Are Workplaces Safe For Women? Protect Yourself By Knowing The Law
In 2012, Irene* was a fresh college graduate hired by an educational institution in Makati as a research assistant. “I think I really enjoyed the idea of my job back then,” she says. “I was a graduate of International Studies and dreamed of becoming a diplomat.”
Photo by Seven Barretto
When she remembers her first job out of college, however, Irene recalls not the thrill of earning her first paycheck, or the transition to adulthood. Instead, she looks back to her “worst nightmare,” which started when her boss—a prominent politician and government official—started taking advantage of their working relationship.
“At the beginning, I noticed he was touchy… would touch my arm or hand, and sometimes when we would walk together, even when we're not alone, he would put his hand on my lower back. I felt uncomfortable but tried to not think about it too much.” Irene studied in an all-girls school, and thought she just wasn’t used to the situation.
“Then it got worse, he would do it more often, and put his hands on me longer,” she says. Her officemates, including the executive director, saw what was happening, but to her frustration, did not do anything about it.
Irene’s boss was influential and had strong political affiliations. “People were scared of him, including myself—I really felt like I didn't have a voice. Or I was thinking, ‘What if I do something about it, and they don't believe me?’”
But the unwanted touching was not the end of it. “One time, he went [to the office] to give me chocolates, [and] when he was leaving, he told me to give him a hug. I said no [but] he put his arm around me. No one saw us because it was inside our center, so I remember crying so much after that because I felt so violated.”
“On a late afternoon, after an event, he told me to go to his office again—I thought our executive director went straight there but it was just us. He then told me to sit beside him and then proceeded to invite me to his ‘10-hectare hacienda in Tarlac.’ The last straw was when he told me to kiss him. I said I didn't want to and I excused myself, [but] he kissed me,” Irene recalls.
“He let me leave after that [because] I was crying [already]. It was my worst nightmare.”
How the law protects women in the office
Across Asia, including the Philippines, studies show that 30 to 40 percent of women experience workplace harassment, according to 2001 data from UN Women. In 2016, Social Weather Stations published a survey stating that three out of five Filipino women have experienced sexual harassment. The survey does not specify how many women experienced harassment in the workplace.
Coming up with relevant data on sexual harassment—let alone sexual harassment in the workplace—is difficult. Sexual harassment is in itself is a loose term, says Alyana*, who works in a law firm. “Nowadays, people use the term very loosely because in reality, the coverage of RA 7877 is very limited. In any case, I experience it almost on a daily basis when people make sexual jokes and remarks towards me.”
In psychology, sexual harassment is “unwanted or unwelcome sex-related behavior that is appraised by the recipient as offensive, exceeding his or her resources, or threatening his or her well-being,” says Rica Cruz, counseling psychologist at the Ateneo Bulatao Center for Psychological Services. “It is different from the legal definition as it focuses on the viewpoint and the impact of the sexual act to the recipient.”
There lies the difficulty: Alyana’s experience—of sexual jokes and offensive remarks—may not qualify as sexual harassment, or at least warrant a sexual harassment complaint, if RA 7877 is to be read on its own. RA 7877 (the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995), instead of providing an inclusive definition, only describes sexual harassment in terms of a work-related, training, or education-related environment, where it can occur in the form of sexual favors sought as a condition for employment, for benefits, or to pass a grade; sexual favors that impair the employee’s rights; or sexual favors that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the employee.
Later on, the Supreme Court clarified in Domingo v. Rayala that the sexual favors need not be articulated, but can be implied from acts such as body contact, making statements with sexual overtones, initiating inappropriate conversations, and giving promises of future privileges. Such acts produce a hostile work environment, as indicated in RA 7877.
But while highlighting that harassment comes in the form of sexual favors, nowhere does the law specifically mention sexual harassment in the form of jokes or remarks that might annoy, demean, or humiliate an employee, some of which are committed by co-workers or even friends. Under RA 7877, possible offenders are limited to those who have any kind of “authority, influence or moral ascendancy” over the employee, student, or trainee.
“That is the limitation of RA 7877—it’s going to be top-down. It does not cover peer-to-peer harassment, or subordinate to superior,” says Nayie Caga-anan, a volunteer human rights lawyer for the Urduja Women’s Rights Desk and program coordinator for the International Development Law Organization. “The law should recognize that sexual harassment [also] happens peer-to-peer … [there should be] more of a recognition that these types of harassment ca be committed by different kinds of people regardless of their stature.”
But policies and materials implementing RA 7877 may expand the definition to include a wider gamut of acts than contemplated by law. The best example, says Caga-anan, is the Civil Service Commission’s administrative rules on sexual harassment cases, or Resolution No. 01-0940.
