Photo courtesy of Mint

Two weeks ago, a complaint was made by Ms. Ishara Devendra, a journalist, about her workplace culture at ITN. Ms Devendra’s allegations, posted on her personal Facebook page, were that she had been subjected to continual harassment by a senior official at ITN, but that the organisation had taken no action to address the situation.

The day after she published her post on Facebook, a press release was issued by the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions in support of Ms. Devendra’s claims. It was reported that the Chairman of ITN had undertaken to ensure that a full investigation into the matter be conducted.

This is not an isolated incident. Only about 7% of incidents of workplace harassment are officially reported in Sri Lanka. This is probably because of the realities of the gender-biased hierarchical structure of most corporations and organizations in the country. Women have only recently been admitted into the higher realms of corporate and governance and few reach the upper levels of senior management. The accused perpetrators are often senior members of the corporations and institutions in which both parties work and have senior status and privileged position in the hierarchical structure in comparison to the women they are accused of harassing.

According to Gayani Ranasinghe, Consultant in Human Resource Management and Specialist in Labour Law, and International Consultant for the Gender and Economic Inclusion Group at IFC, sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated.”

The tolerance extended to such conduct is formed by company culture, which is set by the conduct of the leadership cohort. Women who seek professional success in the corporate world enter an environment in which they are a minority. One only has to view the proportional representation of men and women on company photographs to see how few women are visible at senior management level.

In this case, Ms. Devendra is described as a senior journalist, with a professional record of 15 years of work as a journalist at ITN. So her claims cannot be easily dismissed. And in her public post she comments not only on the unacceptable conduct of the individual perpetrator of harassment against her, but on the culture created within the institution which enabled this conduct to take place and be normalized. Her challenge therefore invites an inquiry into the cases of other women who have experienced similar treatment but have not spoken publicly.

Chairperson of Jetwing Travels, Shiromal Cooray, who shared Ms. Devendra’s post on her own FB Platform on April 23, stated when sharing it that it is up to men to upgrade their attitudes and conduct towards women. Her framework text for the post states:“This is the story of many females who dream of being a working woman! Not all women are emotionally strong or have the family connections or the financial independence or a support group to call out these ‘pests’, have them removed from the system, and carry on. Very often, as in this case it is the unfortunate victim who is forced to remove herself from the system, with permanent scars! This is a universal issue, but in Sri Lanka,  often women are not empowered to stand up for themselves as the fear lingers – if they do, they will be victimized and forced out! My humble plea to all men who have mothers, sisters, wives and daughters: please respect women and treat them as an equal with dignity!”

Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted and unwelcome sexual attention. The problem is that what is seen as unproblematic by the perpetrator is not seen as such by the person who experiences it. The perpetrator either consciously or unconsciously minimizes the seriousness and offensiveness of their own behaviour. This is why the test to determine if an offence has been committed in the area of sexual harassment is a subjective test. The perpetrator’s intention is not considered as a defence for their conduct and its impact because their intention is often questionable. The effect on the injured party is the core of the matter, and is the determining factor, in cases of sexual harassment.

Gayani Ranasinghe comments that: “One important way to foster respectful workplaces is to take a survivor-centred approach when complaints are made…This seeks to encourage people experiencing sexual harassment to come forward and seek support because they know they can expect their company to take their experience seriously, and respond to it ethically and fairly…The three key principles in the survivor-vectored approach are: Respect, Confidentiality and Safety, all expressed in a context of Non-Discrimination, which ensures equal right for all to the best possible assistance, without unfair discrimination.”

Because of the sociocultural stigma imposed on women’s sexuality and the societal controls over their conduct, many women who are in situations where they should complain do not want to name the conduct for what it is. Professor Arosha Adikaram of the Department of Human Resources Management, Faculty of Management and Finance at the University of Colombo, commented on this non-labeling of sexual harassment by Sri Lankan working women.

