16 Ways That Workplaces Can Help Victims and Survivors of Violence Against Women

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, 2018 has seen the conversation about violence against women (VAW) go mainstream with multiple instances of women speaking up about gender-based violence in the workplace. From the notorious case of disgraced Hollywood ex-mogul Harvey Weinstein to NGO leaders in South Africa to government officials in Japan, women across the world are publicly pushing back against hostile work environments that enable toxic masculinity and rape culture.

In the workplace, sexual violence (including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape) can lead to a decrease in productivity, job satisfaction, and attendance, as well as cripple the career advancement of women. However, in many cases, women who have been harassed or assaulted are afraid to speak up due to a fear of retaliation because the men who target them are often in positions of authority and power in the company or organisation. A recent survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on protection of women in workplaces found that 20 out of the 80 countries surveyed had no protection from retaliation for victims who reported sexual harassment at work.

Furthermore, violence faced by women outside the workplace such as rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence can also have a substantial impact on their working life which in turn has a severe impact on the economy. Domestic violence alone costs $9.5 billion in economic loss worldwide. Recent statistics from UN Women are illustrative of this. Here are just a few examples:

  • In Peru: Businesses lost 70 million workdays due to partner violence, equivalent to of GDP in 2013
  • In India: Women had to forgo on average 7 days of paid work per violent incident.
  • In Cambodia: 20% of the women who experienced domestic violence reported that they missed work and their children missed school.

Simply put: VAW is detrimental not just to individual women, but also the wider community around them including their workplaces.

Given the high rates of VAW in workplaces and the intrinsic link between economic independence and reduction in VAW, employers play a critical role in ending VAW. Creating a safe work environment and supporting victims and survivors of violence can go a long way in creating a safer community for women in general.

As a starting point, the article recommends 16 ideas that employers can implement to support victims and survivors of VAW as part of ensuring that their workplace is a healthy and productive one.

Written by Rubina Singh. Additional content by Regina Yau.

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Recommendation For Workplaces #1: Culture Matters – Creating a culture of mutual respect, professionalism, and zero tolerance for harassment is crucial for preventing workplace VAW as well as effectively helping female employees if it happens. Respecting the agency and rights of all female employees; ensuring confidentiality in cases of sexual harassment; having a strict policy against victim-blaming; and providing a safe space and transparent due process for victims to come forward – these are all small but significant steps that an employer can take to create a positive organisational culture.

Recommendation For Workplaces #2: Diversify Your Leadership – Having female leadership is one of the strongest ways to reduce harassment (whether it be illegal or legal, gender- or sexuality-based, targeted at women or men), As part of building a safe, inclusive and equitable work culture, organisations and companies should strive for gender balance in every job at every level.

Recommendation For Workplaces #3: Adopt a Well-Defined Workplace Policy – One of the most important actions that employers can take to prevent VAW in the workplace is to have a comprehensive and inclusive domestic and sexual violence policy. Reinforce your policies with regular educational and training sessions and don’t forget to make sure your policy falls in line with local laws and regulations. Not sure where to begin? Check out this guide from Legal Momentum for some useful tips as well as an anti-sexual harassment policy sample from the ILO.

Recommendation For Workplaces #4: Avoid Restrictive and Destructive Contract Clauses – Many employers include non-disclosure/forced arbitration/internal committee-only clauses in their employee contracts and workplace anti-sexual violence policies. Such clauses are unnecessarily restrictive and lead to a belief that the company is more concerned about protecting sexual predators than providing appropriate remedial measures for victims. This can leave the victim with little to no recourse if they are faced with VAW in the workplace. If you have such clauses in your employee contracts, it’s time to review them together with your legal advisors and to adjust them accordingly.

Recommendation For Workplaces #5: Have a Clear Anti-Retaliation Clause… and Stick to It – Many women do not report sexual harassment in the workplace because of a fear of discrimination and backlash. Being labeled a ‘trouble-maker’ or potentially being retaliated against professionally for accusing a senior male colleague of misconduct can deter women from reporting the attack to management and HR. Letting your female employees know that there will be no discrimination against them if they come forward – and taking them seriously when they do –  is one of the most positive ways to ensure a safer workplace. In addition, take action to ensure that the alleged perpetrator does not personally retaliate against his victim.

Recommendation For Workplaces #6: Issue Workplace Reminders – Do not just announce that a domestic and sexual violence policy in place and then assume that you’ve done your job. Treat your anti-harassment policy as an active one with regular reminders to help employees increase their awareness about the policy and know that you are serious about creating a safe and violence free environment. It is also a good idea to highlight key features of the policy through posters or other display methods in high visibility locations throughout your workplace like the cafeteria, restrooms, and busy corridors.

