By Elim Poon
A majority of sexual harassment cases in the workplaces go unreported. Research by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US found that 99.8% of people who are harassed do not formally report the experience. This finding is common around the world.
One reason is that victims of harassment don’t feel safe or supported enough to report their experience to their superiors, let alone their company management. Victims, overwhelmingly women, are afraid they will be labeled as troublemakers or be victimised for speaking out against a colleague.
So they stay silent.
In Malaysia, activists have long lobbied for a Sexual Harassment Bill to be enacted. Though the government says such an act in on the cards, it is unlikely that it will be tabled in the next parliamentary seating.
“Malaysia is still in the early stages of progress in tackling harassment. Many people are not aware of what harassment really is, and that’s a conversation we need and want to have,” says LeadWomen CEO Dr Marcella Lucas.
“People immediately assume that harassment has to be sexual in nature, but it includes everything from intimidation, discrimination and bullying, to physical and psychological discomfort, all the way up to sexual harassment.”
Hoping to get the conversation going, LeadWomen is organising a two-day conference titled #ItsNotOK?! on Oct 14 and 15 for senior decision-makers and policymakers of companies. Their aim: To facilitate discussions on creating harassment-free workspaces.
“To tackle workplace harassment, company culture needs an adjustment from the top down. Power dynamics is very much in play when harassment happens. We want to target key decision-makers in companies who can influence and create change,” Lucas explains.
“Oftentimes it’s difficult to draw a specific line when dealing with harassment, for instance the difference between a joke and actual harassment. It’s these shades of grey that we don't talk about but need to.”
In a 2014 study by the Association of Women Lawyers Malaysia, 31% of lawyers surveyed in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the course of their employment.
Another survey by YouGov Omnibus found that 36% of Malaysian women and 17% of Malaysian men have experienced sexual harassment, with only about half reporting or telling someone about it.
“In any case of workplace harassment, there is the victim, the perpetrator and the observer. The observer is the key to creating safe workspaces,” Lucas asserts. “We have all been observers of harassment in one way or another. If observers are empowered, it influences the perpetrator and the victim as well.”
This statement was echoed by workplace harassment expert Patti Perez, VP of workplace strategy at the US firm, Emtrain. “Companies must train employees on how to stop workplace harassment. The only wrong answer when it comes to intervening is doing nothing,” says Perez, a speaker at the upcoming conference.
“Employers must drive this point home and encourage bystanders to intervene or object to the act at that moment, or they can report it to the management. The workforce must be educated on how to intervene effectively, in ways that do not increase tensions surrounding the issue,” she stressed.
Perez adds that companies must create a “culture of truth-telling”, so that employees feel safe to report their concerns, speak up for themselves, and speak up on behalf of others.
Women’s rights activist Betty Yeoh from Malaysia’s All Women’s Action Society agrees that not enough has been done to deal with workplace harassments. “There are still gaps in how corporations handle sexual harassment. These gaps need to be identified and rectified,” she says.
“Often, workplaces are more concerned with punishing the perpetrator, but it is crucial to ensure that there are adequate support systems in place for victims too. Ways on how to educate those found to be sexual harassers should also be looked into.”
The It’sNotOK?! conference will see Malaysian and international experts come together to provide participants with a 360° perspective of workplace harassment through the lenses of culture, gender, psychology and the law.
“I hope that through the conference, leaders of corporations will become more aware of the realities of workplace harassment, and are committed to creating a safe, non-toxic, harassment and discrimination-free work spaces,” says Yeoh.