Women At Work: Preventing Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

By Evangeline Majawat

At 23, Jessica* was enjoying her first job as a copywriter at a multinational advertising agency. She put in long hours at work, often finishing only after midnight. Her work time was irregular and she sometimes went into the office even on weekends. “I saw more of my colleagues than my family and boyfriend,” she reminisces.

One day, Jessica and her immediate boss were on their way to a meeting when he decided to swing by his home. “He said he needed to pick something up,” she explains. She did not see any harm in that and went along with him. “We were already on the road when he told me so I didn’t have much choice,” she says.

Upon reaching his home, he invited her in and dropped comments that his wife was out. “Alarm bells went off in my head but I kept calm,” she recalls. “I only freaked out when he said something along the lines of how I could be promoted and paid higher if only I was willing to do ‘some things’. I was out of that door in a flash!”

Jessica is one of the lucky few whose encounter is considered mild. A week after the incident, the whole company was rocked by a scandal involving the same boss. He had tried to kiss and grope one of the secretaries in the company. When confronted, he denied it and blamed the victim. The victim made a police report but was persuaded by management to retract it. It was then that a petition was circulated and upper management took action against the manager.

Jessica regrets not reporting her incident to the Human Resources (HR) department at her workplace. “As a victim, you somehow feel guilty. That maybe…just maybe that it could have been your fault. And it’s worse when he is your boss. You feel trapped,” she says, ruefully.

Independent feminist organisation All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) describes sexual harassment as “one of the most common forms of violence against women”. It happens when someone receives unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. This includes verbal and non-verbal, psychological, emotional and physical forms.

AWAM assistant programme officer Hew Li-Sha explains that something as simple as catcalls, wolf-whistles and jokes can be considered sexual harassment. “The definition of sexual harassment is vague because it is dependent on the victim. Any behaviour (of a sexual nature) that makes a person uncomfortable is considered sexual harassment,” she explains. A photo of a topless Robert Downey Jr. might be harmless fun to you but could be making your colleague uneasy.

As of June 2011, the Ministry of Human Resources has investigated some 300 sexual harassment cases at the workplace since the implementation of the Sexual Harassment Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 1999. Based on the overall data, only 30 cases were reported each year.

This is a poor figure and does not show the real picture according to activists and lawyers. Many have blamed poor enforcement of a safe workplace, proper mechanism to deal with such complaints and lack of importance placed on the issue by employers as reasons behind the dismal figures.

Lawyer Mustaffa Md. Ali said sexual harassment is rarely highlighted in the workplace because people assume the victims should “just handle it”. “I think there is an element of ‘jaga air muka’ (face-saving) too. The victims are embarrassed so they don’t complain or if they do, lax action is taken,” he opines.

The offenders are bullies too. Victims also often blame themselves, are afraid to report the incident and try to rationalise the offender’s behaviour or actions. “What if HR does not believe me, will I lose my job, what happens if the perpetrator is found not guilty, did I lead him or her on? A lot of questions go through the victim’s mind and determine whether she or he reports the incident,” Mustaffa explains.

He is keen to stress that sexual harassment at the workplace can happen to anyone and is not limited to the fairer sex. AWAM describes sexual harassment as “gender blind”. Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or man, or of the same sex.

“All employers are responsible when it comes to creating a safe working environment. Victims of sexual harassment at the workplace must be given quick redress to nip the problem in the bud and set good examples. Employers must be strict about it,” says Mustaffa.

But what happens if the offender is the boss?

Hew from AWAM says the Employment (Amendments) Act 2012 outlines the employer’s responsibility to report all incidences of sexual harassment. “It is difficult (if the offender is the boss) but the act, which came to force only in April last year, makes it the employer’s legal obligation to report all incidences of sexual harassment,” she says. This means HR cannot brush off any complaints.

The effects of sexual harassment at the workplace are often depression, anxiety, reduced work performance, low self-esteem, insomnia and nausea. Hew says if you suspect a family member, friend or colleague is being sexually harassed at work, you should step in and help them find the right information.“The best thing to do is to empower them. Give them access to information, talk to them,” she says. “It’s important to tell them that they’re not guilty and that they are not alone in this.”

Jessica wishes she had the courage to speak up earlier. “I am now wiser. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you’re being harassed at work but in order for something to change, we must speak up.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy


What to do if you have been or are being sexually harassed?

Courtesy of All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)


  • Tell the harasser that you don’t like his actions and that you want him to stop.
  • If the harassment continues, file a complaint at your Human Resources department or your union representative.
  • Keep all evidence of the harassment for e.g. emails, texts etc.
  • Keep written accounts of the harassment including date, time, the harasser’s name and how the incident(s) happened.
  • If no action is taken or there is no one you can report this to within your organisation or company, you may lodge a report with the Labour Department or the police.
  • Tell a trusted colleague who can give you emotional support.
  • Contact AWAM or a women’s NGO for help and guidance.

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work or know of anyone going through it, get in touch with AWAM volunteers for advice and support at TELENITA 03-7877 0224

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