When abuse is the norm, we become objects

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Today is exactly one year since The New York Times broke the news regarding the sexual harassment allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. He was not the first celebrity to abuse his notoriety and power, and I don’t think he’ll be the last.

There is no industry today that is free from staff abuse, regardless of its form: bullying, threats, discrimination or sexual harassment. According to Kathleen Mullen, the Editor in Chief of Rand Journal of Economics,

Reports by the New York Times, USA Today, The Atlantic, and the Guardian point to a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and other anti-social workplace behaviour. […] If our working environments are expected to help support our development as workers and as productive members of society, […] we may need to pay more attention to interpersonal dynamics at work that can erode worker satisfaction and productivity.

I asked my Public Relations and Corporate Affairs social media community to send me examples of sexual harassment they may have experienced or witnessed. I promised to keep their names anonymous.

This is the account of a female colleague, someone who has decided to leave her career in Public Relations:

The year 2018 was so hard on me, as a woman, consultant in PR. I worked mainly for African and Middle Eastern clients. So you realize that women in those territories are not very much respected, and worse, in the PR world, where you work for the big ones (President, Cabinet, Ambassadors, Ministers, CEOs) they really think everything is allowed, just because this structure gives you a budget.

I recall being overseas for work where I was “forced” to have a late dinner with my client who always talked about personal stuff rather than work. I had also an African businessmen who tried to impress me with money and properties.

Not to mention the huge amount of messages I received on WhatsApp late in the night. Comments about my curves, and how in meetings 70% of my men clients were observing my chest area rather than listening to what I was saying.

And I believe that the worst to experience was in my own firm, with my own boss (who was going through a divorce), telling me “You are the only woman in my life now” when he used to write to me very late texts. I felt so uncomfortable and weak (because he was my boss) that I was always was sick to my stomach going to work in the morning.

Between bad communications ethics in Africa and all these sexual and also psychological harassment instances I experienced, I ended up excluding myself from the industry, because my mental health was so important to me …”

The account above is not shocking to me, nor unexpected. When I started my career in the corporate world, I faced multiple similar instances, too: words, looks, touches, jokes and the occasional “would you like to come up to my room to discuss this project/approach further?”.

I navigated through them with difficulty – some cost me my job, others really made me question whether anyone would ever look above my cleavage, or whether I was so stupid and bad at what I did that the only thing I had going for me was just my body. I managed to move on and learn how to turn a sexual advancement into a banter, a joke or a “f…k off”.

I received many accounts from my female peers on this issue of sexual harassment, but only one from a man. And his views, including a really troubling episode he witnessed are rendered below:

With changing times and ever evolving technology, life in the PR industry is fast changing and poised for a dynamic transformation in the coming years.

However, some things refuse to change in the industry and its practises that encourage exploitation of women or female colleagues.

Coupled with this is the practise of bullying that goes on in an unprecedented manner with no real redressal mechanism having been put in place to address this serious concern. And the encouragement for bullying, in most of the cases, starts from the top and percolates to the junior levels.

The bullying can be in different forms. Like burdening the individual with work and then holding him/her responsible for non-performance or poor performance.

Then there is also the issue of dumping unwarranted work, not related to the subject or purview of the person, and putting unreasonable deadlines to finish up that task.

Putting people in sundry jobs which are below their rank and file, and giving comfortable tasks to his or her juniors thereby seeking to single out an individual for harassment purposes is another form of bullying.

Another unfortunate part of this industry, dominated by women, is the exploitation at work in different forms including sexual harassment.

Notwithstanding the lip service on “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment, the practise of sexual harassment is quite common and majority of the time it goes unreported or brushed under the carpet fearing reputational damage it could cause to the organisation or the leadership.

In fact, I have personally come across sexual harassment where the leadership and the organisation (a WPP owned company in India) worked to push aside any serious charges and deny justice to the victims or punishment to the individual.

And the offender was a the leadership role and, surprisingly, a woman. And when this case came to light and the victim had the courage to report it to the management, all efforts were directed at brushing the whole issue under the carpet. Right from the leadership at the Asia Pacific region level to the Indian CEO, who played a major role in hushing up the issue, it was all “campaign” cover-up.

The victim had very clearly conveyed in her complaint about the predator leader having confronted her inside a private office and violating her privacy, despite repeated protests. And this was not the first time that that individual had been involved in such allegations of sexual harassment – they had happened in the past, and successive leaderships had ignored the pleas of the victims and opted to connive with the violator.

A façade of hearing against the leader was created and a committee took up the issue only to blow it away. All efforts were made, behind the scene, to impress upon the victim to take back her complaint. So much so that the CEO himself went out of the way to talk to the victim, but the individual had refused to back down and took her case to court.

Ultimately, the might of the leadership and the organisation won and the case was dismissed ,which led to the departure of the victim from the organisation. A lot of people left the organisation in protest against the manner in which this case was handled but the organisation remained unmoved.”

When we objectify employees – both women and men – not only do we have a direct negative impact on their mental health, we may also be impacting them for life, totally destroying their professional confidence.

While it is wrong to assume that those of us who are older and more experienced do not feel affected by this mental and, at times, physical abuse, the young people feel the full brunt of it.

We work in an amazing industry – if I were to choose again, I’d still choose a career in Corporate Affairs/PR/Strategic Communication: it’s challenging, intensive, glamourous and totally rewarding. What I wouldn’t choose is the odd colleague who’d turn a blind eye when I was in tears two decades ago, or the odd industry friend who’d tell me “man up; it’s normal”.

No, it’s not normal. And if you choose to turn a blind eye when one of your junior or even senior colleagues is abused or harassed, you’re no better than the abuser/harasser. Any positive change, in any sector or industry, starts from within, not from with out.




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