The resolution outlines specific forms of sexual harassment, persons liable (liability is more comprehensive than that in RA 7877), places where it can be committed (outside the workplace, or by mere text), the procedure in forming a Committee on Decorum and Investigation (CODI) and filing a complaint.
While Resolution No. 01-0940 is only applicable to government employees, it still is a useful instrument to understand sexual harassment. Caga-anan says, “We use the CSC guidelines to guide private corporations and provide examples to formulate sexual harassment policies … they can be used to shed light on whether or not [an act] is sexual harassment.”
Sexual harassment as discrimination
As Caga-anan says, where the law has gaps, company policies can step up by drafting more comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policies.
“We emphasize in the policy that it’s unwelcome sexual conduct,” says Norbert,* a human resources manager for a BPO company in Quezon City. “It always is the point of view the victim, kasi paiba-iba ‘yung tolerance ng mga tao,” he says.
Norbert’s BPO company uses an online feedback tool and encourages employees to approach human relations personnel to report instances of sexual harassment. “But we always require the person to write something,” he says. “We also tell the person, for their safety … to have the document notarized so it becomes a public document. Like an affidavit,” he adds.
The law requires the creation of a committee (referred above as the CODI) to receive and investigate cases of sexual harassment. In Norbert’s company, the committee is comprised of a rank-and-file employee, a manager, a supervisor, and an HR personnel to facilitate the investigation.
“These employees should have good moral standing and a good record in the company,” Norbert says. “The committee would vote if there has been a violation, and proper sanctions would be applied.”
While mechanisms exist to address sexual harassment in the workplace, many of those who have been harassed tend to keep quiet, blame themselves for what happened, or shrug the experience off. “Those who experienced sexual assault would usually have feelings of blame and self-guilt. Self-blame can be considered an avoidance coping skill,” says Cruz, who provides counseling for victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Blaming one’s self can be behavioral or characterological. Behaviorally, “they may feel that they could have prevented the attack if they had a difference appearance, wore a different dress, behaved differently, etcetera,” says Cruz. Characterologically, “they may feel that they deserve what happened to them because there's something inherently wrong with their characters.”
Irene, who has since moved to another job after reporting her experience in her first workplace, says in retrospect that she wished she did not second-guess herself. “What I learned about harassment is that hindi siya dine-define ng harasser or ng other people,” she says. Irene’s boss eventually resigned from the workplace, after the institution decided to investigate her case further.
“If the person in the situation says she’s uncomfortable or if she feels violated in any way, that’s harassment already. It’s not up to how other people see it,” Irene adds. “If I had that kind of self-awareness back then, maybe I could have been stronger. Kasi I was always thinking, baka I’m putting malice into it lang, making excuses for him when he was the one who disrespected me.”
The courage to report instances of sexual harassment is also as important as the support of colleagues in the workplace. “I really valued the friendships I made with colleagues during my stay, but I was also worried how they'll take it. Will they act differently around me? Will they believe me?”
But Alyana, who ignores the sexual jokes and offensive remarks out of a sense of “pakikisama,” faces a different conundrum. “I guess with the close relationships of everyone in the office, sadly, some form of sexual harassment is somewhat tolerated … what hinders people from formally lodging a complaint kahit na sometimes offensive na 'yung joke is that you don’t want to be seen as a prude or someone who's very uptight.”
These reasons call for a change in the way we see sexual harassment, one that transcends traditional perceptions of sexual misconduct. “Sexual harassment is [also] discrimination – it accepts a person’s capacity or access to the workplace,” says Caga-anan. “It’s discrimination because you can’t have a fruitful or productive life if you suffer from or experience harassment in the workplace.”
“Why does harassment happen? The root of it, especially for women, [is] because there is a concept of ownership over a women’s body. You can tell jokes, you can ask if she’s a virgin,” she adds. Societal values and gender-based roles carry over to the workplace, by way of the sex-role spillover theory, says Cruz. “It is exacerbated by having a highly skewed ratio of the sexes at work. The sex roles associated with the majority sex become incorporated into the work roles.”
While the law catches up to public sentiment and small victories – what with the #MeToo campaign, the Tres Marias Bill amending laws on sexual harassment, and various survivors coming out through social media—Cruz gives simple advice, addressed to friends, colleagues, and other office personnel, to support and empower those who go through sexual harassment at work.
“Create support groups. Include sexual awareness in psychoeducation. Provide sexual consent and sexual awareness workshops and seminars in the workplace. Encourage gender equality,” she says. “[And] always guide them to the right people for support. Talk to them with empathy and understanding. Be aware of victim-blaming responses, and stop yourselves before verbalizing them. Encourage them to go to a professional for healing.”
*Real names withheld upon request. This article was originally published in Metro Magazine March 2018 issue.