Workplace sexual harassment is too prevalent to ignore – STER survey finds

Sexual harassment

If you have ever been in a mixed-gender space where sexual violence is the topic of discourse you will notice if you pay attention an uncomfortable deflection – mostly from men – and a thinly veiled exasperation – from mostly women.

For one, it is important to understand that this kind of conversation only happens among well-acquainted people in the context of Nigeria – because sex remains a topic Nigeria’s conservative horde is determined to be coy about however much the evidence shows they indulge in it with abandon. It becomes harder still to discuss in the context of violence, even though Nigeria’s epidemic of sexual violence is no longer a secret contained by family and Church like it used to be in the past.

There is a growing body of data to show that the prevalence of sexual violence in Nigeria calls for alarm. And while survivors are increasingly emboldened to speak out, thanks to thankless and tireless advocacy by nonprofit organisations working to prevent and respond to sexual violence, there remains a specific kind of sexual violence which while easy to fix remains largely undressed – workplace sexual harassment.

The prevalence

A recent survey by Stand To End Rape (STER) – a nonprofit working to respond to and prevent sexual and gender-based violence, recorded a 64% prevalence of workplace sexual harassment. It checks too as it closely corroborates previous research.

For instance, one study examining the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in the legal sector reported a prevalence rate of 63.5%, while another study investigating the prevalence of sexual harassment across various employment sectors in Lagos State reported a prevalence rate of 73.7%.

STER’s survey relied on data collated from 493 respondents via an online self-report survey that asked respondents to fill out the following as each relates to them:

  • Demographics (i.e., age, gender identity, sexuality, marital status, and primary state of residence)
  • Work context (job position, organisation size, and harassment policies)
  • Experiences of workplace sexual harassment (i.e., verbal, non-verbal, and physical)
  • Individual and organisational response to sexual harassment
  • Impact of sexual harassment (i.e., mental health and job-related outcomes)

80% of respondents were women and 20% men. The direct and indirect implications of the experiences shared are as staggering as anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the toll sexual violence takes on survivors can easily predict.

From trouble being enthusiastic about work, difficulty getting along with their coworkers, to reduced performance at work. A staggering number of respondents, 75%, reported having mental health issues thereafter.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common response to sexual harassment.

69% of respondents reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety, 60% reported experiencing symptoms of depression, while 34% reported experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

What sexual harassment in the workplace could look like

Sexual harassment in the workplace can happen in a variety of ways, some more crude than others but all of which negatively affect survivors and should have grave consequences if we are to end this menace.

Some forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favors, either explicitly or implicitly.
  • Physical acts of sexual assault.
  • Requests for sexual favors.
  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, including jokes referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation.
  • Unwanted touching or physical contact.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work, school, or in other inappropriate places.
  • Feeling pressured to engage with someone sexually.
  • Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself in view of others.
  • Unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages.

These are more common in Nigerian workspaces than we care to admit.

Listening to women – especially – speak of these occurrences and their response to it can infuriate anyone with a conscience.

The data from STER shows that the most reported forms of sexual harassment experienced by participants are:

  • Being looked at in a sexual way – with 45% of participants reporting they experienced this.
  • Receiving unwanted sexual comments/remarks about their clothing/accessories – at 44%.
  • Being told sexual jokes or stories that made them uncomfortable – at 43%.
  • Receiving sexual comments/remarks about their bodies – at 35%.
  • Being told crude/gross sexual things and asked to talk about sexual matters when they did not want to – at 34%.
  • Receiving nonstop invitations to go out, get dinner, have drinks, or have sex even after declining – at 27%.

These occurrences are not limited to the office space, as STER discovered. Survivors report being sexually harassed by peers – 48% of respondents, senior colleagues – 41%, clients/customers in-office as well as at home – 10%, as well as junior colleagues – 1%.

Something else that the survey buttresses rather than reveal is that 91% of perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace are men.

A similar YouGov survey carried out by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, as noted by the executive director of UN Women UK, Claire Barnett, and underlined in the survey by STER, “Is a human rights crisis.”

