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Blog | 4 Nov 2021

Violence Against Women – Applying a Workplace Lens

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Violence Against Women – Applying a Workplace Lens

In recent years we have seen the global narrative around women’s advancement, protection and equality accelerate. Women’s wellbeing and security is being placed at the forefront of public debate and corporations must ensure that they are not excluded from these conversations. In marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November we would like to take this opportunity to explore the implications of gender (and all forms of) violence, harassment and assault in and around organisations in Asia, and encourage them to foster an inclusive culture where all staff feel comfortable, safe and productive. 

 

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace  

The #MeToo movement of 2017 accelerated conversations around women’s harassment in the workplace globally, and in an earlier post we explored the implications of this movement for Asia. However, in the years that have followed, we are sad to see that, in most markets around the world, sexual harassment in the workplace is still under-reported and not discussed. While companies initially rallied behind the call to end impunity for sexual harassment, no clear actions seem to have been made and in many cases those who make reports are often still met with disbelief and stigma. In Hong Kong, journalist Samantha Topp founded Frontline Feminists, a platform to raise awareness and share resources following her own experience of reporting sexual harassment. With only three in ten victims in Singapore feeling safe enough to report sexual harassment, it us unsurprising that women are turning to grassroots community networks when they feel that corporate structures are not offering the support they need.  

In situations where action has been taken in the wake of #MeToo, it has been noted that an unintended outcome may be for women to be further excluded from workplace opportunities. In 2018 Lean In observed that “60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. That’s a 32% jump from a year ago”. In response to these issues, KPMG implemented measures to ensure that women are not further excluded. These included creating a positive dialogue with staff that focused on the values of the firm and the emphasis on fair investigative mechanisms. This ensures that, not only does a victim feel comfortable reporting confidentially, but also that individuals are not vilified without thorough investigation. KPMG also noted diversity and inclusion training in areas such as unconscious bias has been key to ensuring a level playing field for all. 

Additional complexity is added to the fight against sexual harassment in the context of work when you apply a country specific lens. In India for example, many women choose to remain at home looking after their families rather than join the formal workforce and risk the multiple instances of sexual violence that occur on public transport. Those who do choose to go to work often spend a disproportionate percentage of their salary on private means of transport compared to their male colleagues. According to the World Bank, approximately 20 million women have vanished from India’s workforce since 2004, many of whom choose to stay at home to ensure the safety of their children and themselves. In Japan, a government report noted that 65% of female respondents to a survey reported “groping, unwanted touching, and similar kinds of sexual assault, commonly experienced on crowded trains”. Ultimately, gender-based violence and harassment is an issue that stops women accessing workplaces and has implications much wider than experiences of assault when at work.  

 

Domestic Violence  

Domestic violence comes in many forms and it should be understood that people of all genders or sexual orientations can be both victims and perpetrators. While it is true that the majority of domestic violence cases are committed by men to their female partners, the protection of men who face abuse as well as those in LGBT+ relationships should also be considered by employers.  

It is imperative that organisations are prepared to tackle any form of domestic violence that their employees may be exposed to. The traditional approach of avoiding “what goes on behind closed doors” must be dismantled. Regardless of the fact that any violence or abuse inflicted at home will have a knock-on effect on an employees’ productivity, absentee or presenteeism, and emotional and physical wellbeing; it is vital that companies understand that their duty of care extends beyond the doors of the office, particularly as we find the line between work and personal lives being increasingly blurred. Given the intimate nature of domestic violence, one’s colleagues may be the only people they are able to interact with on a day-to-day basis aside from their abuser. It is therefore vital that organisations equip their staff with the tools to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and clear guidelines around how to help.  

There is no one specific “profile” of a domestic abuse victim, making employees who are suffering in silence harder to reach out to and assist. According to Business in the Community’s recent Domestic Abuse Toolkit for Employers, key signs to look out for include:  

  • Changes in work productivity or patterns including quality of work, changing use of phone or email, spending unnecessary time at the office or frequent visits from the employees’ partner or ex-partner.  
  • Changes in behaviour or demeanor including isolation, increased anxiety, worry when leaving their children or secretive behaviour. 
  • Physical indicators including injuries, changing use of makeup, changing nature of dress, substance use or increased fatigue.  
  • Other indicators including excessive demands or control by a partner or ex-partner or increased isolation from colleagues or family members.  

Companies should implement a robust policy to safeguard their employees from domestic violence. SHRM suggest that this policy include the following elements:  

  • A team approach that includes a wider group than just HR staff. Stakeholders from a variety of teams that include senior leaders are vital to ensure company-wide adoption of the policy. 
  • Develop a compliant policy that encompasses in-market legislation and legal guardrails to solidify the safety of domestic violence victims. 
  • Provide training to staff to help them identify the signs of domestic abuse and understand how to interact with victims in an appropriate and sensitive manner.  
  • Build awareness across the organisation, ensuring that employees feel comfortable reaching out or accessing EAPs (employee assistance programmes).  

 

The Impact of COVID-19 

The gendered impact of COVID-19 was initially overlooked by government and corporate leaders when devising responses to the pandemic. Women, for example bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities at the best of times, and these responsibilities multiplied and intensified during the initial COVID-19 response. During these difficult times it is women who are stepping back from work in order to take on domestic duties and who report higher instances of burnout in the wake of the pandemic. A recent ILO report sees 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared with 2019.   

The fact that, during times of stress, instances of domestic violence also increase, was also overlooked at the beginning of the pandemic and no consideration was given to women losing the safe haven of a physical workplace to visit every day and instead being forced to lockdown with their abuser. In Hubei province in China, a domestic abuse charity noted that reports of domestic violence had doubled during lockdown, and 90% of reports were pandemic related. Unfortunately, workplace sexual harassment did not disappear with a lack of physical offices. In India, The National Commission for Women noted that instances of online harassment increased five times in the wake of the pandemic.  

 

Invisible Forms of Violence  

While this article explores mainly instances of physical violence and abuse, it is vital to understand that violence against women can take different forms and many of these are hard to identify. UN Women define the forms of violence that women can experience as: 

Domestic Violence  

Including economic, psychological, emotional, physical, sexual violence 

Femicide 

Including honor killing  

Sexual Violence 

Including sexual harassment, rape, corrective rape, rape culture 

Human Trafficking 

 

Female Genital Mutilation 

 

Child Marriage 

 

Online or Digital Violence  

Including cyberbullying, non-consensual sexting, doxing  

 

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please seek help and contact any of the below in-market resources:  

 

About the Author: Emily Moss, Head of Marketing & Communications at Community Business