/ 1 May 2019

Sexual abuse in the workplace: a symptom of a larger system of power gone rogue

It is an unfortunate reality that a woman is judged much more harshly than a man.
It is an unfortunate reality that a woman is judged much more harshly than a man. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


In the past year, the public-interest sector was shaken up by a number of reports of sexual harassment against women, allegedly perpetrated by powerful (often white) men in positions of power.

These included prominent leading nongovernmental organisations in the sector, such as Equal Education’s Doron Isaacs and Tshepo Motsepe (2018), the Legal Resources Centre’s Henk Smith (2017) and the Public Affairs Research Institute’s Ivor Chipkin.

Most recently, we are all watching as the sexual harassment claims against Muhammed Desai of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement unfolds.

These come against a backdrop of other cases outside of the sector, such as a University of the Witwatersrand professor, Joseph Seabi, who was fired for sexual harassment in 2018, filmmaker Khalo Matabane, who was accused of rape in 2018, and the male chief executive of Grant-Thornton (a Johannesburg-based law firm), who was probed for sexual harassment last year.

Larger systems of oppression such as racism, classism, sexism and patriarchy, enable oppressive power over others. These cases all have a common theme — that of alleged male perpetrators in senior positions abusing their power and authority over the women below them.

In a Mail & Guardian article, in which the alleged victims of the Legal Resources Centre’s Henk Smith speak out, the culture of grooming is spoken about. As a young woman wanting to do good in the public interest sector, you look up to your seniors. More so, you see your seniors as experienced figures to look up to for mentorship and advice in your field.

For this power to then be taken advantage of is problematic and repugnant, and leaves victims traumatised and disillusioned. What perpetrators seem to fail to understand is that silence does not mean consent, and that unwanted sexual conduct remains wrong no matter the context. These dynamics are typically symptomatic of a toxic patriarchal culture not always visible on the surface, but almost always found below.

It is vital to understand the vulnerable position women are placed in when they experience sexual harassment in the workplace by males in positions of power and authority. They are often reluctant to speak out because of the power dynamics of the public-interest sector. Women end up fearing not only for their jobs, but also for their safety.

Perpetrators may emotionally manipulate their victims to fear that the consequences of speaking out against them is too great because of the power they hold over them — for example, they may be accused of defamation. Furthermore, there are cases where women do speak out and are not believed.

In many instances, these dynamics have led to women resigning from their jobs because they have to face their perpetrator each day, relive the trauma of the incident and deal with emotional manipulation. Additionally, deciding to speak out and following a formal procedure is also a further experience of trauma for victims.

While outsiders constantly question why victims fail to use the processes for seeking justice available to them, they fail to understand victims have genuine fears about using them. It means the knowledge of the incident now becomes privy to co-workers and a broader audience, where they may experience secondary victimisation and have their motives and claims questioned.

It is an unfortunate reality that a woman is judged much more harshly than a man. It is not uncommon for victims to be told they are seeking attention by creating false rumours, or that they are mentally unstable. Women then have to relive the trauma of the incident throughout the whole process.

When a victim does decide to speak out, they are left at risk of being stigmatised in their workspace or in the broader sector, and ostracised in certain spaces by their perpetrators.

The nature of the sector is such that unfortunately “boys’ clubs”, powerful groups of men who hold influence and control in the sector, still exist.

If a woman speaks out against members of the “boys’ club”, she puts herself at risk. Networks and circles of influence are interlinked, and influence and allies make a difference to where you would end up working, and with whom.

This links to the systems of oppression mentioned earlier: these allow for the exploitation of funding networks and social capital, the manipulation of legal policies and legislation, the intimidation and victimisation of survivors, and a lack of accountability.

We also see a monopolisation of resources by a few, we find gendered and racialised pay gaps, and the punishment of those who speak out. Because of these types of dynamics, women fear victimisation and thus some opt to collude with power, simply as a means of survival in the workplace and sector. Sexual harassment thus becomes the manifestation of all these toxic power dynamics.

It is important to recognise how a woman inevitably has to bear the brunt of a man’s unwanted sexual attention in the workplace. When the road of both silence and speaking out is traumatic for a woman, it is important to question and reflect on where the public-interest sector is going wrong in its approach, and how current systems are enabling this.

We must also recognise that the public-interest sector, despite its foundations being rooted in working towards social justice, is not exempt from evils like sexual harassment, and that it stems from disparate gender and power dynamics that do not discriminate by sector.

Toxic patriarchal cultures, whether subtle or clear, must be addressed urgently; victims must be protected and supported at all costs and placed at the centre of processes, as opposed to the sidelines.

The time is now for players, leaders, donors and stakeholders in the public-interest sector to take a stand against sexual harassment and toxic patriarchal cultures, and to move towards approaches that are empowering to female victims that will sufficiently protect them when sexual harassment occurs.

Seehaam Samaai is a director of the Women’s Legal Centre and Aisha Hamdulay is media and communications liaison at the Women’s Legal Centre