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Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

How can women counter sexual harassment in the workplace? DW’s officer for equal opportunities, Bettina Burkart has some great tips.

WTO: What are the common problems that women face in the workplace?

Bettina Burkart: It’s not very easy to talk about it because a lot of this is not out in the open. I’ve been doing this job for seven years now and I have just one woman who came to me, to sort of complain, to tell me what was going on, but with the attitude of “please don’t do anything, because I am grown up, I can deal with it, but you should just know.”

WTO: But just for reference, what are the kinds of problems women could face?

I think the kind we see the most is the ‘light’ one: sentences which you don’t like to hear, the way you look at someone or being touched. Most of it is not a big deal, but women don’t like it. Then there is a difference between workplaces. The more the power gap between the offender and the victim, the worse it gets.

WTO: What do you mean by the “power gap?”

For example, women who have a short-term contract, they are dependent. The power lies with the employer or the person above her. Many men and women work on short-term contracts and they want the next contract and so on. You are dependent on your boss. You won’t say, “I don’t like the way you look at me or the way you make sexual comments,” because you want the next contract. The other point is, which I hear a lot, if a man makes a comment and you say, “stop,” he will say, “Come on, you’re an emancipated woman, you’re old enough, it’s just fun.”

WTO: What would you do under such circumstances?

Deutsche Welle’s Gender Equality Officer Bettina Burkart

If the situation allows it, you should stand up and say, “Let’s please talk about this situation seriously. I don’t like this and I’m asking you to stop it.” I think a lot of men, when they get this kind of an answer, will really stop. If you’re unsure and don’t know what to do, you’re afraid of losing your job, then go to the equality officer, to the human resources or the superior, maybe there is a female boss. I think women should stand up more, because if they do go to court, then the employers have to pay damages and the offender loses his job.

WTO: As an employee, one can’t complain about everything. At what level should a woman go and complain to the equality officer?

One thing is very important- the definition of what is sexual harassment lies with the woman. You may feel something is sexual harassment, but I may say, no. It’s the woman’s decision. If you do come across such things once in a while you can say, “He’s the idiot,” and forget about it. But if something continues, then you have to tell this person to stop otherwise the man may just go on and on.

WTO:  What happens in a multicultural organization like the Deutsche Welle where cultures may even clash once in a while?

Maybe it’s even easier in such a situation. If you find something offensive, you can go to this guy and say, “This may be normal in your culture. But I am not from your cultural background and I want to be treated differently.” I think there is awareness about cultural differences.

WTO:  What would you suggest as an option for women in South Asian countries where they cannot really complain against sexual harassment sometimes? What can they do at a personal level?

It’s a difficult question. I think, say a woman from the Indian middle class can stand up for herself. I think it’s important to form a self-help group, make them aware if you have been a victim of sexual harassment, so you all come together and say, no whatever has happened was not good. You could go as a group to your superior. You could even try and find male colleagues to support you. The most important thing is, don’t stay alone and get even more frightened. Find help and put your experience out in the public domain to raise awareness.

Interviewer: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

Editor: Grahame Lucas


08.07.2014 | 9:00