Belgium – Brussels – Humanity has never evolved as quickly as it has since the Second World War. Though in biological terms our species’ evolutionary process is one that scoffs at the counting of millennia, the evolution of our societies has been exponential in pace. The new generation stands for equality and the resented by the ‘old-guard’ movement of political correctness.
In the 2016 Presidential Elections in the USA, more people voted for the female candidate than the male candidate. In the same year’s race for UN Secretary General, there were a total of 7 female candidates put forth and 6 male candidates. Nevertheless, men won both those contests and today there are less than 20 incumbent female heads of state and government in the entire world; certainly the glass ceiling is not broken, but it is beginning to crack.
People are speaking more openly than ever about gender equality. Movements against discrimination based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and anything that seeks to divide human beings into unequal groups have a voice louder than ever before.
Yet the scourge of sexual harassment remains rampant in the workplace.
In the 21st Century, large corporations, governments, and organisations are making great strides into codifying acceptable behaviour, but no matter how much progress is made, the worst of humanity will always lie with the individual.
Indeed, reality is not unsoiled. At work, where by definition power relationships are set by single individuals in a top-down manner, it is difficult to ensure a level playing field.
The worst of what is left of the glass ceiling, is the sometimes subtle, and sometimes blatant sexual harassment. And while it is not any individual phenomenon that led to the creation of this glass ceiling, but it is a large factor in what keeps it in place.
People have been kept from rising on the professional ladder because they were not forthcoming enough with romantic or sexual advances of their managers or more senior colleagues. And that’s a best-case scenario.
It is the commonplace practice in larger organisations of moving the victim of sexual harassment to a different position after they have made a complaint. In fact, HR will often advise against filing an official case, warning that “it’s your career that will be in jeopardy”. Sometimes, the victims are fired, or just see their contracts not renewed; “Too much of a trouble-maker” someone will say by the water-cooler when asked why. This makes matters worse and adds to the suffering, as the initial trauma is not recognised, creating a secondary trauma.
More difficult than that? A person is sexually assaulted or raped, and is directly threatened by the offender that they (usually she) will lose their livelihood if they says a word. She spends the next years of her life facing that person every day in the workplace, battling anxiety and depression.
These scenarios not only trivialise a very complex issue, which includes facets of the legal framework, family values and upbringing, religious teachings, and social evolution; they also do not dwell into many different types of abuse and oppression including sexual violence.
There are certainly many more qualified people in this world to write about this issue, indeed I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, traumatised by someone I have to face daily at my job. But I wanted to speak out because I’ve heard so many hard and disturbing testimonies over the years that I have only just began to understand how complicit I am. I have sat idly and participated in locker-room talk without thinking of its far-reaching, not trivial consequences, and I could certainly have been more sensitive to discovering such situations and dealing with them adequately.
Statistically, between one in two, and one in three women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace depending on which study you read. That glass ceiling sure is filthy.
Many have offered a shoulder to lean on and given advice to the victims who have come to them with their troubles; we have all spent an hour listening to a friend in need haven’t we?
Yet most of these cases are never spoken of. There is a shame and endemic silence that surrounds those on the receiving end of such behaviour. Most victims are too frightened to speak out and of being ‘slut-shamed’. “It is your fault he groped you, you shouldn’t wear those short skirts to work,” has long been an acceptable response in our societies.
And then – after listening to a friend recount such a traumatic experience – what do you do? Back to the office after your lunch break to snicker at a joke about a colleague’s “slutty nails”, because of course “She must do more than just type very quickly…”
For years society has brushed comments like that off. Locker-room mentality has been perfectly acceptable.
It was over a decade ago that Donald Trump found himself talking about women on a bus: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” … “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Donald Trump’s private moment with Billy Bush was really not as shocking as media portrayed. Why? Because that sexist and macho rhetoric is far more commonplace in society than women think; exemplified by the fact that it has not deterred Trump from being elected to President of the USA. This behaviour is in the home, at the bar, and in the workplace. It is endemic misogyny brought about by millennia of patriarchy that has been internalised; women can be misogynists too or come to believe they ‘deserve’ it.
“If you see something, say something,” is the US Department of Homeland Security’s slogan, seeking to motivate citizens to report on suspicious activity in order to prevent crime and most importantly the next terrorist attack. Of course, most people don’t know any terrorists, and even those who do, are not even suspicious. The see something/say something slogan aims at increasing the sensitivity of the entire community.
Half of our female friends have experienced sexual harassment. This also means half of our colleagues and family have experienced sexual harassment. Many, don’t even know that what is happening is inappropriate when it is on the lower end of the spectrum.
With the world divided by only 3.57 degrees of separation, the people who talk, touch, grope, traumatise, and damage women in the workplace and beyond are already in our daily lives. We know them. They are part of our contacts lists, and more often than not they are also friends, drinking buddies, or members of our reading clubs or sports teams.
We have all seen enough, and even participated, or just said nothing.
It’s time our countries’ leaders, our companies CEOs, our organisations’ directors, managers, employees, and everyone who has seen their colleagues behave inappropriately, stop participating and tolerating this behaviour. Ultimately, our companies, organisations, and society suffer too, but that should not be the motivation for putting and end to this behaviour; it should be equality, it should be the human individual, it should be common sense.
All of us who have stood by, and either watched, suspected, tolerated, or ignored behaviour of sexual harassment in the workplace need to stop take a long hard look within and simply do better.
The first time a friend talked to me about how her boss was sexually harassing her, I didn’t think much of it as she seemed to be okay. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, “I’m dealing with it as best I can by minimizing contact, but he and his boss are buddies and I can’t really report it – it would end up costing me my career.”
It’s been many years since that first friend’s confession; it has also been many more confessions from many more friends, acquaintances, and even strangers since then.
While the victims of such behaviour are not just women, they do make up the vast majority of cases and it is to them that I have referred within this article though the victims do not just fall into this category. It is also men mistreated by men and women, and women abused by other women too. Trans people are found to suffer the most from violence. And the list goes on and on.
All victims of such harassment deserve to not be put in such a position.
No one deserves to see his or her life ruined, slowed down, or just nudged in the wrong direction because of sexual harassment.
How many stories have you heard? From friends? From family? From loved ones? I have heard too many.
Statistically speaking, most people who read this op-ed will be men. If you read this and think that you are already doing enough, I’m sorry my words were not powerful enough to get through to you.
It is not a matter of ‘if’ the glass ceiling will break, but ‘when’.
It is time we took it upon ourselves as individuals to be the ones to shatter the glass ceiling; cleaning out the filth along the way.