Recommendation For Workplaces #7: Refuse to Hire Convicted or Known Perpetrators of VAW – If you are aware that a job candidate engages in VAW at work or elsewhere, hiring them will not only endanger your female employees, but also discourage them from coming forward to report any harassment. Refusing to hire known perpetrators will not only make your workplace safer but will also signal your organisation’s stance as an ethical company where VAW will not be tolerated.

Recommendation For Workplaces #8: Human Resources (HR) is Crucial – Training HR to respond appropriately to sexual violence and harassment (instead of victim-blaming or covering for the perpetrator) is critical to supporting victims and survivors. For many employees, HR is the first department they take their complaints to and having informed, sensitive and responsive HR professionals can help to make the experience less painful for the victim.

Recommendation For Workplaces #9: Take Prompt Action – While preventative measures are important in the fight against VAW, if a case of sexual harassment or assault in your organisation comes to light, it is imperative that immediate steps are taken to protect the victim and take action against the alleged perpetrator. Leaving a large gap between the complaint/incident and disciplinary action can put the victim at risk and also lead to a loss of faith in the organisation.

Recommendation For Workplaces #10: Bystander Intervention Training – Training all employees to recognise signs of VAW and effectively intervene when they see it happening can provide immediate support in instances of VAW in the workplace. Such training will encourage and empower employees to become more aware about VAW (and how to be upstanders instead of bystanders), to support their female colleagues, as well as collectively maintain a safe workplace for women.

Recommendation For Workplaces #11: Take The (Workplace) Temperature – An annual anonymous workplace environment survey is a great way to understand your employees and their perception of your organisation. Such surveys may also help the employer understand the kind of harassment faced by employees, as well as causal factors and potential solutions to ensure safety. If your organisation already conducts an annual employee survey, check that it includes a section for feedback about workplace harassment and bullying. Check out a sample survey here.

Recommendation For Workplaces #12: Prioritise Safety for Female Employees – If a job puts your female employees at risk of harassment, it is your responsibility to make sure you provide adequate security to prevent and ameliorate such incidents. Jobs that routinely require an employee to engage with clients or third parties, within or outside the workplace would be a prime example. Recently, female sports reporters in Brazil set up a campaign to advocate for their security at work after a journalist was forcibly kissed by an interviewee on air.  In such high-contact professions, a risk assessment survey for employee safety can be the first step to understand and find solutions for safety from VAW.

Recommendation For Workplaces #13: Pay Attention to Medical Insurance – VAW has an enormous impact on a woman’s mental and physical health. Providing medical coverage which also includes mental health services can offer immense support for female employees who are facing domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault or any other form of VAW.

Recommendation For Workplaces #14: Support Employees Beyond the Workplace – While many forms of VAW such as domestic violence and street harassment occur outside the workplace, they can impact productivity at work. To mitigate or counter the negative effects of VAW across the board, there are a whole range of solutions employers implement including flexible working hours, security measures, and even safe transportation to and from the workplace to help female employees retain their jobs and stay safe. Check out Make It Our Business, Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence and Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence for some useful tips and resources on this front.

Recommendation For Workplaces #15: Support Organisations Working to Stop VAW – Donating a portion of your profits to an anti-VAW organisation will go a long way in supporting survivors of VAW. Also consider partnering with an anti-VAW organisation on a volunteer program to get your board, management, and employees actively involved with addressing the issue because hands on experience will not only increase their awareness and understanding of VAW but also encourage them to take action to support efforts to make your organisation is safer and more equitable place for women to work. This experience may even help hardcore sexist male employees and management begin treating their female co-workers with respect which will in turn lead to a healthier workplace.

Recommendation For Workplaces #16: Finally, Give VAW Survivors A Fighting Chance – Survivors can often find it difficult to obtain or hold a job there is still a cultural stigma attached to being a victim of VAW. If you have employees who are VAW survivors, do what you can to support them instead if firing them. If you are interviewing a candidate and discover that they are a survivor, don’t hold that against them. And if you are inclined to go the extra mile, actively hiring survivors in a safe work environment can help to change the cultural narrative around VAW and support survivors in becoming financially independent. For example, a café in India is run entirely by survivors of acid attacks aiding in their rehabilitation and independence. Remember: many VAW survivors who are actively searching for work are in the process of rebuilding their lives and are determined to do well at work.

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