/ 26 February 2020

Use the workplace to stop socially embedded violence

Gender Based Violence Dh
Rather than marching on the JSE to ask companies to contribute money to fighting gender-based violence, it would arguably be better to hold companies to account for how they fail to address these issues internally. (David Harrison/M&G)


The recent use of allegations of gender-based violence to settle political scores in Parliament was a public manifestation of the tendency to minimise this violence to convenient rhetoric. The only positive aspect was that, at least in the public space, politicians feel obliged to accept that it is a heinous thing. But practical, effective action remains thin on the ground. New approaches are needed, but what?

Public condemnation of gender-based violence has been associated with calls for action in two domains. The first concerns the formal institutions of the criminal justice system that are supposed to assist and protect victims/survivors and prosecute perpetrators. The second concerns the personal domain; trying to discourage abusers and encourage those (particularly men) who know them to act. 

It makes sense to insist that the government act to improve the institutions and functioning of the criminal justice system, because they are assigned a role that cannot easily be substituted by other parts of society that lack the legal authority of police, prosecutors and judicial officers. 

But the practical reality is that not only are these institutions themselves compromised by virtue of employing men who carry the same problematic societal attitudes, but also the formality of the legal process is cumbersome and slow.

Attitudes are at the core of the problem, but changing them is a difficult and complex process. Merely exhorting abusers to behave differently does not appear to have much effect. Attitudes can change in response to social pressure, but social pressure is a function of prevailing attitudes — leaving us with a chicken-and-egg problem.

Focusing on the above two areas is linked to a further problem: when gender-based violence is referred to, many have the narrow definition of “violence” in mind. But physical violence is something on a spectrum of abusive, harassing, discriminatory and exploitative behaviours by men towards women. 

And as feminist thinkers such as Pumla Dineo Gqola have argued, focusing on extreme cases of physical violence is convenient because it enables a representation of perpetrators as a very small minority of “monsters”, letting a large number of men on this spectrum off the hook. 

Given the need to address a spectrum of behaviour, alongside the failures and limitations of the criminal justice system, the fundamental challenge is suggested by a statement attributed to the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.” 

Where can we reliably stand to tackle this violence when these are deep societal problems?

Perhaps it is optimistic, but I believe there is a concrete answer: the formal workplace. According to the most recent official estimates, 11.3-million South Africans work in the formal sector, about 20% of the population. About 31-million people — more than half the population — live in households with at least one person working in the formal sector, which does not include relatives and friends outside the households. What happens in formal workplaces has the ability to directly affect a large proportion of the population. 

Workplace harassment is, of course, not just a manifestation of a broader problem, but also has particular costs of its own that deserve addressing.

So one of the most important things government departments, businesses, universities and civil society organisations may be able to do is attend to their own institutions. It is easy for leaders to pontificate and posture about what happens elsewhere — in other institutions, in the streets and in homes — but they should first make sure that they are combating the problem themselves.

But, given that workplaces are problematic, are we not back at our chicken-and-egg problem? Not quite. There are some things that are special about the workplace. 

First, labour laws apply and there are often codes of conduct that go beyond the minimum standards set by criminal and labour law. Although such codes of conduct are often more for show than reflective of serious commitment they have formal status and can be used accordingly, through internal and external mechanisms.

Second, and relatedly, as a number of feminist lawyers have noted, the process and threshold required to hold an employee accountable for such behaviour is significantly less demanding than the criminal justice system. Institutions that insist on quasi-judicial processes do so because they prioritise small reductions in risk of being sued over fighting harassment, assault and discrimination. Although in doing so they selectively ignore the risk of being sued by victims if they do not act promptly and appropriately against perpetrators. And it is possible, if there is actual will, to set-up processes which are sufficiently robust to withstand litigation by perpetrators. 

Much of this should be obvious, but there is widespread denial of the need for action in government departments (national, provincial and local), private companies, academia and civil society. 

This is made more complex by the fact that while men make up the majority of perpetrators, there are a significant number of women in senior and human resources positions who are actively and passively part of cover-ups and inaction.

The kind of denial I am referring to is well illustrated by the private sector. The insufficient information available reflects the neglect of the issues, but besides anecdotal accounts from individual women’s experiences, surveys have found that a staggering 43% of female lawyers have been sexually harassed and 30% of women employees had been on the receiving end of “unwanted sexual advances”. 

This should be no surprise, again, because men in the private sector are drawn from society at large. Yet in writing about such issues last year, some business school authors chose to emphasise the role of the company, entirely ignoring what is happening in these organisations themselves. 

By failing to proactively address sexual assault, harassment and discrimination in the workplace employers are not only violating their legal and moral obligations but are also giving power to perpetrators in other domains of society. They should not be allowed to divert from their own complicity and culpability.

Rather than marching on the JSE to ask companies to contribute money to fighting gender-based violence — something the government could ensure anyway by increasing company taxes or reducing corporate incentives — it would arguably be better to hold companies to account for how they fail to address these issues internally.

Here’s the thing: with a consistent and robust internal approach, it can be extended to employee conduct in broader society. Consider the well-known problem of catcalling and other forms of unwanted attention women receive when passing construction sites; every construction company should have a number on the outside of their site where such harassment can be reported.

An issue that receives less attention in public than it should is the conduct of security guards, which could similarly be improved by more accountability of their direct employers or those who hire those services.

Government departments, places such as licensing centres and so forth, should similarly have clear ways of reporting incidents and act on them accordingly. 

And then guilty employees must be disciplined and dismissed. 

Put together, such initiatives could dramatically shrink the social spaces in which people can get away with harassment, discrimination and assault. This could change behaviour quite quickly and changes in attitudes may follow. 

Workplace action is not a substitute for other efforts. The women who are most vulnerable across the board are typically those who are not in formal employment or in domestic, agricultural and care work that does not occur in a formal workplace. What I am arguing for is that we see conventional formal workplaces as launch pads for wider social change. Or, to use President Cyril Ramaphosa’s analogy after he won the 2017 ANC elective conference: workplaces can serve as the bridgeheads from which the battle against gender-based violence (broadly defined) can be fought.

Besides organisations doing invaluable work on this type of violence such as Sonke Gender Justice and Rape Crisis, there are others working directly in this area. One example is the Women’s Legal Centre, which regularly provides legal and other support to women in workplace assault, harassment and discrimination cases. Another is the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, which is pursuing what could be a groundbreaking case against Transnet for failing to act on repeated reports of harassment of one of its employees. In academia, the Gender Equality Office at Wits University has set a benchmark with a victim-centred process that has seen the removal or departure of some senior academic perpetrators. Such institutions deserve more support than they currently receive and could be consulted in establishing best practices for accountability mechanisms. 

But, ultimately, widespread change requires all of us who care about these issues to take up the cudgels in our own institutions and to insist that the laws of the country and the paper policies of our employers be implemented in both letter and spirit. And that those who fail to act, or even actively seek to cover up these activities, be publicly exposed and treated as they deserve to be: as perpetrators themselves. 

Those with the power and responsibility must know that if they fail to wield the proverbial axe against perpetrators, they will one day wake up with the blade at their own necks.

Seán Mfundza Muller is a lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg, with an interest in issues pertaining to institutional integrity and social justice. He writes in his individual capacity