Is our quest for real gender equality or do we simply want to fill our mouths with meaningless words?
Recently I attended a focus group discussion where the main topic was “what is it like to be a woman in the organization you work for”? Having covered several managerial roles in the organization for which I previously worked, I can tell you that, irrespective of the geographical location, sexual harassment in the working place was a recurring theme – from the sexist comment or joke to the physical, unwanted touching, committed by a diverse range of male colleagues, from the European to the African to the Middle Eastern co-worker. Whilst open minded, I am not ready to receive such comments from people with whom I would simply like to collaborate professionally. My working environment should be a sanctuary, not a trap.
Bottom line, being a woman in the humanitarian environment, is nothing less than being a woman elsewhere in the world, unless you live a remote lonely life in a remote lonely place and have no contact with humanity. It means being exposed to all sorts of comments, especially when you are in a position of power.
I think the question should be different: It should be “What can we, as on organization, do to make you – female employees – feel safe in your working place?”. And indeed, there are quite a few things that can be done.
Recommendation one: Recruitment.
I am not speaking about quotas but about attitude. We have made giant steps in the battle against racism, and we are now horrified by racist statements. But what about sexist statements? Would an interviewer hire someone who is blatantly racist during a job interview? The answer is no. Would you hire someone who makes a sexist comment just to get a laugh from the panel? The answer is yes.
Let us start by adding a general “gender-attitude” question in the human resources screening process, and let us give that question significant weight – and the possibility of outright rejection of the applicant – regardless of the candidate’s qualifications.
There is no difference between a racist joke and a sexist joke, because both aim to prejudice an individual on the basis of immutable characteristics or harmful stereotypes. The racist, however, will not be hired, yet the sexist will. Why so? Because sex discrimination is endemic in all societies, and we are all victims of it. We therefore accept it and embed it in our daily life.
Recommendation two: Attitude towards misconduct.
We speak frequently about a system that encourages women to report sexual harassment, but many women do not report incidents for fear of retaliation, stigmatization or mistrust. Our working culture is still operating in a patriarchal society, under which blame is readily placed upon the victim and not the perpetrator: “Of course, he made a comment about you, look at what you’re wearing!”. And often, the response by human resources is to conduct an investigation and expose the person denouncing sexual harassment in a process that is not fair, often involving a confrontation with the perpetrator.
I have been working for several years in the arena of response to gender-based violence, and if there is one thing that I have learned, it is that the person coming forward to report an incident of gender-based violence should be believed, in the same way one trusts a person reporting a robbery or an assault. When someone is reporting a violation of her or his personal space, you set your own judgment aside and believe that person. You ask the person what she or he feels should be the best way forward, and you act accordingly. Human resources should be acting for the benefit of the reporting employee, and by doing so, will indeed be acting for the benefit of the overall organization when the reporting employee feels safe, trusted and cared for.
Recommendation three: Adapting a feminist approach within the organization.
Organizations should focus on implementing policies that value female employees for what they do and how they do it and not as a token to political correctness.
This policies should take into account the specific needs of women and explain these to male staff to engage men in efforts to promote positive masculinity. These policies should not dilute the experience of female employees by segregating them and should instead acknowledge the unequal power structures for men and women in the workplace.
A real zero tolerance policy should be applied, and all employees should be in the position of activating the process to initiate a claim, without fear of ostracism, being judged or losing their job. While reporting mechanisms may be in place, they are often not used, not because the need is not there, but because requesting access to these services is still not within the culture of the employee nor the organization.
Putting into place reporting mechanisms, minus the safeguards necessary to ensure that the system is actually used, means that the organization is failing to ensure a safe working environment for its female employees and perpetuating a culture of “ticking a box” in the name of combatting sex discrimination and promoting sex equality.
So for the reader, how would you be made to feel safe in your working place?