What are we doing about it?

Like all crisis situations, addressing the sexual harassment epidemic in Nigeria will take a multi-pronged approach.

It is on the government, to create policies and laws that protect citizens and residents from harassment of all nature. Specifically, where sexual harassment is concerned, one begin to wonder why despite report after report, despite countless survivors talking about their harrowing experience, despite a culture that on the surface extols its virtues while hiding a darker underside in plain sight, why aren’t there laws protecting survivors of sexual harassment? In the street as well as the workplace.

It is also on employers to create a workspace that is devoid of harassment for all employers. To do this employers and organisations must do the hard work of creating unambiguous policies against sexual harassment. Create channels of reporting and handling sexual harassment that actually functions to protect survivors. Make meetings and conversations about what constitutes sexual harassment and the stringent policy that they have against it part of the company culture.

Employees also have a responsibility to get themselves acquainted with their organisation’s sexual harassment policies and procedures. Build awareness by seeking out accurate information on how to identify and prevent sexual harassment. Treat all co-workers, clients, and vendors with respect and always be professional. Keep a record of all harassment incidents (name of the harasser, their position within the company, and the type of harassment) if they are being harassed. Be specific about times, dates, locations, and the names of any witnesses to the incident. Report the incident through the appropriate workplace channels if they are experiencing harassment, are aware that an employee is being taken advantage of, or aware an employee is a sexual harasser. And refrain from engaging in any intimidation attempts towards individuals who report incidents of sexual harassment.

The starting point for this needful cultural revolution to end sexual harassment can be anywhere. The hands of employers can be forced to make changes by an aware body of employees demanding improvement. Employers concerned with the wellbeing of their employees will take up the task with the seriousness it deserves and bring about change without being forced to. Above all, however, the government whose responsibility it is to care for all citizens and residents has a greater responsibility to create laws that will empower survivors to seek help even beyond their place of employment.

This is important because the survey by STER has shown how the small number of survivors that reported their harassment through formal channels – 9%, were dissatisfied with the outcome of their report. With 59% reporting no disciplinary action taken against their harasser, 73% reporting dissatisfaction with the way their employer handled their case, and 81% reporting they received no support from their employer.

Where the government comes in

The government, as it stands, is doing little to nothing to address workplace sexual harassment. For starters, there is no provision in the Labour Act that prohibits sexual harassment or any other kind of harassment during employment. It gets worse though.

Because the Nigerian law clearly states that the employer can terminate the employment contract for any reason or even for no reason at all, employers can punish survivors for speaking out by terminating their employment. No questions asked.

A Labour Standards Bill with a provision on sexual harassment that was submitted to the National Assembly in 2008, remains not passed. As if to say without saying, “We stand with abusers.”

Yet, even when the center fails, a prerogative remains for the periphery to hold till the center gets its act right. States in this case can do a lot to protect citizens. Lagos is a good example.

The Criminal Law of Lagos State prohibits harassment and describes harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favours, and other visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which when submitted to or rejected – (a) implicitly or explicitly affects a person’s employment or educational opportunity or unreasonably interferes with the person’s work or educational performance; (b) implicitly or explicitly suggests that submission to or rejection of the conduct will be a factor in academic or employment decisions; or (c) creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment. Any person who sexually harasses another is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years.

Yet, perhaps because Nigerians have general apathy for our crooked justice system, survivors often choose silence as shown by the survey by STER.

Conclusion

We all have a responsibility to take a stand – loudly and insistently – against sexual harassment, but we must also remember to hold our elected officials accountable for their tacit approval of sexual violence which they display by foot-dragging every time a bill on the matter comes before them.

Holding our immediate spaces accountable while we continue to agitate for change in the country’s legal framework are not mutually exclusive. If the information age of high-speed internet has taught us nothing else it certainly proved we can multitask.

Anything but a concerted multi-pronged approach to the sexual harassment epidemic in the country is tacit approval of sexual violence against Nigerians. There is no middle ground. Let’s get to work.

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