At meetings, my seniors and boss like to joke about taking a young second or third wife, especially when there are new interns. I am forced to laugh along, even when it makes me cringe. They don’t say it in front of the interns, though.
My supervisor likes to put his arms around me and my young female colleagues. At first it felt brotherly, but later I felt uncomfortable.
One night when we were working late, my male colleague suddenly grabbed my arm and kissed me on the lips.
AS women around the world speak up about their experiences after the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal blew up early this month, Malaysian females are voicing out their stories as well.
Their accounts here show that such behaviour towards women is not only prevalent in the entertainment industry. Around 60% of people from various sectors said they have been sexually harassed at work in Malaysia, half of them by a boss or someone senior, according to a new online poll.
The “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” poll kicked off last week by Speak Up, a movement aimed at encouraging a corporate culture of openness to allow people to raise issues of concern without fear. It is founded by legal advocate Animah Kosai.
With over 300 respondents as of Friday, the findings of the poll indicated that there is a strong culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment in the country.
As the poll revealed, 44% have kept silent about the unwanted sexual encounter at the office, while only 12% have reported about the harassment to their human resources department.
The lack of current statistics on sexual harassment in Malaysia was what led to the survey, says Animah.
“I’ve been working on the issue for years. One of the challenges I’ve faced is to get the latest statistics on sexual harassment here. If we cannot gauge how serious the problem is, how can we address it?”
With the online poll, she hopes to estimate the prevalence of sexual harassment at the workplace, types of harassment and and victims’ course of action. As the survey revealed, only 40% said there is a sexual harassment policy in their workplace, says Animah, a former counsel in the oil and gas industry.
“I want to study what sort of mechanism and system are in place in organisations to take action against sexual harassment; the readiness of employers and whether they have a policy in place in the offices.
“Many employees don’t know what to do because many companies don’t have a policy in place. And the HR are not trained to deal with sexual harassment.”
Animah describes the culture of silence in Malaysia as bad.
“This is because we have a huge cultural problem with power dynamics. We scored the highest on Hofstede’s Power Dynamic Index; we even beat North Korea and Saudi Arabia. What this means is that we have the honour of having the biggest power distance – in Malaysia, people lower down the chain are subservient to their bosses and will not dare challenge them, even when they know their bosses are wrong.”
This is why, Animah points out, although up to 34% in the poll said they have confronted their harasser, it depended on the power dynamics between them.
“It is difficult for someone who was being sexually harassed to tell off the aggressor who is a ‘senior’ or the boss. The victim will be scared of the consequences – he or she will lose their chance at promotion or even lose the job. Similarly, many sexual harassment cases at the workplace get buried if the big bosses are involved – HR officers want to keep their jobs too.”
With sexual harassment, it is also “the values we have been brought up on,” she says, such as jaga muka (save face) and sabar (be patient).
“You may have a good corporate governance where you can go straight to the board to report the wrongdoings of your superior but despite that, many cases go unreported because many, especially women, don’t want to shame others and get them into trouble, especially if the guy is their senior in the organisation.
“They would think ‘he’s got children and family, so we shouldn’t disrupt his rice bowl or break up his marriage.’ It’s a deep psyche problem in the society.”
According to her, the poll also showed that quite a few confided in friends and colleagues when they got sexually harassed but in many cases they were told to tolerate it and not rock the boat.
“Usually they are told ‘it’s nothing’ and ‘men will be men’,” Animah says.
“Or worse, they are asked ‘what did you do to get harassed; what were you wearing, what did you say?’.”
This blame game has led to a deep mistrust of the system, strengthening the culture of silence around sexual harrasment and sexual assault, she says.
Animah is determined to get at least 1,000 respondents and hopes more men can participate in the survey.
“Right now 80% of the respondents are female. The number of male respondents has consistently stayed at 20%.”
When she gets enough data from the survey, Animah hopes to push for change. As she wrote for Speak Up: “We may never reach the tipping point that Harvey Weinstein has brought to American women. Our baggage is too heavy. But let’s face it. Sexual harassment is real and Malaysia needs to act.”
To take part in the survey, go to https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/PJ6GDZF