Many Sri Lankan people do not actually understand what sexual harassment is. It is unwanted and unwelcome attention of a sexual kind. Many people believe all women secretly want admiration and attention from every quarter. And many perpetrators actually seem to believe that a woman who is being harassed should see it as a compliment – that the target of this offensive behaviour should feel flattered! Others assume the woman targeted must herself have behaved provocatively to prompt such behaviour. Still others think women who speak out are trying to “get a pay day” by making baseless accusations and ruining the reputation of a powerful man.

All these above assumptions and outcomes emerge from sociocultural attitudes of underlying disrespect towards women, which are unfortunately reflected in patriarchal society as a whole. And these assumptions are problematic because those in decisionmaking capacities, in situations like this one, make decisions informed by their underlying beliefs and assumptions, and act on them.

Any complaint which is made to challenge such thinking, and the actions which are prompted by them, takes place in a culture which has normalised inequality and in which the complainant finds herself from the outset in an adversarial setting.

The hostile work environment for the victim of harassment is often not even recognised, let alone challenged. The normal complaints process followed in corporate settings involves a disciplinary procedure: a preliminary Investigation to determine the validity of the charges, and the provision of evidence by the target of the harassment. Then the accused is required to give reasons for their conduct, which – after investigation – are accepted or disputed.

In cases of sexual harassment, the conduct itself does not occur in public office areas in the presence of witnesses. The perpetrators often commit offenses such as engaging in suggestive speech, initiating intimate body contact, and forcing unwanted physical proximity in private settings and behind closed office doors. It is obviously difficult, therefore, to gather evidence of improper conduct in such contexts. However, a person who is subjected to ongoing harassment today can record both audio and video evidence of such speech and actions on a technologically-enabled smartphone. CCTV cameras are usually only fitted in the lobby and reception areas of corporate buildings. Sri Lankan women have shown in recent years that they are prepared to share such evidence in social media public forums. Why should the identities of the perpetrators be protected?

It would seem obvious, given the severe reputational damage that inquiry into such conduct brings with it to the victim, that the perpetrators of this behaviour need to be more strictly held to account. Many senior executives in corporate and governance roles believe themselves to be unassailable at the top of the organizational hierarchy and thus above reproach and “untouchable” by law or protocol enforcers.

Ironically, in line with the high prevalence of narcissistic traits in the profiles of CEOs, CFOs and MDs, such individuals clearly feel they are entitled to expect attention and admiration from the women who work with them, who they see as very “touchable”and accessible because they believe them to be defenseless. Indeed, the systemically enforced and reinforced subordinate status of the targeted women enhances their attractiveness in the eyes of such a perpetrator. It’s a grossly feudal, “droits de seigneur”attitude that has flourished in patriarchal societies in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2023, in Sri Lanka, 75 years since Independence, it is time that attitude evolved.

There are two kinds of complaint in the sexual harassment area: quid pro quo where the targeted woman is coerced and threatened into exchanging sexual favors for professional advancement, or even for maintenance of her current employment status, and threatened with dismissal; and “hostile work environment” where she is openly bullied, belittled or otherwise punished in front of her work peers for refusing to comply with repeated violations to her personal dignity.

If a person is found to have committed the alleged offenses against her, a survivor of such conduct may find her rights to justice further subverted or diminished by the perpetrator not being held to account by the company. A perpetrator may often be deemed by the company or organisation to be highly valuable to them, and their work performance and the revenue they bring to the company would be judged as more important than their moral or ethical conduct. So the complainant would be transferred to another department or section of the company, as if her conduct was the cause of this incident, or otherwise incentivized to leave. The damage to her reputation and professional career path would be dismissed as relatively insignificant.

