for standing up for them. She had stood up for herself, but in doing so did not realize that she spoke for many others who were suffering silently.
Emboldened by Norma’s action, the others began to push back and stand up for themselves, forcing Dan to retreat and treat them with respect.
Dan was later dismissed for other misdemeanors. Sexual harassment never appeared on his charge sheet, after all, no one had reported it formally.
When Nicholas bumped into Tatenda (38), a colleague, at a supermarket and waited for her to finish shopping then insisted on paying for her groceries, she felt very uncomfortable and made it expressly clear that she did not appreciate the gesture. Although they had both stretched forth their hands to give the cashier money for the groceries, he had opted to take money from the man, forcing Tatenda to reluctantly accept the unwelcome offer.
After asking him never to do that again, she was taken aback when a few months later, she received a list of numbers from Nicholas. He had bought credit for her mobile phone and sent her the numbers from the scratch card. Again, she was uncomfortable, but the friends she told saw nothing wrong with it. She never used the credit.
A few more weeks down the line, he discovered her love for Swiss chocolate and went out of his way to source some for her. She relaxed a little, perhaps he was just a kind man, but her friends immediately saw a red flag. Within days of the chocolate delivery, he demanded sex. Tatenda was taken aback, she’d been uncomfortable about being showered with presents but did not think it would lead to that. She made it clear that she had values, had never asked for any of this gifts and sex would not happen.
Nicholas was surprised. He had an 80 percent success rate. Most women he showered with gifts consented, so he could not understand Tatenda’s reluctance. As far as he was concerned, the gifts were a future investment for later sexual activity, a bit like depositing money into the bank for withdrawal later, so he didn’t see where Tatenda missed it.
Sadly for Tatenda, most of her colleagues had consented because Nicholas held a higher position, which he used to manipulate them. However, she and her friend Mary were in a better position to speak up as they had more senior posts and did not fall within his department, hence his 80 percent success rate – they were the 20 percent minority that stood up.
To her relief, he stormed out of her life and that was the end of his advances. He also found another job and moved to another city, permanently.
Neither Tatenda nor Mary reported the matter. After all, they had not given in to his demands so it was no big deal. Silence was convenient, they did not have to face the humiliation of discussing the matter with anyone. It never occurred to them that the colleagues who had consented did so under duress and that reporting the matter would have given the more timid and less empowered workmates a voice.
These few examples point to a larger, global problem. Sexual harassment was brought under spotlight recently, when women got the courage to publicize their experiences and named and shamed some prominent male perpetrators, prompting some resignations. Emboldened by the reports, the issue snowballed as more women came forward with their cases.
As with most cases of sexual harassment, the first question people asked was “why now after so many years?”
Well, to feel the pinch, you have to wear the shoe.
There are many reasons why women take long to report cases of sexual harassment or choose not to report at all. Here are just a few:
- The risk of being judged and ostracized
Clearly the people who ask “why now?” do not realize that reporting or talking about sexual harassment or any form of sexual assault is not as easy as buying bread. It takes a great deal of courage for someone to stand up and speak out, particularly in a society that blames women for the harassment they incur, while excusing the perpetrators. In most cases the women, who are the victims, are judged and risk being ostracized.
Some years ago, I heard of a case where someone reported a case of sexual harassment to authorities in the organization she worked for. After conducting investigations and establishing that sexual harassment had indeed taken place, the man in question was dismissed while the lady retained her job. Unfortunately, the lady was judged for the rest of her tenure in the organization and treated like a pariah, who seduced men then got them fired when she was done with them. I’m sure when some colleagues saw her approaching they secretly sang the golden oldie:
“Oh oh here she comes,
Watch out boy she’ll chew you up.
Oh oh here she comes,
She’s a man eater.”
