For as long as women have been in the workforce, tolerating sexual harassment has been their cost of earning a living alongside men. Today, it’s a silent epidemic affecting half of the population in a society that has been conditioned to assume ‘that’s just how the world works’. For decades, this misogynist pathology has allowed powerful men to use women as sexual cannon fodder. But the world can no longer ignore this issue; women can no longer remain silent.
The allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein sparked a global conversation about the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the culture of silence when it comes to reporting it. Weinstein covered up 30 years of crimes such as demands for sex in return for roles, indecent exposure and rape, with settlements, non-disclosure agreements and blacklisting anyone who tried to report him. As it stands, over 60 women, including A-list actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Angelina Jolie have come forward to add their names to the list of Weinstein’s victims.
The presence of sexual harassment in the film industry is not surprising. It’s part of an age-old custom known as the ‘casting couch’, where Hollywood powerbrokers demand sexual favors from aspiring actresses in return for roles.
Aliki Saragas from the South African advocacy group SWIFT (Sisters Working In Film and Television) says sexual harassment and abuse of women remain one of the biggest struggles in the industry, and the Weinstein scandal only works to highlight what has been an ongoing struggle for women in film and entertainment worldwide. One can be forgiven for thinking the industry has evolved over the years and the casting couch is just a relic from Hollywood’s golden age, but its tactics appear to have lived on in the system created by men like Weinstein.
Courtnae Paul, a dancer and choreographer in the South African entertainment industry, said she had her first casting couch experience at the age of 12 in a studio, where an older, unnamed producer tried to kiss her.
Johannesburg-based scriptwriter Lisa Mncube said that after she reported her sexual abuse, instead of receiving comfort she was treated as “dirty and mischievous”.
The casting couch may be exclusive to this industry, but the idea that women have to endure unwanted sexual advances for career success exists in every field. Sexual harassment is endemic in all workplaces. It’s in the White House and the army, in the media and tech industry, in academia, corporate boardrooms and every institution where there is a power imbalance. A case in point is the financial sector, where men hold the majority of leadership roles.
Anusha Naidoo, who has a senior position in South Africa’s corporate finance sector, says this abuse of power limits women’s opportunities for growth.
“If I’m in an uncomfortable situation, I’m told to get over it or ‘toughen up’ if I want to progress in this field,” she says.
Naidoo recalls an encounter she raised with her superior, which he dismissed as her being too sensitive.
“This is why women in male-dominated industries don’t report their issues, because we fear the stigma might hurt our careers in the long run.”
Johannesburg-based financial planner Samiksha Budhram says men in the financial industry treat the workplace as a ‘boys club’, passing crude and callous remarks about women among themselves, sometimes in the presence of other women.
“The fact that men have the freedom to harass a woman even when she isn’t in the same room is a cruel privilege,” Budhram says. “It’s as if we are invisible.”
The Weinstein scandal has emboldened over 300,000 women worldwide to share their stories of sexual harassment and gender-based violence on social media using the hashtag #MeToo.
What’s important about this thread is that it gives a voice to acts that are public, but silenced by convention.
“Why were you dressed like that? Why did you go there? Why were you there alone? You could have avoided it.”
Because most women have already heard this before, they stay silent fearing no one will believe them.
Sadly, women’s rights are largely marginalized in South Africa. According to Crime Stats SA, there were 51,895 sexual offences reported in South Africa in 2016, just over 142 per day.
SWIFT ran a survey of its own in January this year, outlining gender disparity in the workplace. Of the women surveyed, 23.7% indicated that they had been unwillingly touched in the workplace and 65% have witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. 71% said they did not have a support structure to report their cases and feel human resources departments don’t care about employees, but rather protect the companies’ interests. Moreover, the majority of these women said there would be no repercussions if the perpetrator was reported because men in the industry protect one another, confirming sexual harassment to be a larger, systemic problem.
This is why Lee-Anne Bac, a director at Grant Thornton Johannesburg, feels there is an urgent need to employ more women in positions of power in the workplace. A Women in Business report released by Grant Thornton early this year shows women in leadership roles have dropped from 27% in 2016 to 23% in 2017, and less than a quarter of businesses surveyed had no women in senior management positions.
“Women are fighting from a position of lack of power, and until the balance is tilted, it will remain a difficult influence change,” Bac says, adding that Africa’s strong patriarchal culture contributes to these difficulties.
But to change a patriarchal culture that has existed for centuries isn’t up to women alone. Sexual harassment is not just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue.
“If there is to be an end to this epidemic, men have to become allies with women and not bystanders,” says Melvin Pather, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town who offers his perspective on how men can help. “If you as a man are in a position to do something, your silence makes you complicit,” he says.
The events that have occurred over the past few months form a watershed moment in how society deals with sexual harassment and assault. All men have a responsibility to lead by example and aim for a culture of zero tolerance and accountability. Once women feel they have a safe platform to voice their issues, more of them will blow the whistle on sexual harassment when and where it happens, and it won’t take decades for powerful men like Weinstein to be held accountable for their crimes. – Written by Cadine Pillay