Photo courtesy of The Independent

Sri Lanka’s MeToo Movement is currently being described by Al Jazeera, The Hindu and The Independent as ‘delayed’ or ‘belated’, with stories of harassment, abuse and violation of women in professional spheres and industries now breaking four years after the first stories emerged in the US, generated by the exposure and disgrace of Harvey Weinstein.

The findings of the legal pursuit of Weinstein by the journalist Ronan Farrow were reported in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. A-list actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Thompson and Angelina Jolie spoke up about their experiences not just of Weinstein, but of the predatory culture in which he was a towering and successful figure. This transformed a whisper campaign relegated to the sidelines of the film industry, and accused of being a witch hunt, into a credible and widely discussed issue centered on evaluation of documented incidents of social and cultural injustice that needed to be remedied.

Harassment in the workplace is endemic to cultures in which there is an inherent and systemic imbalance of power. Globally, it is relatively recently that women have joined the workforce in multiple industries and their professional advancement has been made in the face of immediate territorial pushback from their male colleagues and bosses. Gender based structural inequality and its biases and assumptions fuels this territoriality.

Women who should, according to the traditional models created and endorsed by the patriarchy, be modest, selfless, self-effacing and grateful for any attention shown to them by people in power were perceived as quitting their intended behind-the-scenes supportive roles of domesticity, childbirth and family rearing to brazenly indulge their ambition, trumpet their personal arrogance and embrace financial success.

As two income households became more common, the double standards applied to the genders became more evident. Women’s access to education was initially unequal. Then, when they eventually became successfully qualified at levels equal or even superior to their male counterparts in the professions or in the corporate world, they received disproportionately lower wages and were selectively positioned and deployed in lower status positions.

This placed them in an inferior situation within the organization in which they worked, vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, intimidation and harassment. Answerable to their employers, their immediate superiors and the scrutiny of a hierarchy in which they were expected to be subordinate, they have had little opportunity for redress in the distressing situations in which many have suffered.

Many women were explicitly told that, if they wished to rise in a vertical corporate hierarchy, they had in fact to do so on their knees, as supplicants, placating male egos and smilingly affirming the narcissism of those who dictated the culture of the company which paid their wages. Many employers expected sexual favours in exchange for promotion or reward and did not care about the damage caused to a woman’s reputation in the industry or her self worth and sense of self respect, let alone her professional productivity and work flow.

I have recently read – with disbelief – a 20 page document detailing the extended harassment of a young professional woman in one of the most famous large corporations in this country, with attested testimony and details of conversations and repeated approaches by her immediate boss, with dates and times supplied.

The perpetrator in this case showed a clear pattern in the way he systematically attempted to impact this young lady, via deliberately sexualised conversations, projecting unwanted attention onto her and singling out of her in front of her co workers, and emotional manipulation escalating to coercion, threats and punishments. This man had a known history of similar conduct in other companies in which he had previously worked. But because he brought money and corporate connections into the company and was seen as a valued senior employee, the HR department failed to support the complainant and did not pursue independent prosecution of his illegal and abusive conduct. The woman subsequently left the company to work in another sphere despite having an exemplary professional record and being on a clear path to promotion in the original company.

MeToo as a movement, as the name suggests, was created to remedy the isolation felt by those targeted by sexual predators and abusers by enabling individual stories to be told and made public. This collective effort had to initially be made anonymously to protect the identity of the victims and survivors. Only with the momentum created by multiple proven individual revelations could the exposure of predatory behaviour as a social phenomenon be successfully brought out into the open with minimal damage to the victim, who was often blamed for hysteria, vengefulness or making false claims to destroy men of good public reputation.

In Sri Lanka, due to the endemic normalization of patriarchal values and the socially endorsed disrespect accorded to women, young women until recently had no recourse but to keep their stories of being violated and intimidated private to preserve their professional reputations.

I was told by the female editor in charge of a major media publication a few years ago that when she was first appointed, a senior journalist had sent her unsolicited photographs of himself, shirtless and bare chested, to her mobile phone. When she did not reply, he sent a text saying the photographs had been ‘sent in error’. This person had been portraying himself as a mentor and a married man with children, with a powerful reputation in the industry for his writing.

Many of the most respected and articulate journalists in Sri Lanka are women and many also come from minority communities whose conservative values made it difficult for them to pursue their careers with the boldness needed to fulfil their ambitions and their talents. Many of these women are also activists whose ongoing education, critical thinking skills and life experiences have committed them to raise awareness of issues of social injustice in their work.

When they first started sharing their stories just a short time ago, they used the reach of social media, in which they are well versed, to create a public space in which individual stories could be told. Many of the men they worked with when they first started in the media industry were narcissistic, entitled and lacking a sense of boundary or sense of what constitutes appropriate conduct.

These young women, now in their early 30s, look back now on the behaviour to which they were subjected upon entry into the industry that they were told was acceptable, which was normalized in the society in which they lived and worked, and are now openly asking why they did not speak out before. They had been ‘mentored’ and patronised by people who now are clearly shown to have a track record of predatory behaviour, bullying and toxic entitlement. Some of these men worked in NGOs and millennial-owned organizations, and – whether unconsciously or consciously – can be seen to have used the social liberal assumptions of these organizations as a form of virtue signalling and an opaque, convenient camouflage for utilising the structures and processes of the organization to operate what (in some cases) can be seen as an ego-based fiefdom or even a personal hunting ground.

In Sri Lanka, the wider society operates in cliques and these circles tend to close in when threatened to exclude anyone who challenges those who hold power within each sphere, including women who have internalized the misogynistic values of their contexts in order to rise within the inequitable structures. If the MeToo movement is going to gain the momentum it needs at this juncture, it is going to require determination, courage and strength and commitment on the part of the accusers, meticulous documentation and endorsement by senior members of the very structures which the accusers and whistle blowers are daring to criticize.

Companies who want to do more than window dress their dedication to equity in the workplace are becoming aware that they need to become vigilant and alert, self evaluate and do better across the board. Experts in HR, industrial relations and corporate conduct like Gayani Ranasinghe are being invited to conduct workshops to raise awareness of the need for respect and high standards of ethical behaviour in the workplace.

When you see harassment and abuse occurring in any workplace, do not ignore it or be a spectator. Recognize it as a threat to the company’s integrity. Name it. Question it. Challenge it. Change it.