‘Me too’

By Katrin Büchenbacher Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/7 17:28:39

Women of Beijing speak up about sexual harassment in the workplace

Chinese women are often reluctant to report cases of sexual harassment because they fear social stigmatization, experts say. Photo: IC

While the allegations of sexual harassment and rape against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein accumulated, thousands have joined the campaign #MeToo on Facebook and Twitter, which is meant to highlight and empower victims of sexual assault. Suddenly, social media is full of women testifying about being molested by men. In the wake of the scandal, the wave of protests has provoked only a weak echo on Chinese social media.

Are sexual crimes not a rampant problem in the Chinese workplace?

Going by the numbers it is hard to say, as there are no official national statistics.

But survey-based research by the UN, the Institute of Sexuality and Gender Studies at the Beijing Forestry University and the Anti-Domestic Violence Network of 2013 show that one in seven women experienced harassment in the workplace in China and that harassment from coworkers is the most frequent form of sexual assault.

Mae (pseudonym), a 26-year old woman from the UK who has been living in China for over two years, spoke to the Metropolitan about how she has perceived sexual harassment in the Chinese workplace as an outsider.

Mae thinks that Western expat women may belong to a particularly vulnerable group because they are often stereotyped as sexually liberal among Chinese men and called kaifang (open).

She feels very uncomfortable with the kaifang label.

"Open means slutty. I hate that; I really, really hate that because they think that our culture has fewer morals and that we should be ashamed," she said.

At Mae's workplace, foreign female interns have been harassed by male coworkers taking pictures of them and saying things like, "I'm going to leave my wife for this girl," and "Oh, I have a second wife now."

Mae said, "They wouldn't have made these jokes with Chinese women. Sometimes they really crossed a line for me."

Mae, 26, works in an NGO Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

Sexist systems

For Chinese women, unwelcome sexual advances might be more subtle but not less common.

Susan (pseudonym), a 28-year-old Chinese HR professional working at a big IT company, has experienced minor forms of sexual harassment by colleagues using Chinese messaging apps such as WeChat and QQ.

"My female colleagues and I have all experienced this. Colleagues asking us, 'I saw that you are wearing trousers every day, why don't you wear a skirt next time?' or receiving unsolicited compliments from male colleagues. It can make women feel very uncomfortable," she said.

Moreover, those men are too shy to greet them in person.

"It's not physical, but it's still creepy," Susan said.

Susan, 28, HR Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

It also happened that male colleagues or bosses would text her female coworkers during the evening or on weekends, asking whether they were already asleep, what they were doing and if they could bring over some documents.

Susan said, "I think in China, the obvious kinds of sexual harassment are rare, the invisible ones are the real problem."

Susan describes the helpless feeling while facing these intrusions and why most young women play along without telling anyone.

"When you are a recent graduate you don't want to decline your boss' or their boss' requests. You worry a lot about what other people might think," she explained. Then, the boss might see this submissive attitude as an opportunity to go further, she added.

Mae has experienced a gendered organizational structure firsthand when working for a Chinese consulting firm in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. She describes the office environment as "classic," since most of the bosses were men and the secretaries were women.

She said, "The women were treated very much as second class. There would be constant jokes about them getting drunk, wearing short skirts, all their boyfriends and awkward flirting at every situation."

Mae's foreign colleague, who she said "obviously didn't know what he was doing," would receive more consideration for his views than she, which frustrated her.

After six months, she left the company to go to Beijing. Working in an NGO sector, she thought things would improve. And they did - her team is dominated by women.

However, in the mixed team, problems quickly reemerged as she received verbal aggression from a coworker who treated his female colleagues as subordinates.

Mae reported it to her superior. He apologized to Mae on her colleague's behalf, but there were no further consequences.

Mae does not know what to do if she ever gets seriously sexually harassed in the workplace. "There is no support structure," she said.

Susan, an HR professional, doubts that the companies will take responsibility.

