While both men and women are victims of sexual harassments at work, women come out more to express their plight. PHOTO/COURTESY


The secrecy shrouding sexual harassment at work

What you need to know:

Sexual harassment at work is surrounded by a culture of stigma and silence that often goes unnoticed.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is still with us despite several efforts to stop it. This endemic problem spreads far beyond the reported cases of sexual abuse as victims are all too often silent about their experiences.

While the vast majority of workplace sexual harassment cases are brought by women, men too experience sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. It is an issue, surrounded by a culture of stigma and silence that often goes unnoticed or never reported.

When Annette Mutesi took up an administrator role at an oil mining company, she was one of the few women working in her department. She was often bombarded with frequent teasing and unwelcome comments about how sexy she looked whenever she wore dresses.
“I saw boundaries being crossed but I felt powerless to do something about it,” Mutesi says. “It felt like picking battles that I was not prepared for.”

That is, until one day when a senior male colleague but not in the same reporting line found her in the pantry and grabbed her bottom uninvited.
She says in any other context, she would have slapped him. But she could not imagine slapping someone at work, the sound echoing across a quiet office as heads turned.
How could he feel entitled to touch her like that? Is the question that kept ringing in Mutesi’s mind, she says.
Mutesi’s story is hardly unique. A number of people Prosper Magazine interacted with say they always question their past interactions with workmates in the workplace. That comment that made you feel uncomfortable for hours, days, and months after it had passed. Should you have reported it?

Both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment at work. COURTESY PHOTO

For some, that your boss touched you disgustingly at the office or in any work environment, did you do something that made him/her think that you wanted that? When you turned down his/her advances and were never promoted, was that why?

Jackie Nakandi (not real name), a waitress in one of the restaurants in Kampala, says she gets sexually harassed daily by customers while ordering for eats. This has made her think sexual harassment at work is part of the culture in every restaurant.
 She says even the kitchen staff openly make rude statements about female servers and female managers. 
“The saddest thing is that it is never properly addressed because chefs always have more job security than waiters. I have even heard a male manager tell me straight up that anybody can take that soda to that table, but not everyone can make an omelette,” Jackie says.

Karl, 25, says early in his journalism career one of the senior female editors at the media house where he worked was helping him get his work laptop.
 He says that he had to go to her office, she closed the door behind him, and when she got his laptop, she went in for a kiss. I turned my face so she kissed my cheek. I knew she was immoral but she was the person who was getting me my gadget, which I needed, and she was pretty old, so I shrugged it off and just avoided her going onward.

“It breaks me that, in this day and age, a young man can find himself in that vulnerable situation. It was not my doing. But as males in work places, we also need to be empowered like females to report sexual harassment, in the workplace, to ensure that people can work  safely free from all forms of harassment,” Karl says.
For Jean, 20, while bartending at a restaurant, her supervisor told her she needed to show more breasts in all her outfits, to draw in a steadier group of customers.

She says because she struggled to find a proper job as a Diploma graduate in secretarial studies, she just laughed it off and told him maybe after the children who come in to eat with their parents at the restaurant are gone by 8:00pm. This was her first restaurant bartending job.

Sexual harassment can occur between persons of equal power status in work places for example staff to staff or between persons of unequal power status for example director and secretary. Although sexual harassment often occurs in the context of the misuse of power by the individual with the greater power, a person who appears to have less or equal power in a relationship can also commit sexual harassment.

According to Mr Samuel Ssettumba, a professional counsellor, both male and female employees can be victims of sexual harassment at work, although women come out more to express their plight.
Mr Ssettumba expresses that suppressing sexual harassment is easier in companies which have anti sexual harassment policies, where they outline remedies for instance.

Tips on ending sexual harrassment
To end these damaging effects of silencing sexual harrassment incidents, employers should have channels for people to report harassment but also ensure that victims feel heard, their concerns validated, and their complaints taken seriously.
The first important thing for the victim to do is to tell the perpetrator of sexual harassment at work plainly that he/she does not like what the latter is doing to them.

If the perpetrator persists , you forward your plight to the next level supervisor. If that does not work,  seek intervention of the human resource manager.
“If it is the owner of the company (boss) harassing you, for example you are their secretary, tell the person off, but in a polite way. Make it known to them that whatever they are doing to you is making you feel so uncomfortable, request they stop,” Mr Ssettumba says.

Have confidants 
Mr Ssettumba advises that in the meantime, employees should have a confidant within the same work environment or outside the work setting. This can be your parent or friend.
The perpetrators of sexual harassment in the work setting can deny participation if the issue goes out of hand once you report. But having confidants is a backup once you share your predicament.

He warns that the person backing your claims of sexual harassment in the work setting, should not be friends with the person harassing you. This will give you the courage to fight back but in a non-confrontational way that may make you lose your job.
Other than that, Mr Ssettumba also recommends that victims sexual harassment in work setting speak to a professional counsellor or therapist for help. They may make you aware of the things you do or not do, that escalate the situation that you are not aware of.

“If you are sexually harassed by the workmate and take it lightly by not giving off the energy that makes that person know that you are disgusted by their actions, this gives them a chance to nag you more,”Mr Ssettumba says.
He explains that sexual harassment at work if not suppressed, can trigger stress to victims. For instance, an unmarried female (single) employee who is molested by a male married superior can cause her worry every morning to the extent that she will lack motivation to go work.

Mr Herbert Zake, a consultant in human resources,  says sexual harassment is an unwelcome verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.

Mr Herbert Zake, a consultant in human resources and corporate governance. PHOTO/COURTESY  

 Mr Zake says the conduct is not sexual harassment if it is welcome.  That it is important to communicate to the harasser either verbally or in writing that the conduct makes you uncomfortable and you want it to stop. It might involve promises of promotion or other benefits in exchange for sexual favours.

Verbal or written harassment could be comments about clothing, personal behaviour, or a person’s body, demeaning jokes, requesting for sexual favours, repeatedly asking a person out, sending emails or text messages of a sexual nature, telling lies or peddling rumours about a person’s sex life.

“Physical may come in the form of  assault, blocking movement, inappropriately touching a person or person’s clothing, kissing, hugging, patting, stroking or groping. While nonverbal may be irritating consistent stares of a person’s body, derogatory gestures, or facial expressions of a sexual nature, trailing or stalking a person,” Mr Zake says.