A safe workplace is every woman's right

We are empowering women, but are we creating safer workplaces for them?

Currently all over the world, we see women trying to break the glass ceiling and increase their active participation in the labour force. But recent findings from an American research institute have found that over a quarter of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and of those women, 46% say that harassment caused them to leave jobs or switch careers.

Women who experience sexual harassment at work often go through extended periods of low work productivity, and have lower job satisfaction, according to a 2021 study by Women's Rights Group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). Are these women given the conducive environment for them to thrive? We are empowering women, but are we creating a safe workplace for them?

Globally, two out of every five women face some sort of harassment at their workplace. Recent reports suggest that more than one in three countries do not have any laws against harassment in the workplace. A national survey by Business and Human Rights Resource Center conducted last year found that a majority of women employed in the formal sector have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment at the workplace during the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, with the advent of the internet and widespread use of social media, women are now facing cyber sexual harassment both at home and their workplaces.

The latest survey by ICT division found that 64% of women in the cities of Bangladesh have faced some sort of cyber sexual harassment. With the increase in sexual harassment towards women both in person and in the cyberspace, can women really feel empowered? If women are not provided with a conducive and gender-friendly work environment, can they really perform well and feel safe at their organization?

The primary reason behind this grave problem is the deep-rooted patriarchy that exists in the mindset of the people in our society. Embedded patriarchy and toxic masculinity result in women being subject to violence or sexual harassment at their workplace. In spite of women continuously striving to prove their potential, there are still people, both men and women, who think women are not capable of taking up leadership roles, or in fact, working outside their homes.

This prejudiced and primitive notion is hindering the progress of women, as society forces them to believe that they are incapable of working side by side with men. As a result, many women are still facing some sort of harassment or violence at their workplace. This traumatic experience of abuse or harassment leaves a negative impact on the mental health of such working women, and it is often seen that they face difficulty in performing and thriving at their workplace.

When activist Tarana Burke started the globally hit “Me Too” campaign, it emphasized on raising awareness of the prevalence and the pernicious impact of sexual violence. The campaign’s main objective was to spread awareness among survivors of violence, and encourage them to speak out and report their cases of harassment. 

Women in our country also need to break the stigma of concealing their experiences of abuse and sexual harassment, as the longer they keep quiet and hide their cases of violence, the longer the perpetrators will prevail in the society. 

The High Court of Bangladesh has recently asked the government to submit the list of institutions that had formed a complaint committee against sexual harassment at the workplaces complying with a court order issued in 2009. The court also sought explanations from the respective ministries on the failure to implement the 2009 verdict. 

It is important for organizations to comply with the High Court order by introducing proper policies and procedures to address such sort of sexual harassment at the workplace, and building a strong mechanism for complaints and grievance handling.

This will ensure that women feel safe and are not afraid of speaking up against such experiences at their workplaces. Investment in preventing and addressing sexual harassment always adds value to an organization in terms of increased commitment, better productivity, better organizational reputation, meeting legal obligations, and most importantly, a safe working environment for the staff. 

Entities like BRAC have always been vocal about preventing and responding to sexual harassment within the organization and for the communities that it works for. Brac Social Compliance program focuses on promoting a safe workplace and provides technical assistance in corporate and other sectors to establish policies and procedures within their framework. 

A safe workplace is every woman's right. Creating a safe workplace free of all forms of sexual harassment is the agenda of today and tomorrow, with evermore women joining workplaces and social spaces outside home. A world with this agenda fulfilled will be a far more humane and productive world.

Barrister Jenefa Jabbar is the Director of BRAC Social Compliance and Safeguarding program. Karishma Mahfuz is the Deputy Manager, Communications and Business Development, of BRAC Social Compliance and Safeguarding program.