Gender equality
The approach to promoting gender equality must be holistic to be effective. Image: SERASOOT/Shutterstock

How can we eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace?

25 Jan 2018

Gender equality has emerged as a hot-button issue at the World Economic Forum’s 2018 meeting in Davos, where panellists outlined how all discrimination is interlinked.

Oftentimes when detractors are firing criticisms at gender equality movements, they make a relativist argument.

It often runs along the lines of asking how someone can justify campaigning to end gender wage gaps, or even the likes of the #MeToo movement, when there are women in other nations suffering more extreme versions of gender-based discrimination and even violence.

As part of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, a panel entitled ‘Gender, Power and Sexual Harassment’ gathered on Tuesday (23 January). It sought to explore how different facets of gender discrimination are interconnected and how a holistic approach is required to stamp them out.

Social norms that justify economic discrimination are often the same ones that justify the sexual exploitation or harassment of workers.

Chaired by The New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, the panel consisted of: Peggy Johnson, executive vice-president of business development at Microsoft; Maryam Monsef, minister of status of women in Canada; Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley; Lisa Sherman, president of US non-profit Ad Council; and Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International.

Putting an end to forced arbitration

Microsoft recently announced that it was putting an end to forced arbitration in sexual harassment within the company.

Though Johnson stated that the company never acted on it, there was an existing clause that could have allowed Microsoft to keep sexual harassment claims out of public courts and, by extension, away from public knowledge, by forcing an arbitration process.

These types of practices are tools that can be used to silence victims and allow serial perpetrators to continue for years.

“We took [the provision] out as a statement to our employees, who were asking us to speak up about [the issue],” Johnson explained while imploring others in the audience to implement the same kind of sweeping change within their organisations.

“When the #MeToo campaign first came out, I remember talking to a group of my friends who said: “It should have been #WhoHasnt because everyone has one of those stories.”

Johnson reflected wearily on the ways women once had to guard themselves against sexual harassment in the workplace, such as “whisper networks” or “going the long way around the building so you didn’t have to go by the office of someone who would say something inappropriate about your dress”.

All of this, Johnson explained, saps women’s energy, and this time could have been spent “doing something else, something that furthered our career”.

She added: “There’s a business impact to this, and that angers me, looking back.”

The ‘That’s Harassment’ campaign

In Sherman’s capacity as CEO of Ad Council, she is behind a recent sexual harassment campaign entitled ‘That’s Harassment’, which consists of short re-enactments of stories of real experiences of workplace harassment.

The aim of the campaign is to educate – not just for the sake of encouraging victims to come forward, but to demonstrate to bystanders the types of inappropriate behaviour they should watch out for.

“There’s no silver bullet to solving this issue,” Sherman explained, but she hopes that these campaigns will make an impact.

For the early years of Sherman’s career, she remained in the closet as a gay woman for fear that being open would hurt her career. This forced her to sit through heart-wrenching instances of hearing colleagues make homophobic jokes while feeling she couldn’t interject for fear of being exposed.

Though Sherman identifies that it’s a separate issue, she feels it comes from the same place.

“When I finally did have the courage to come out … I was so moved by how free I felt … I actually did my best work as an executive, I was happier because I could bring my whole self to work.”

Power corrupts, and skews perception

Keltner and fellow researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have ran a number of studies examining the effect of power and social class on behaviour.

The team once elected to watch how drivers in luxury cars behaved relative to ‘poor’ or non-luxury cars, and found that those in wealthier cars were more likely to break the law while driving, even speeding through pedestrian zones.

Keltner argues in his book The Power Paradox that people in power have a greater tendency to act in a self-absorbed, immoral and impulsive manner.

It is this, he maintains, that engenders “sexual overperception” in powerful men. When they interact with women less powerful, they “feel more sexually aroused” – something Keltner explains is “well documented in research” – and will act on these impulses due to the self-delusion that these women are attracted to them when, in fact, they are not.

Yet there is a degree of hope – more women are getting into positions of power. Organisations are becoming flatter and the hierarchal lines are being blurred.

Women, Keltner argued (somewhat controversially), are better as leaders. He said this is because they are, by default, more collaborative and empathetic than men, who tend to “take more risks”, be more impulsive and “sexualise everything”.

Men, Keltner maintained, can be taught empathy, and instilling this in them at a young age can go a long way towards them becoming more compassionate male leaders in the future.

How sexual and economic exploitation are linked

“I want to bring to you the stories of ordinary women, poor women in developing countries,” said Byanyima, kicking off her crowd address.

These are women who work in the garment industry, who work as domestic workers, who assemble smartphones, who grow and process the food we eat or work in the “informal sector”. These women are, as Byanyima puts it, “at the bottom of the supply chain of big business”.

It is Byanyima’s belief that feminist progress being made in the West will buoy the hopes of these women and aid them in making progress in their own lives.

“I think all the women in the world have to be grateful to American women for taking a stand and saying #MeToo. That has brought renewed attention to a problem that’s really deep.”

Byanyima and her team interviewed domestic workers in the Dominican Republic, Thailand and Canada, and found that all had either experienced sexual harassment in the workplace themselves, or knew someone who had. “It goes on with impunity.”

She continued: “Domestic workers globally, they suffer abuse. In some cases, they are like slaves in the homes that they work.

“It’s not an accident that women are abused at work, or in the home.”

Byanyima believes that the same social norms that justify sexual economic exploitation are the ones that justify economic exploitation, hence why economically underprivileged women often find themselves in the crosshairs of sexual predators.

“This is why I think it’s so important to tackle economic inequality in order to end violence against women. You have to tackle both together.”

Three things, she argues, need to be done (as well as pointing out that more countries need to ratify the convention that affords domestic women labour law protections).

  • First, laws that discriminate against women economically – the likes of which exist in 155 countries – need to be eradicated.
  • Secondly, social norms that justify sexual exploitation need to be tackled at work, and the private sector needs to recognise its role in addressing these norms by changing conditions in factories or modifying advertising.
  • “Lastly, we must bring women into decision-making everywhere, not just in parliament … If they don’t have power, this justification of sexual exploitation will not end.”

Stopping gender-based violence in Canada

In Monsef’s role as minister of status of women in Canada, she has been instrumental in formulating this federal strategy.

“Canadians mandated our government to … come up with the first federal strategy to address and prevent gender-based violence.”

To create the plan, representatives from the Canadian government traversed the country and interviewed survivors, their families and experts, and asked what the government could do to most effectively intervene.

This work led to the first gender-based violence strategy, which, most importantly, is backed with funding (including a C$20m endowment to organisations that work with vulnerable women in Canada). The strategy aims to act under three main pillars: prevention, support and a “focus on, and investment in, a more responsive legal and justice system”.

Why a government and its citizens would want to prioritise this work is self-evident due to the “human rights imperative” but, for Monsef, it goes far beyond that.

“The human right to dignity and to live a life free of violence is important … [but for our government] there is an economic imperative here, too.”

“The greatest barrier to addressing the wage gap is inequality. The greatest barrier to achieving equality for women and gender diverse people is, we believe, gender-based violence.

“That’s why we need to work hard to ensure that #MeToo is a phrase that eventually, over time, is not used in [the context of sexual harassment and assault]”.

You can view a full recording of the panel session here.

Updated, 4.36pm, 25 January 2018: A previous version of this article used the headline, ‘How is gender-based violence connected to the wage gap?’

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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