The Consequences of Sexual Harassment at Work

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By Mariam Mokhtar

mariam moktharColumnists and journalists receive a lot of correspondence from readers who would like to highlight a problem, share their fears, or get help. Many have no reservations about extending their trust and confidence to us.

When some friends related their stories about sexual harassment at work, their concerns were aired in a short article in the Ipoh Echo on March 1. Subsequently, more women from Ipoh have been in touch, some anonymously, to share their experiences of sexual harassment at work.

The stories are harrowing. Anyone with a wife, mother, daughter, niece or aunt, would be horrified to find that such blatant sexual abuse is being perpetrated on a daily basis. Sexual harassment is not confined to women; men are also affected.

One young girl, a foreign worker found that she could not escape the clutches of her boss, who would show her lewd pornographic videos in a back room and force her to perform similar acts on him. She contracted venereal disease from him. His wife subsequently left him but the worker was trapped as her boss had confiscated her passport.

Another woman alleged that male colleagues would touch her and ignore her protests or laugh them off.

These women felt helpless. They did not know what to do. They feared retribution. In family run businesses, the perpetrator could be a family member. They feared being disbelieved. They were unaware of company policy and procedures, or disciplinary action, which would deal with the sexual harassment. They were ashamed to approach the personnel managers or supervisors, who were mostly male.

Most of all, the women feared being sacked and did not want their ordeal to be discussed openly. Many women tolerate the advances of male colleagues or bosses, because they need the job. With families to support and ageing parents to care for, many women, in Ipoh, and throughout Malaysia, suffer in silence.

Not everyone feels confident about going to the police. Previously, Ipoh Echo highlighted the laborious process of making a police report. Will victims receive sympathy or will they be turned away like the victims of domestic violence?

The University of Malaya (UM) conducted a study, involving 657 women employees, into the extent of sexual harassment in the Malaysian workplace. This research was published in the Asian Academy of Management Journal, July 2007. Previously conducted local studies showed that the degree of sexual harassment of women ranged from 35% to 53%. The problem is more widespread than is reported.

Physically attractive women are more inclined to be sexually harassed and receive undue sexual attention. A person with low moral values would not consider harassment as immoral.

Open workplaces and companies with proper grievance and reporting procedures showed lower incidents of sexual harassment. Companies which punished sexual offenders deterred potential harassers.

Sexual harassment dominates in organisations where sexist attitudes prevail, as women are more likely to be treated as sex objects and inferior to males. Organisations which are unprofessional, where swearing, public reprimands, disrespectful behaviour and employee participation in nonwork related activities, also record higher levels of sexual harassment. The same is seen in companies with an unbalanced ratio of males to females.

How many incidents of sexual harassment in Perak companies go unreported? How many women report their colleagues or bosses for sexual harassment? Women in low status jobs often find themselves threatened if they refuse to cooperate. In some cases, they are promised rewards for their silence and continued “co-operation”.

Sexual harassment affects both the company and the victim. The workplace will suffer from low productivity.

Women workers have low self esteem and low job satisfaction. Many will stay away from work. Depression and falling sick easily will take a toll on their health, They will also suffer from mental health issues and the stress will affect their quality of work and their relationships, at home.

Companies which do not have a clear policy on sexual harassment will have a high turnover of staff, are not as efficient as they could be and will have low productivity levels. They will also record high levels of absenteeism and workers will be difficult to motivate.

If sexual harassment goes unchecked, some companies may find that workers could take them to court, for ignoring complaints about sexual harassment. The overall cost to the company is great; payments for damages, court costs and they may have difficulty in attracting suitable staff in the future. They will also receive negative publicity.

People who are sexually harassed at work can do the following. Keep a record of when they were harassed. Note the time, day and type of harassment – harassment can take many forms; verbal (offensive remarks), nonverbal (leering), physical (touching), visual (showing pornographic material) or psychological (sexual invitations). Keep mobile texts as evidence or enlist the help of a colleague as witness. Tell a union representative, if there is one.

With this information, seek an appointment with your supervisor, boss or personnel manager and tell him about your problems. Prepare a written complaint, with a log of the incidents, to be handed to him, at the end of your meeting. To be fair, you must also state a suitable time frame, for him to conduct his own investigation, for instance a two week period from the date you lodged the official complaint.

You must stress that sexual harassment is a serious matter and that if he is not prepared to deal with it, you will see the boss of the company and take the matter up with the Labour Department.

If you find that you are threatened, either by the perpetrator, the supervisors or the boss of the company, it shows that someone is scared and is trying to bully you into silence, or to make you leave. If this happens, do not feel intimidated. Simply, lodge a complaint with the Labour Department, and call an NGO which deals with women’s rights to give you support, if you wish. You could also make a police report if you feel that your safety is threatened.

Many victims have found that having the support of the NGO will speed up the investigation by the Labour Department. Moreover, the NGO is versed in your rights in the workplace. They have legal consultants and experts who can give you emotional support.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Malaysian workplaces and much of it is undetected. If the majority of Malaysian men were forced to endure sexual harassment at work, then it is highly probable that many male MPs would have tabled an act in parliament to criminalise sexual harassment.

Perhaps, Rohani Karim, the new Minister for Women, Community Affairs and Family Development should make the problem and solutions of sexual harassment, her top priority. After all, women make up half of Malaysia’s population and dominate the workforce. Every woman is entitled to do her job, without fear or favour.