02 Aug 2018

How has the #MeToo movement influenced workplace sexual harassment policy in Asia, and how can countries use this momentum to effect further change?

In recent months, revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's sexual misconduct have led to numerous similar scandals being brought to light. The resulting #MeToo movement has sparked long-overdue discussions on sexual harassment and assault by men in power.

The movement has had a significant impact in shaking up the status quo, especially thanks to social media. Many women all over the world have been spurred to step forward and speak up about their own personal experiences in and out of the workplace. In Asia, the topic of sexual harassment is not discussed as extensively as it should be. How do Asian countries fare in their efforts to address the problem?

Attitudes in Asia

It is no secret that patriarchal norms still prevail in Asia. Survivors of assault have long been conditioned into keeping silent about their experiences, for fear of being blamed, publicly shamed or having their claims disregarded entirely. This is a problem present even in developed countries with presumably progressive societies. In Japan for example, it is commonly accepted that sexual assault in commuter trains occurs often. It has been a longstanding but under-reported problem, due to attitudes that discourage women from speaking up.

The initial response to the #MeToo movement in the region has also shed light on Asia's persistent reluctance to acknowledge sexual harassment. Hong Kong athlete Liu Lai-Yiu, for example, came forward about being sexually assaulted by a former coach and was immediately met with backlash. Only recently has the movement begun to gain tangible traction in China, although some predict that authorities will step in before the tidal wave of dissent becomes too powerful.

Some countries in the region have in recent years adopted policies to address the issue. Singapore for example, implemented the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) in 2014, and the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment in 2015. However, these initiatives merely provide guidelines for employers to follow, and they do not enforce legal obligations to address the issue. India implemented the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act in 2013. However, in a survey, out of 72% of respondents who thought they were complying, only 1.16% of organisations actually were.

Women's participation in the economic sector is crucial for their economic empowerment, and ultimately adds to overall productivity. Unfortunately, the existing power dynamic tends to favour men. In many Asian countries such as Vietnam, China and Singapore, the female labour participation rate is more than 50%. However, women only make up around 20% of representatives on boards in OECD countries.

In an interview with Dr. Namrata Chindarkar, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Dr. Chindarkar pointed out the necessity of understanding what a workplace means in the first place, and the importance of not overlooking the informal sector. Many of the women who are able to come forward now are educated and with access to social media. This is not the case in developing economies consisting of large informal sectors, where much of the workforce is made up primarily of women.

As Dr. Chindarkar explained, some of the main issues that are prevalent in the informal sector include unsafe working conditions, such as poor lighting and toilets that cannot be latched. Women therefore have less privacy. Situations where women are made to feel uncomfortable, such as breastfeeding mothers being stared at by their male colleagues, are also not usually considered as instances of sexual harassment.

A report on Cambodian garment factory workers revealed that 28.6% of workers experienced sexual harassment within the last twelve months. Even travelling to work poses hazards, with some workers claiming to be regularly chased by men on the way to their workplace. However, despite the various challenges, women feel pressured into not saying anything in order to retain employment, due to their obligations to provide for their families and their limited mobility.

Challenging norms and changing mindsets

Unfortunately, policy can only go so far when the primary issue seems to lie in societal mindsets. In some instances, enforcing a rigorous sexual harassment policy can do more harm than good, as it could possibly create a culture of fear, which in turn leads to lower productivity. The nature of Human Resource (HR) investigations can also cause further distress and complications for the employee making the report. Stricter laws are technically better, but the safety of the employee should be ensured during the course of investigation well.

Additionally, questions arise about whether some of the current solutions merely perpetuate gender stereotypes of men being unable to control their urges, and women as weak and in need of protection. What it is seen as a way of creating a safe space could possibly in fact be normalising sexual assault by removing women from the situation. In trains with women-only compartments, if a woman were to enter a regular compartment, should she then feel uncomfortable?

Dr. Chindarkar says that the discussion therefore has to shift to what the norms around sexual harassment are in the first place. In instances where there is complete ignorance about what constitutes sexual harassment, employees should be educated to better understand what counts and what does not. It is also important to note that this issue does not plague women exclusively, for there are many men who have also faced similar instances of harassment and assault.

However, gradual changes in mindsets have been observed in recent months. South Korea recently revised gender equality laws to impose harsher penalties on offenders, in response to angry calls for reform. In Singapore, a Mediacorp employee who made inappropriate comments to a colleague was promptly dismissed upon the filing of a complaint, encouraging other workers to feel comfortable about coming forward.

Enforce, educate, encourage

Now that the subject is in the spotlight, what can be done to address it better? Firstly, instead of implementing new policies, current ones should be better enforced. Although acts such as Singapore's POHA are paving the way for improving how women are treated in the workplace, more should be done to ensure that employers implement rigorous HR guidelines and actually follow through on taking necessary action.

Education is also an important aspect of bringing about change. As Dr. Chindarkar explained, sexism can develop due to upbringing, as gender roles are imposed very early on in many Asian households, with activities being segregated into what girls and boys should do. Women are also still expected to be primary caregivers even if they are working. Introducing notions of gender equality from the outset is crucial in changing the attitudes of society.

Additionally, in the workplace, compulsory training could be implemented to educate employees and increase awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment. Processes and training should also be put in place for HR and management, in order to sensitise them to better deal with complaints, and to encourage attitudes of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment.

For companies that can afford it, technology could be utilised to create safer working environments and encourage employees to speak up. For example, apps that would allow employees to report anonymously have been developed in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Additionally, installing cameras in relevant areas would also improve safety standards by ensuring evidence in the event of sexual harassment in the workplace.

It is certainly promising to see that the wheels to shifting attitudes have been set in motion. Change finally seems to be afoot, and people and governments alike now have the opportunity to use the momentum of these movements to effect further change and move one step closer to achieving gender equality.

This piece was written by Prethika Nair.