Zimbabwe: The Scourge of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

opinion

Whether you are a student, domestic worker, career woman or home maker, sexual harassment can happen so quietly that you hardly even realise it, or it can be so obvious that you are too stunned to speak out. As a life coach, brother, husband and father, this qualifies me to share a little experience on this unpleasant practice with my colleagues out there.

Absence of gender policy

The issue of sexual harassment at the workplace is so rampant yet it is least talked about. In the absence of gender policy in most organisations, many have found themselves in sixes and sevens when it comes to handling cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. The absence of a gender policy has cost many organisations a lot money when such cases arise. Disciplinary hearings on such cases have been hampered by the unavailability of this very important instrument.

Scenario in the workplace

In one of my classes at one institute I sometimes work with, I had a group of ladies from different companies pursuing a course to do with office management who voluntarily shared some of the harrowing experiences of sexual harassment they were subjected to at the workplace. This indicated to me the prevalence of sexual harassment at workplaces.

I am not suggesting that sexual harassment only happens to women, it can also happen to men but the most prevalent type is that against women. In my next installment I might also touch on sexual harassment involving men as victims. Here I will specifically touch on women as victims.

There were quite some stunning revelations, I must admit that I could not help but wonder how this could still be happening in some of our organisations in Zimbabwes, given the level of awareness in our society through educational campaigns against such practices that government and other well-meaning organisations have rolled out over the years. I will share one of the experiences as recounted by one lady. Please note the name used in this story is not the real name of the victim:

Taby Rabamokwane said she suffered sexual harassment at the hands of her boss for a long time and the story goes.

"I was a personal assistant to the managing director of a corporate firm and, from the first interview, I should have picked up something was wrong. He was very flirty with me, asking if I had a boyfriend and other inappropriate questions," she narrates. Over time his sexual intentions became obvious. "At first he would 'accidentally' bump into me from the front or behind and apologise. I did not tell anyone because I was afraid to lose my job. He also had not directly made a pass at me so I didn't know how I could report it as sexual harassment," Taby said.

"The last straw came when he tried to kiss me when we were on a business trip together. He apologised, saying he was drunk. But I resigned when we got back. I was ashamed that, as an educated woman, I had suffered for so long and kept it silent," she confessed. I am convinced Taby's story sounds quite familiar for most men and women out there.

I will from here try to interrogate why and how sexual harassment happens.

Why sexual harassment happens

Experts say sexual harassment has three causes, firstly workplace power relations, where a man may use sexual innuendos or inappropriate touching to show a woman that he is in charge. If the woman is the one in a more senior position, a man could harass her to show that he still has that masculine power.

Secondly, there is the issue of perception of sex roles which the author of Backlash, Susan Faludi, under the topic "The Undeclared War Against American Woman," suggests that male hostility toward women in the workplace is closely connected to male attitudes about the "proper" role of a man in society. "Some men perceive the 'feminist drive for economic equality' as a threat to their traditional role. Thus sexual harassment is a form of violence perceived as self protection," she explains.

The third cause is to do with control, where the victim's vulnerability gives power to the harasser. Sexual harassment creates a climate of intimidation for the victims and that makes it easier to control them. "A woman who is the target of sexual harassment often goes through the same process of victimisation as one who has suffered rape, battering or other gender-related crimes, frequently blaming herself and doubting her own self-worth," says Susan in her book.

A lot of us might be engaging in acts of sexual harassment unintentionally or intentionally. A new book, set to be released soon, by Zimbabwean HRE expert Regina Tendai, outlines some of the behaviour that constitutes sexual harassment.

I can go on with this subject to the classification of men and their harassment tactics but this book is a must-read for all those with a keen interest on this subject. Together we can fight this scourge and make our workplaces pleasant.

Robert Mandeya is an executive leadership coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Institute of Leadership, Research and Development (LiRD).

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