What will it take to stop sexual harassment?

The first – and thankfully only time – I experienced sexual harassment in the workplace was during my first job after university.

I was a bright-eyed 21-year-old, and a few months into my new position, I realised I had captured the uninvited attention of a 40-something male colleague.

It started innocently enough with a stray compliment here and there, first on my outfit, then on my smile.

One day he happened to see my mum leaving the office after meeting me for lunch, and he emailed me to say that he knew where I got my good looks from.

That was the first time I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

This continued over a few months – me trying to avoid interactions with him, but when they were inevitable, his comments on my appearance and questions about my relationship status became bolder.

Eventually, this led to him inviting me to a basketball game for which he said he had a spare ticket (I politely declined).

Although I didn’t yet have a law degree, I did have the presence of mind to confide in a co-worker, who, despite being the same age as me, was far more street-wise and far more direct in telling him to shove off.

And just like that, the advances stopped, which is all I wanted.

Now, more than a decade later and with several years of experience as a lawyer and women’s rights advocate under my belt, I still occasionally reflect on that experience, not because it was particularly traumatic or even induced feelings of fear or anxiety in me, but for the very opposite reason: I hadn’t registered it as sexual harassment.

Yes, I knew my colleague’s conduct was unprofessional and inappropriate, and yes, I thought he was a bit of a creep.

It wasn’t until many years later, after I joined Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), and began working with representatives from other women’s groups on draft sexual harassment legislation for Malaysia that I thought back on this experience and identified my colleague’s behaviour as what it actually was and what it potentially could have escalated to.

I thought about this again a few weeks ago when WAO and research company Vase.ai launched the results of a survey collaboration on women’s experiences of harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Reviewing the responses, I was struck by what I felt was a sharp discrepancy.

While 62 per cent of women – when presented with specific examples of behaviours constituting sexual harassment – said they had experienced one or more of these behaviours in the workplace, when separately asked to categorise certain behaviours as sexual harassment versus simply as unprofessional, women often did not identify the behaviours as being sexual harassment.

The survey found that 50 per cent of women do not consider repeatedly someone making advances towards a person who has already declined them to be a form of sexual harassment. Instead they classify it as unprofessional behaviour.

Today, being part of the women’s rights world, it’s hard not to find this statistic shocking. But when I think back to my own experience all those years ago, I get it.

In view of my own experience and the experiences of Malaysian women reflected in the recent survey results, I believe that awareness is key.

Awareness comes from many places. It comes from the media we consume, from the messaging we’re exposed to and from the law.

The law prescribes behaviour and reminds us of our rights, and this is exactly why we need a Sexual Harassment Act.

A Sexual Harassment Act will ensure that anyone, from a university student, to a bright-eyed young professional, to a person simply trying to enjoy fresh air in a public space, will not only be able to identify sexual harassment when she experiences it, but can seek the recourse she needs.

It could be an apology, compensation, or simply the assurance that it will stop and that she will be able to continue living her life.

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