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Casual Sexual Harassment in “Gender-Sensitive” International Organizations

Casual Sexual Harassment in “Gender-Sensitive” International Organizations

Gender equality is more and more mainstreamed, especially in international development organizations that seem to be aware of how critical the issue is and often advocate for it. Such organizations must then be a model regarding gender equality; otherwise, how would they in good faith promote such a cause? Yet not all of them are models. Unfortunately, in many organizations, as well as in companies, sexual harassment is sometimes more successfully mainstreamed than gender equality.

When I talked to my female friends about sexual harassment, I became aware that all of us underwent it at least once during our still young careers. Both men and women undergo sexual harassment, but the stories I have heard so far affected women, so I am writing here only about sexual harassment against women. The following story is one that struck me, especially because it occurred within one of those “gender-sensitive” organizations.

“Photo by Johana Simao”

A young woman had just started her dream job: advocating for gender equality in a well-known international development organization. Gender equality is indeed one of the main goals of this organization, so she felt confident and comfortable with her new welcoming colleagues. While she was working behind her desk in her new office, one of her new male co-workers walked by and looked at her. But not in her eyes. And not to say hi. He looked under her desk, at her legs, and licked his lips. No, this is not the way people usually say ‘hi’ in this country. This was so absurd that she didn’t know whether she had imagined it or not. Maybe she had, because since she started working there, this guy had been bothering her by asking her out and wanting her phone number, which she never gave, afraid this harassment would become sexual. For a second, she thought she might be crazy or had imagined things, and she blamed herself. But no, this had actually happened. At the office. In an international organization.

There were still some surprises in store, though. During a meeting, she heard someone say that, “Women are not equal to men, they don’t have the same predispositions, God decided it, that’s all.” When sexual harassment was mentioned, some male colleagues defined it as, “When women are lightly dressed: this is sexual harassment towards men,” or as, “a tool for women to cause great trouble to men, because there’s no evidence, so women can say whatever they want, and it works.” Even though she was not completely naive before starting this job, she would never have imagined that misogyny would be so uninhibited and unpunished in such an organization. This impunity shows that gender-based violence is actually very casual, even where social justice and human rights (so, women’s rights) are supposed to be at the very core of the organization’s work.

Such impunity has also a strong impact on young women who are still building and improving their skills according to what is expected from them in their workplace. Will their relationships with male co-workers and their physical appearance turn out to be more determining than their professional skills? What about their self-confidence regarding their careers? Some young women will want to raise their voices, and some will withdraw into themselves – both reactions putting their jobs at stake. In any case, women’s professional challenges, unlike men’s, implicate their bodies and their sexuality, suggesting an ongoing struggle to be recognized as key actors in the labor market on the basis of their merits and hard work alone.

Sexual harassment at work is gender-based violence. It takes very different forms, though – actually so many, that sometimes it is quite tricky to identify, and consequently, we hardly hear about it. Yet the main reason why it is rarely identified and denounced is that awareness has not yet been raised sufficiently, especially in some organizations whose job (among other things) is to mainstream gender equality. Stigma toward women’s outfits and behavior at work, as well as a seeming carelessness in addressing (that is, failing or refusing to address) men’s attitudes (as expressed mostly in sexualized or harassing language, looks or gestures), sustain a paradox: women are easily considered guilty of what they undergo and are the ones who have to adapt (“Avoid him,” “Don’t dress too lightly, even if it’s hot”) and may end up losing their jobs. Men, on the other hand, are hardly ever threatened with losing their jobs or with suffering any consequences for what they’ve done.

Indeed the men are more likely to have positions with higher responsibility, making it tricky to replace them. It is easier to replace a woman working at a lower-level position, leaving the company’s organizational structure, as well as the harasser’s power, unchallenged. The fired woman’s life will certainly be much more challenged, though.

As long as sexual harassment in the workplace is not recognized as gender-based violence, and raising awareness is not fully integrated into recruitment processes, training (through role-playing exercises, for instance), and professional behavior at regular meetings, it will keep on being casual – and dangerous. Its consequences are felt at all scales, from the individual (e.g., a debilitating stress reaction for the victim) to global (a negative impact on organizational or company productivity).

So raising awareness about sexual harassment is in any organization’s interest, for-profit and non-profit. Even though sexual harassment is blameworthy everywhere, it is even more so in development organizations that purport to promote gender equality, because it shows such strong hypocrisy. Gender mainstreaming and working to lower incidence of gender-based violence of all kinds can hardly be efficient if the actors and advocates charged with implementing and modeling such policies don’t apply them, even within their own offices.

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