In May, I had the privilege of working with a group of courageous women journalists in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation. They are waging an uphill battle for equality in a country rife with poverty, conflict and cultural barriers.
As part of a one-day workshop, the women drew up a list of obstacles and challenges they face in their profession. Sexual harassment in the office and in the field was part of the discussion.
A young journalist rose to her feet and in a steady voice described fending off sexual advances from a former boss who hinted at a better job if she complied. When she turned him down, her name was removed from the promotion list and she was demoted to a menial position.
“I didn't know what to do. I felt helpless,” she said, as the other women in the room nodded knowingly.
Several others related incidents of sexual innuendos and debasement by male managers, coworkers and sources they encountered as part of the job. Afterward, several of the women told me it was the first time they had spoken openly of the abuse.
Job-related sexual harassment has been a well-known secret among female journalists the world over. We whispered about it with trusted colleagues and friends but few of us talked publicly about the experience. Slowly, this has changed.
The scenarios the women in Juba shared that afternoon reflect a troubling global trend documented in a 2014 survey titled, “Violence and Harassment against Women in the News Media.”
Of the nearly 1,000 respondents, 64.5 percent said they had been harassed in relation to their work, ranging in severity from suggestive sexual remarks and unwanted groping to death threats.
The survey found that most often, bosses, supervisors or co-workers were the culprits. Other offenders included government officials, police and sources.
According to the study, the majority of incidents are never reported for a variety of reasons.
The women feared retaliation, demotion or loss of job if they spoke out. Many lacked channels for reporting the abuse within their media organizations. In some instances, they were advised by a supervisor or colleague not to talk about it or to “grow up” or “forget about it.”
While much has been written about safety strategies for journalists in war zones and other hostile environments, there is little advice on how women can handle intimidation, threats and abuse in their newsrooms and on the job.
Following is a collection of tips gleaned from female journalists over the years. Their wisdom applies anywhere in the world:
- Dress professionally and conduct yourself with confidence and pride in your role as a journalist.
- Make clear that suggestive comments, crude jokes and inappropriate touches are offensive to you. Ask the abuser, “Would you speak to your mother, sister or wife this way? Would you want someone treating them the way you are treating me?
- In a calm but resolute manner remind the guilty party that you are a professional woman and that you demand the same respect that males in the newsroom receive.
- Keep a written record of what was said or done to you. Record time, date, place and your response. Add the names of any witnesses.
- When on risky assignments, wear a ring that could double for a wedding band. Mention a boyfriend or husband even if one doesn’t exist at the time. Fend off offensive behavior by saying, “My husband (or father) would not like you talking (or treating) me this way.”
- If the behavior hinders your work and well being, talk to someone you trust. Check out legal recourse and supportive networks through NGOs or women’s organizations.
- If you are being stalked or fear for your life, go to the authorities. Write down the names of the officers you talk with and request a copy of the report. Ask how quickly they will act. Take a witness to observe their attitude and behavior towards you.
- Here is one I would add: Encourage company management to create a system for reporting sexual harassment, including penalties for offenders. You can view an example of a code of practice for employers here.
If you’re uncertain about what constitutes sexual harassment, the Australian Human Rights Commission lists the various forms here.