SINGAPORE, Dec 8 — When Sarah, who works at a financial services firm, visited a client’s house to assist him to open an account last year, she was forced to perform a sexual act and later found that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from him.
Fearing for her safety after he had asked her to return to his house for another meeting, Sarah, which is not her real name, made a police report, which caused the perpetrator to threaten to sue her and use his connections to ensure she lost her job.
“He said that he was going to sue me until I was bankrupt and that he was going to make me lose my job if I did not take back the police report,” said Sarah, who is aged in her early thirties.
“Of course I felt very scared. This person has more money than me and I need my job.”
Sarah, who did not withdraw the police report and still works at the company, is among the many women here who have experienced career disruptions following workplace sexual harassment, a study by gender-equality organisation, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has found.
The qualitative study, released today looks at the effects of such harassment on women, based on interviews conducted in 2019 and 2020 with 39 working women, who had experienced harassment across various industries in Singapore in the last five years.
It found that workplace sexual harassment has a long-lasting effect on these women — slightly more than one in two respondents, or 22 out of 39, quit their jobs after experiencing harassment while one in four respondents changed career paths.
Out of the respondents who quit their jobs, 15 quit primarily because of workplace sexual harassment while the remaining quit for a combination of reasons, including harassment.
Additionally, two respondents were fired from their jobs as a result of the harassment.
Aware said that the harassment ranged from verbal, which is most common, to physical and technology-facilitated, and took place at the office, outside the office such as on business trips or at work drinks, and online.
The majority of perpetrators were either respondents’ bosses or senior staff members in their organisations, while others were colleagues or peers, clients, subordinates, strangers or students.
Seven in 10 respondents had been employed for less than a year at their companies when the harassment took place.
The study found that other long-term effects include a reduction in work productivity that nine in 10 respondents experienced after facing workplace sexual harassment. This reduction lasted for an average of 2.8 months, from the point of harassment to the time that respondents left their jobs or opted for department transfers.
It also found that 21 respondents — or 54 per cent — reported a dip in income as a result of unemployment or working in lower-paying jobs after experiencing workplace sexual harassment.
Shailey Hingorani, head of Aware’s workplace harassment and discrimination advisory, said survivors of workplace sexual harassment leave their jobs to put an end to the harassment or because of subsequent mental health impacts or negative reporting experiences, among others.
“On the other hand, if they receive supportive first responses from colleagues, assistance from human resources trained in sensitive grievance handling, and protective measures against retaliation, they may not need to resort to such a drastic step.”
This study builds on Aware’s earlier survey with market research company Ipsos, which found that seven in 10 workers in Singapore who were sexually harassed at the workplace in the past five years chose not to report their experiences.
And among those who reported their cases, one in five of the victims had to reconcile with the fact that the culprit faced no consequences despite there being evidence of the harassment.
Only two in five victims who reported their cases had the culprit reassigned or dismissed.
Correspondingly, this study found that more than half of respondents did not file official reports about their harassment.
Of the 17 respondents who did, five experienced retaliation from the organisations they work for or perpetrators, in the form of negative performance reviews, denial of bonuses and even termination of employment.
Hingorani said while the psychological and emotional impacts of workplace sexual harassment are fairly well-known, its implications on an individual’s career and finances have not previously been highlighted in Singapore.
“This research adds dimension to the troubling picture of workplace harassment, so we can better understand the full extent of its damage — what it really does to a person’s life,” she added.
To tackle workplace sexual harassment here, Aware recommends that the government enact laws to deal with workplace sexual harassment and mandate that employers create well-defined sexual harassment policies and implement gender-sensitive training in the workplace.
Aware also suggested measures to provide protection to both survivors and witnesses of such sexual harassment to reduce the possibility of retaliation in the workplace, among others.
“Victim-survivors of workplace sexual harassment are simply looking to earn a living and pursue their professional goals. Instead, through no fault of their own, and on top of emotional trauma, they are beset with a wide range of harms — some of which have repercussions for the rest of their lives,” said Hingorani.
“If that unfairness is not compelling enough, we hope that the economic costs associated with workplace harassment, such as turnover and reduced productivity, can encourage Singapore’s businesses and government to take greater action.”
Government to take recommendations into consideration
The Ministry of Manpower and Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) said in a joint statement today that the government constantly reviews its approach in tackling harassment and will take the recommendations in Aware’s report into consideration.
“The government does not tolerate any form of workplace harassment, including workplace sexual harassment. Our agencies work closely with partners to manage such cases and support affected employees,” the statement read.
The agencies added that Tafep has been working with Aware since 2019 to refer cases of harassment in the workplace to the alliance upon obtaining the consent of the individual involved.
“We have reached out to Aware to seek the consent of the 39 clients mentioned in its report for referral to Tafep. There are safeguards in place to protect those who come forward.
“The police and Tafep ensure all cases reported are handled sensitively and with strict confidentiality. The Employment Act and Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices protect anyone who reports workplace harassment incidents from wrongful dismissal or discriminatory treatment at work,” said the tripartite partners.
They urged individuals who encounter workplace sexual harassment to seek assistance from Tafep’s Workplace Harassment Resource and Recourse Centre by calling 6838 0969 or filing a report at https://www.tal.sg/tafep/contact-us. — TODAY