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Gender-based violence at work: when the boss is the threat

Treating gender-based violence as a type of discrimination leaves many women trapped under violent bosses with nowhere to turn.

Penelope Kyritsis (oD): Why do you think gender-based violence in the workplace is so prevalent today?

Judy Gearhart: The issue has not really been addressed directly. Historically, people have believed that the issue of gender-based violence is taken care of in broader legislation and conventions on discrimination – the idea being that there should be no discrimination at work, and that should cover any kind of violence that's based on gender.

It's a very very vulnerable position to be in, to be reporting sexual harassment and sexual violence at work.

So, it's seen as a piece of discrimination: gender-based discrimination. However, I think gender-based violence can't be subsumed under legislation on discrimination, because the use of violence at work to keep people captive or to force people to do things is a whole other level of complexity and threat that needs to be addressed more directly.

Penelope: What are current avenues of recourse that women have to report sexual assault, for instance, or to report other types of violence in the workplace?

Judy: Most people would think they're supposed to go to their supervisor to access the current mechanisms that are out there. But if they're being threatened by their supervisor that can be problematic. If you look at cases of sexual harassment, or rape, or domestic violence – and if they're taken to the courts, as such cases are underreported – oftentimes the woman is put on trial.

Now take that case to the workplace where the woman has to go up against her supervisor, who may have more credibility or more support by more people in the organisation. I think she's going to feel even more threatened to come forward to the courts to file that complaint, because she's going to be seen as having other issues at work.

A lot of times, if women are being sexually harassed and they start to come forward, the next thing they know they're being told 'oooh, you're not producing fast enough', or 'you're making mistakes at this part of your job'. Supervisors end up pushing them into a corner. It's a very very vulnerable position to be in, to be reporting sexual harassment and sexual violence at work.

Penelope: There is definitely an issue of accountability when we talk about these kinds of abuses. That gets even more complicated when we're talking about global supply chains, where there are different layers of supervisors, and contractors, etc. In those types of contexts, how can gender-based violence in the workplace be effectively monitored?

Judy: Monitoring gender-based violence in the workplace is something that has to happen on a deeper level. Global brands have codes of conduct with modules on anti-discrimination, which stipulate that no form of discrimination should happen in the workplace. They instruct all their suppliers to make sure this isn't happening. But again, if you subsume violence at work under this rubric of discrimination, you're not pro-actively trying to address it, to raise awareness about it, and to create sensitivities around it.

A lot of sexual violence at work starts with inappropriate touching. There needs to be zero tolerance for that, because you can't really stop the much worse forms of it if you don't start with that level of consciousness and awareness.

International Labour Conference 2017. International Labour Organization/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Penelope: Gender-based violence is going to be an important agenda item at next year's International Labour Conference at the International Labour Organisation. Does that gives us a good opportunity to think about what an effective international framework for addressing gender-based violence in the workplace might be?

Judy: We absolutely think that if the ILO can be pushed forward to create a convention on violence against women and men in the world of work, then that convention will begin to set a tone for all countries that are members of the ILO: they need to specifically address the issue of violence at work and especially gender-based violence in the workplace.

It really needs to be a convention because then all the countries that are members of the ILO will be looking at what that means for their legislation. They have to make the decision of signing it, of ratifying it, or of adopting it. That pushes legislation forward. It changes the legal frameworks in many other countries, once you have a convention which lays out what binding commitment to these issues look like.

Penelope: Thank you very much for your time.

Judy: Thank you.

About the authors

Judy Gearhart is Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a human rights organisation based in Washington DC that advocates for workers rights around the world.

Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. She holds a BA in Postcolonial Legal Studies from Brown University. Follow Penelope on Twitter @_penelopeCK.


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