The #MeToo movement brought sexual harassment to the spotlight, which resulted in high profile men in the entertainment industry, having to account for their actions. This movement has been instrumental in getting women to talk about sexual harassment. However, in South Africa, although mainstream media has dabbled in the topic, they have hardly hit home to the actual experiences of women in the workplace. Women in South Africa are too afraid to talk about sexual harassment. As South Africa battles with its high unemployment rate, there exists a real fear to speak up.
Women remain the most vulnerable as most women still fulfil fewer superior roles within organisations; they battle unequal pay and must fight to attain or keep positions of power in the patriarchal organisations. Many women fill public relations roles in South Africa versus men.
When it comes to public relations, I have met more women than men working in this capacity and due to the nature of this role, female Public Relations Practitioners (PRPs) are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. PRPs are involved in building, maintaining and nurturing key stakeholder relationships on behalf of organisations. As a result, we find ourselves working very closely with internal and external stakeholders, whether it be members of the internal management team, employees, important clients, or members of the media. The connection is the key to success.
Therefore, the public relations role can make PRPs vulnerable to sexual harassment. Many articles talk about the legalities available if you have experienced sexual harassment and the process to follow within the company. However, if we are brutally honest (which I prefer), there is no process. It’s all about protecting the company, and unfortunately, in a lot of companies, people are viewed as replaceable.
Then when it comes to the justice system in South Africa…well, let’s say that there is very little to say about the so-called justice system in South Africa. Justice only sounds good on paper because, in South Africa, justice is either delayed or denied; thus, in either case, justice is denied. Ask anyone who has tried to take a case to court, especially a claim regarding any form of abuse, they will attest to the lack of justice available to people who report abuse. Unless it’s a case that has received extensive media coverage, you’re lucky if you get your day in court.
Therefore, to protect yourself against sexual harassment in South Africa, your most favourable option as a PRP is to either prevent or stop sexual harassment.
In this blog post, I provide some guidelines on how to protect yourself from sexual harassment in the workplace.
1. Set clear communication boundaries
Limit business communication to one or two communication platforms. You could decide that clients and colleagues, including those in positions of power, may only contact you by calling, SMSing, or emailing. All other platforms are only available to close friends and family, such as Facebook and Whatsapp. Be sure to inform your clients and colleagues about the way they can reach you.
2. Travel in groups
Ensure that you never travel alone with colleagues or clients. There must always be at least three people part of the traveling group, including yourself.
3. Request clear and detailed meeting agendas
When clients or colleagues want to meet, request a comprehensive meeting agenda before confirming a meeting request. By requiring an agenda, you not only save you time by preventing that people waste your time with unnecessary meetings, but if someone is using a meeting as a guise for their personal intentions, then they will cancel the meeting. Be sure to stipulate that you can only meet if you have received a detailed agenda. If you do receive the agenda, also seriously assess the agenda. If this is something you can discuss telephonically and the agenda does not necessitate a meeting, inform the client of this, suggest that a VC will do. If you do meet a client outside the office, make sure that it is within working hours, at a public venue with many other people around.
4. Call them out
If a client has made a request that is crossing the boundaries you have established, then be direct. Call them out when they are crossing your boundaries, and verbalise what you see they are doing. They will probably deny it, but chances are likely they will avoid such conduct in the future as they won’t like that you verbalise what they are doing.
5. Leave work at work.
It's not always possible to leave work at work, I know. In PR especially, your work creeps into your personal life. People have different views on mixing business with their personal life. Some professionals think that the two should blend, and others (including myself) believe that the two should be kept separate. In an ideal world, our work and personal lives could blend easily, but unfortunately, this is an idealistic view. There will be times when work will creep into your personal time, but make this an exception to the rule, as indicated earlier e.g. when a client has a crisis, and you must manage that crisis.
6. Do not engage in comments of your physical appearance
When you are in the workplace, no one should be making comments on your physical appearance. It is unwarranted. It might appear normal, but in the workplace, it is not, especially comments about specific parts of your body. By not responding and not acknowledging it, you discourage such behaviour.
7. Be self-aware of your personal space
Your personal space is the space between you and another individual when engaging in a discussion. Decide how big space must be between you and the person you communicate with for you to feel comfortable. It could range from 500 centimeters to a meter; you decide that, and then make sure that no one crosses that boundary line, by consciously gesturing them away or moving further away when people engage with you.
8. Trust your gut
If the actions of someone makes you uncomfortable, then trust your gut, it is there for a reason. That gut feeling you get that something is wrong, without even having all the evidence, is a natural response to fear. You don’t have to see the whole picture if you trust your gut feeling. Still, by trusting it, you prevent yourself from having to see the entire picture and possibly getting yourself into uncomfortable and dangerous situations.
The advice, as mentioned above, might sound counterintuitive e.g. why must women change the way they work and live to protect themselves; men should know what is right and wrong. In the ideal world, this would be the case. But we don’t live in a perfect world. The reality is that thousands of women are killed, raped, and sexually abused in South Africa. If the world were fair, we wouldn’t have such daunting statistics. The reality is that the world is dangerous, and the predators can be charming, well-liked and respected in the business community, polished head to toe. Therefore, it is very difficult to identify a predator, they look like everyone else, normal.
Your only priority is you and your safety. Your safety is more important than any job, never forget that. You must protect yourself wherever you go, and that means setting boundaries and continually reminding others of those boundaries.