Sexual Harassment - Time to break the norm

It only takes one woman to stand up and speak out on her experience with sexual harassment or gender based discrimination for women like myself to also raise our hand up and say me too. It happened to me too. Susan J. Fowler an engineer at Uber recently wrote a personal blog post that went viral. Her blog, ‘Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber’ not only signals her strength to speak out, but also her privilege to do. Uber CEO has quickly reacted by launching a full independent investigation into the matter. Regardless of what the outcome may be, she has reminded corporate America and perhaps even the world, that sexual harassment is still pervasive and that very little has changed to protect women against it. For many other women in other parts of the world, speaking out is not an option; in fact the act of being verbally or physically sexually harassed is normalized often attributed to ‘culture’, making women less likely to report or take action against their harassers. 

In a world where women are increasingly entering positions of power in every possible field, graduating from universities at unprecedented rates and are breadwinners in their families, women still face a wage gap and are forced to operate within systems (educational or professional) that aren’t responsive to verbal or physical sexual harassment. Sexual harassment at work or in educational spaces can take many forms; inappropriate comments and jokes directly or through social media platforms about a colleague’s sex life to unwanted touching, hugging or kissing and even to demands for sexual favors.  Often reported in the media are criminal acts of rape, assault and molestation, while ostensibly ‘less severe’ forms of harassment like verbal abuse, repeated lewd emails of texts, physical touching or unwelcome comments on behavior or dress are given free reign. Even where the law is strong, where such acts may qualify as criminal acts, it is very difficult to collect incontrovertible evidence. It is difficult to establish or prosecute feeling “uncomfortable” or “violated”. Also, the process of prosecution or internal investigation can be very painful for the woman. She is made to relive the experience constantly; grilled about it, asked about past sexual history and other character related issues, which are inexplicably considered relevant to the proceedings, as also her attire as well as her behavior, which is believed to “provoke” a reaction from the men. Often, this can be a career-damaging move. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), sexual harassment is a clear form of gender discrimination based on sex, a manifestation of unequal power relations between men and women. It is also one of the most difficult experiences to talk acknowledge, to articulate to address, and to seek legal action on.

I frequently write about what returning to Sierra Leone at age twenty-four felt like, the complicated process of learning and growing from an emotional and spiritual perspective, I have yet to speak frankly about my experiences of being a young professional. My story, very much like Susan’s, transcends borders and I am sure that women, regardless of geographical location or background, can relate to many facets of these experiences.

In my experience, being young, female and ambitious is as much a blessing as it can at times feel like a curse. Patriarchy has no boundaries and operates more explicitly in some settings and in others more insidiously. I remember the first time a male colleague and I were introduced; he starred me up and down only to quickly dismiss anything I said from that point forth. In the two years we worked together we never got along, purely because I refused to agree with many of the ideas he put forth and resisted the manner in which he would impose an approach to the work we did. I was unlike the many young girls he would invite to the office for ‘meetings’, I spoke out and I often called him out on his inconsistencies. However, what ensued was two-years of sometimes very volatile confrontations and from his end, any opportunity to sabotage my work was swiftly taken. My boss, also male, often appealed to me to ‘soften’ up and understand this male colleague’s perspective. Never once did my boss take the necessary steps to make me feel safe despite openly sharing with him that I felt physically and emotionally unsafe around my male colleague. Instead, I was told to ‘stop overacting’.

I continued to endure a difficult work environment, often times suffering from major anxiety attacks but convincing myself that I would have to simply work through my anxiety. What was worse was that I often sought to locate the problem within myself; as women are often told to do; to second guess themselves; to victim blame. This is what prevents us from reporting incidents of harassment or even violence. My boss and the many men I encountered during my professional career would cross all professional boundaries without reservation. My situation was not unique; many women in my country have similar experiences. What compounded my situation was that I was single – unmarried and not in a relationship, which for the many men I encountered made me fair game. My boss would often pass inappropriate comments and many times intimidate me by standing extremely close without actually touching me, close enough for his breathe to remain on my clothes after a conversation. I remember very vividly, walking away feeling dirty, like I had done something to induce this types of interactions especially because an hour or two later, any inclination of such behavior completed disappeared and all would feel professional again. It also did not help that the cultural attitude towards verbal and physical sexual harassment places the burden on women. These unwanted advances from my male colleagues, boss, other male counterparts that I would meet due to my job felt like very insular experiences, there was no where to vent, to talk through what I was going through, to even begin to unpack the level of emotional damage that was occurring and the slow and steady erosion of my mental wellbeing.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) notes the seriousness of sexual harassment and urges for “measures to protect women from sexual harassment and other forms of violence or coercion in the workplace.” This is rarely enforced and even ‘progressive’ institutions still fail to protect their female students or employees, I went through it during the early years of my career, and I am currently witnessing it wherever I go.

Currently in my late twenties, my confidence and self-preservation habits have vastly improved and I am much better at defining my boundaries. I am even quicker to express discomfort, and I also have little fear to speak out against feeling harassed, and even less fear to engage with the institution on my safety. In short, I am unafraid to walk away if I do not feel safe; this very definitive approach to protecting my emotional, physical and mental wellbeing comes from about three years of being sexually harassed in a professional setting. My zero-tolerance policy towards any harasser, whether I am directly impacted or a witness to it, is informed by knowing the importance of setting precedents so that other women do not have to go through similar experiences. I now know the importance of speaking out, despite how challenging it can be.  Reminding professional and / or other public institutions that having clear enforceable policies against sexual harassment is crucial to building a healthy work and learning environment is an ongoing battle. It is for institutions to realize that they are often more powerful and capable of taking action than the individual victim. While it is important to respect the agency of the woman, institutions must have a zero tolerance policy to certain kinds of behavior; penalise harrassers while protecting victims and their identities. And sometimes it just means openly sharing our experiences so that other women can raise their hands up too and say ‘me too’. This happened to me too.

Note: I also recognize that men go through similar experiences in both educational and professional settings.