by Thu Van
It has taken a while, but sexual harassment at the workplace has been officially acknowledged as a problem.
The nation's first-ever code of conduct for the workplace was issued late last month. It is expected to help workers recog-nise sexual harassment and protect themselves. For instance, the code lists winking, touching, or commenting on a co-worker's clothes as acts that can be considered sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is a real problem that needs to be tackled seriously, but finding an effective solution is not easy. While victims need help, legal and otherwise, I feel they also need to recognise that they should empower themselves.
The workplace code of conduct has already attracted criticism. Many say that it is more of a suggested guideline by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Welfares than a legal document. It does not mention punishments for violations, and it is very difficult to prove sexual harassment.
Trinh Hoa Binh, Director of the Institute of Social Science, is skeptical about the feasibility of the code.
"Sexual harassment is a very sensitive issue in Viet Nam, where the Oriental culture still prevails. Women still have to face discrimination, at home and at work, and they often have the tendency to hide the fact that they were harassed for fear of losing jobs or (being subjects of) public gossip," he said.
Very true. In Viet Nam, it is women who are most often victims of sexual harassment, because it is still a country greatly influenced by Confucianism, which clearly and emphatically subordinates women's interests and rights.
While it is true that modern times have given modern women more equality, the Confucian culture still dominates. It is understandable then that harassed women keep silent and do not speak out. If the harasser is a boss - they can lose their job and/or face hostility from the boss as well as other colleagues who want to stay in the good books of the person responsible for their appraisals and promotions. If the harasser is a colleague, it is also likely that he would have the seniors' sympathy. At the end of the day, the human resources department will protect the company, not an individual.
Regarding the unbinding nature of the code, a lawyer acquaintance said he thought the issue should be legalised, with punishments mandated for violations.
Personally, I feel that a different solution should be considered and acted upon, given the complicated court procedures that prevail in Viet Nam.
If her safety isn't at risk, a woman is best off handling the harassment herself.
Consider this: Even if the issue is legalised, the experience in many developed countries is that it's not easy to bring a sexual harassment case to court. Most sexual harassment at workplace isn't severe enough to hold up in court, and the law isn't strong enough to protect the victims from most types of retaliation, which are subtle: fewer invitations to events, a cubicle that isolates you from office networks, and boring project assignments.
For me, the way it works is that you have to protect yourself before anyone else has to get involved. It is "so over" that a woman is seen as weak and needing protection. Modern, well educated women are and should be strong enough to handle things themselves.
They can choose to be tough, be bold, be serious, and I'm sure their attitude that can prevent unwanted behaviour.
Two of my friends have experienced sexual harassment at their workplace, and their different reactions vindicate the point I am making.
One friend works at a hospital, where she says the work pressure is quite high. Many senior doctors use this work pressure as an excuse for engaging in verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with other female colleagues, especially nurses. They say such acts "ease" their stress and nothing more needs to be read into it.
My friend, as well as many others at the hospital, have gradually accepted this, although it pisses her off. "If I speak out, others will probably look at me and ask what's wrong with me - it's so ‘normal' in the hospital, why make a fuss about it," she said.
My other friend works in an office dominated by males. She is "hot," and takes good care of her appearance, and is bound to attract attention from males. But she is also smart and tough enough to make them keep a proper distance.
It was not always thus. Initially, she was continually bothered by verbal flirtations from a colleague, which she thought was just "fun" at first. But this developed gradually to occasionally touching and other physical contact. Her approach was to talk directly to the ‘gentleman,' explaining clearly to him that his acts were bothering her and ask him sincerely to stop that. She thought she would try this approach at first and if it did not work, she would consider other approaches. But it worked like magic. And I believe she not only prevented trouble for herself and the harasser, but also earned his respect, and that of others.
Of course, she might have been fortunate that her colleague was essentially a decent person. What if this is not the case? I am not very sure, but I would hope that the woman is strong enough to quit and look for a better work environment. It's very simple, really: An organisation that can't ensure that the working conditions are suitable for both women and men might not be the best place for working.
Sexual harassment can inflict emotional and physical stress on the victims, affecting their job performance, and eventually, affect an enterprise's productivity and competitiveness. I feel there is so much to do in this world that a woman does not have to work in companies that generate and foster a boys' club atmosphere. There are also a lot of men who feel alienated in such an atmosphere. Maybe women and such men can get together and demonstrate a workplace culture that does not discriminate unfairly against anyone. Surely that is something worthwhile to work for. — VNS