In another example, a male employee fondled a new staff member in the office. She immediately screamed and reported the matter. He was instantly dismissed and in his defence claimed a demon had possessed him. Interestingly, in discussing the matter later, work mates were quick to ask “what will become of his family, he was the sole breadwinner.” One could not help but detect the finger pointing. I suspect that sentence, rephrased, would have been “you shouldn’t have reported him, you should have kept quiet so he could keep his job, after all he didn’t do it, it was the demon.”
In both examples, discussion turned to the women’s conduct, dressing and voluptuous shapes. Both women were blamed, yet had they kept quiet, their silence would have been misconstrued as consent.
- Fear of possible loss
The stakes are also high. Take for instance Georgina’s case, she felt she had a lot to lose – her dream job, the prestige it brought and the associated financial benefits. Whether the loss was real or perceived is inconsequential because it prevented her from reporting and accessing her rights.
- Lack of trust in existing systems
Many organizations have put in place systems that protect employees, both male and female, from sexual abuse and harassment. In such organizations, the various forms of harassment are clearly defined and reporting procedures are spelt out and communicated to staff, with assurance of protection and confidentiality.
It is a well-known fact that women are being harassed, yet the question is, to what extent are the policies and procedures to protect them being taken up? The low uptake may be an indication of lack of trust in the system. Indeed systems may be good but they are implemented by people, who have flaws. Take for example a situation where Dan is best friends with the focal point for receiving such cases. What guarantees are there that he won’t informally warn his friend about the reported case and should he do so, what protection will the victim have?
(Although the policies and procedures protect both men and women, focus here is on women because on enquiring from male counterparts, they said they welcome advances from female colleagues and would not consider reporting cases of harassment as they did not view it as such)
- Lack of solidarity and support
One thing is for sure, there is comfort in numbers, as evidenced by the snowball effect of the #MeToo campaign. As long as women feel isolated and unsupported, it will be difficult for them to report cases of sexual harassment. Peer support is very important, particularly when reporting results in investigations and interrogations that are emotionally taxing and psychologically draining, with the risk of social sanctions. At the same time, organizational support within the system is equally vital.
This is clearly illustrated in Norma’s case.
- Possible impunity for the perpetrators
It is never clear what will happen after one reports a case of sexual harassment. The pendulum could swing either way. While some organizations have been known to act without fear or favor, others have reportedly defended the perpetrators. In any case, impunity is always a possibility. In the examples shared, the perpetrators were punished, but that is not always guaranteed, particularly when the focal point for receiving cases is friends with the alleged perpetrator.
In some cases, particularly the private sector, men have reportedly joked about cases brought forward in private over a beer after hours.
A friend of mine always remarked about “old boys’ clubs” and these sometimes manifest when men rally together after one of them is accused of sexual harassment.
- Fear of reprisal and other unforeseen consequences
To every action, there is a consequence and while most organizations make every effort to protect those who report cases of sexual harassment, there are no guarantees that the victims will not suffer unforeseen consequences.
There are numerous possibilities. In the examples of the two women who reported their cases and were blamed by colleagues for doing so, the unforeseen consequences included the accusations and isolation by colleagues, the scrutiny they were brought under, the ensuing judgment and the guilt of thrusting a family into economic deprivation by getting the bread winner fired.
In some cases, women who reported late have been accused of doing so after a relationship they had consented to turned awry. The implication of consent disregards the possibility of coercion and abuse of power.
In other cases, the men banded together and frustrated the woman who reported out of the organization.
There is also the possibility of reputational risk to the organization, should the case leak to the media, particularly if the company is a significant one.
In conclusion, women who come forward and speak out about sexual harassment, no matter how late after the incident, should be applauded for their courage, while organizations should look at improving their systems to make it easier for victims to report. Organizations should also act on such reports fairly and speedily as this would set a precedent and dissuade other would be perpetrators from abusing their colleagues. Men also need to join hands with women and condemn such behavior as this will shift the problem from being dismissed as that of “whining women,” to a universal issue. Just as there is strength in women uniting, there is even greater strength in women and men joining forces to battle the monster called sexual harassment.