The sexual harassment offence – if resolved internally – would usually not be listed on the perpetrator’s employment record. The human resources departments of many companies do not do due diligence into past work performance and history when hiring new personnel, so perpetrators are free to offend in successive positions until their conduct escalates to the point where it cannot be overlooked or rationalized. A perpetrator in such an instance may be suspended, required to engage in rehabilitation of some kind prior to being re-employed, and even dismissed but whatever the cost to them, the cost of their behaviour to the victims of it and the morale and culture of the company is always significant. Only if this cost is clearly and openly recognised as such, and seen as severe, by decision makers and implementers of policy in the organisation, can positive change be implemented.

The best remedy for the kind of situation outlined in the ITN matter is to raise awareness of the damage that sexual harassment causes. Not only to the victim, but to the reputation of the perpetrator. The damage incurred by such predatory and abusive behaviour must constitute a deterrent to the abuser, and make them aware that conduct such as this is not only unjust but unacceptable and will be seen to be and punished as a serious offence. Their own reputation will suffer as a result of their conduct. Only then will they be motivated to change it.

Companies wishing to create respectful workplaces, not just for show on International Women’s Day, but throughout the year, every year, can invest in preventative and pre-emptive training, via facilitating workshops on professional conduct and best practices for all their staff, including the senior executives. This way, all personnel in the company would be aware of not only their rights but their responsibilities in relation to each other and the work context in which they interact. Those higher up in the hierarchy would be made aware of their limits and those lower down would be aware of their protections.

The aim in implementing best practice policies is to promote the greater productivity of the company, by creating a more equitable and effective workplace environment, and supporting all parties in any workplace setting to enable colleagues to work effectively without blurring personal and professional boundaries, and without abusing the closeness generated by the workplace settings in which they conduct themselves. This includes both on-site and off-site workplace contexts: telework or remote work interactions, conferences, trainings, company provided accommodation and transport, and all work-related communications, both real and virtual.

Best practice in corporate conduct would benefit from each individual in any workplace interaction conducting themselves transparently. To use a symbolic analogy: corporate and leadership spheres have for many years spoken of transparency yet how many CEOs, MDs or senior executives would agree to have glass walls constructed in their office so that anyone walking past their office during a working day could see what they were doing at any time? How many of these awarded individuals hold themselves accountable when the system in which they operate rewards them for conduct which they see as an entitlement that comes with their high status within their organisation?

Metaphorically speaking, an ideal workplace culture would have glass walls as well as glass ceilings. Privacy concerns could be addressed by stating that people’s private lives should be conducted off the premises and not in the workplace. As companies work to meet deadlines on their assignments and projects, it is common for colleagues to work long hours together in close proximity. This is why clear boundaries and transparent conduct in the workplace are so important. Transparency brings with it mutual protection, clearly showing that the conduct of all concerned is beyond reproach.

Ms. Devendra in her Facebook post said that she had left the company that ignored her request for workplace justice in order to protect her self respect. Self respect for a dedicated, competent and successful professional woman should be enhanced by her ambition and her ability to progress in her capacity, and such a woman should be able to be proud of the work she does in a workplace, not damaged by it. To do that, we must consciously create respectful workplaces in Sri Lanka.

This ITN case is not a one off. The workplace injustices it highlights are a showcase of the harassment that women routinely experience in many companies in Sri Lanka, and it is therefore an opportunity to act positively, to admit, call out and change the underlying disrespect which many people in the professional sphere still feel towards women. The socio-cultural influences: the inherent assumptions of gender, race and caste superiority/inferiority, the normalized misogyny, the unchallenged apathy, the ignorance about what constitutes consent, the inability to understand the situations of our peers are all aspects which can be re-evaluated. From our beliefs flow our actions.

If we start with a positive vision of how we wish to operate, we can create the infrastructure to enable it.

The kind of conduct which comes to our attention in sexual harassment cases cripples companies and limits and restricts their viability and effectiveness, as well as the personal happiness and productivity of their personnel. Time to upgrade across the board – across every board – to a best practices driven corporate and governance culture. #GrowSriLanka!