"The reality is that in many Chinese companies, the different department functions are not complete, so you may have nowhere to complain to. Also, if the harasser is a very important person who has a lot of resources that the company needs and can bring large economic benefits to the company, even if he sexually harassed someone, who do you think the company is going to protect? I don't think they will protect the weak ones and let go of their economic interests."

Social stigmas

China has a legal basis to act against sexual harassment in the workplace. The Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests (LPWRI) was established in 2005 and fully implemented in 2007. Its 40th Article prohibits sexual harassment:

"Sexual harassment against a woman is prohibited. The victims have the right to lodge complaint to the unit or organ concerned," it says. It, therefore, encourages women to make use of their right of complaint and file a suit at the People's Court.

Some lawyers argue that the law is too vague because it fails to define sexual harassment, the types of remedies women can seek and the sanctions harassers, and eventually the employers, would have to face. Other lawyers argue that the social stigmatization of victims prevents them from seeking justice.

Women often choose to stay silent since they don't know how to prove that they have been harassed, Xue Ninglan wrote in her book Prevention and Prohibition of Sexual Harassment in Employment: Legal Reform in China.

Past cases have shown that women filing a suit or even speaking up to the employer about the harassment often lose the case and their job.

This is why many women might be reluctant to act against sexual harassment in the workplace, Rangita de Silva de Alwis from the University of Pennsylvania wrote in her scientific article.

Lawyer Li Ying, one of China's most prominent advocates for women's rights and director of the Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, was a driving force behind the draft and revision of the LPWRI.

But she believes, too, that the harassment article is still not utilized enough, taken into account that survey data implies that 30 to 40 percent of Chinese women have been victims of sexual harassment, a relatively high occurrence rate.

"Not many women report sexual harassment, fearing misunderstandings and discrimination from people around them such as their coworkers or boyfriends," Li said, adding that Chinese society has long been dominated by patriarchy and therefore women who experience sexual harassment easily get blamed or discriminated.

She said that most incidents at the workplace occur when superiors harass their subordinates, between coworkers or clients and with email or text messages containing sexual implications.

Li encourages women to defend themselves against sexual harassment at three instances: the company, the police and the court of law in order to hold the harasser administratively and criminally responsible for theirs actions and to receive compensation.

When to say no

But women can also act preventively.

"Avoid any situation of two people staying together in a closed room," Li said. "And stand up firmly to say no to stop such behaviors."

Finally, she advises victims of sexual harassment to collect evidence of text messages and to record voice or video material.

Another reason behind the low report rate of sex crimes might be the lack of awareness. Education could change this.

Fan Yibing, 23, is a teacher. Her mission is to educate her students on sexual harassment so they can protect themselves from becoming victims.

"As a teacher, it is important that we teach the children about sexual harassment. If they encounter a situation where someone wants to touch them, they have to say no loudly and without hesitation," she said.

Fan Yibing, 23, a teacher Photo: Katrin Büchenbacher/GT

Knowledgeable children will become ambassadors for change when they are older. Fan believes the biggest issue in China is the lack of knowledge about sexual harassment and awareness about personal rights.

"When a woman encounters a situation where she is sexually assaulted, she might not want the matter to go public and fight against it because of the pressure in life and public opinions," Fan said.

Today's women in China need to learn more about what it means to be sexually harassed too, according to Mae. "They would not say they're not equal to men, but they always make coffee for them, clean up after them and accept it when they yell at them and make jokes about them," she said.

She believes that China's women still need to confidently claim their equal position to men in the workplace and know when they experience sexism and gendered stereotypes at work, which lay the groundwork for sexual harassment.

"The Weinstein incident is not an isolated case. Gendered work environment structures make it possible to exploit women and of course it is happening in China," she said. "Maybe they think that is something that only happens in America. In fact, it happens to them every day and they don't recognize it."

Lawyers suggest women stand up firmly to say no to stop improper behavior. Photo: IC


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