Singapore: Harassment of women in workplace leads to low productivity, strained relationships

Women who experience sexual harassment at work often go through extended periods of low work productivity and have lower job satisfaction due to strained relationships with colleagues, a study by women’s rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has found.

Many of them end up quitting their job and spending months or years out of work, and eventually take up lower-paying jobs.

The findings were released on Dec. 8 in the report ‘I Quit’: Career and Financial Effects of Workplace Sexual Harassment on Women in Singapore, which looked at the impact of workplace sexual harassment on women’s careers.

Aware said that in the short term, the harassed women reported becoming less productive at work and having strained relations with coworkers, resulting in lower job satisfaction.

In the long term, sexual harassment at the workplace has also pushed women to leave their jobs or leave their industries, and some had to move to lower-paying jobs, impacting their economic security, said Aware.

Responding to the study on the same day, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) said in a joint statement that the government does not tolerate any form of workplace harassment.

The qualitative study concluded last year, and involved 39 women who responded to Aware’s public call for respondents.

They ranged from 23 to 58 years old, and worked in a range of industries, with banking and finance being the most common.

They had all experienced sexual harassment in the past five years. These included verbal harassment, such as being propositioned or having crude remarks made about their body, and physical harassment, such as being touched inappropriately at work without consent.

For instance, 28 of them were subject to crude remarks or inappropriate propositions, such as having co-workers comment on their bodies or being asked to go out late at night, and 24 of them experienced unwelcome behavior such as being touched inappropriately and massaged without consent.

These instances of harassment took place at the office, during business trips, work drinks, and also online.

The majority of the perpetrators were bosses or senior staff in the respondents’ workplace.

The study also found that more than half of the respondents — 22 of them — did not file any official complaint. Of the 17 respondents who did, five experienced retaliation from their employers and the perpetrators, such as getting negative performance reviews, being denied their bonuses, or even being asked to leave.

Some said they took leave to avoid their harassers, while others went to great lengths to avoid their harassers while at work.

In some instances, the women were also ostracized by their colleagues who felt that they were making a mountain out of a molehill.

One respondent described how she tried her best to “find every excuse … to come in late, leave early,” after being harassed by her supervisor and clients. She said her work environment turned hostile and she was taken off important projects.

Another respondent who was verbally harassed by her colleagues said people started whispering whenever she walked into the workplace and would also sit far away from her, which “totally changed my attitude towards colleagues.”

Of the study’s 39 respondents, 22 quit their jobs after being sexually harassed at work, while two were fired.

Five respondents said they had been forced to leave their industries altogether after being harassed, for fear of having to meet their harasser again.

Two said they were left with no choice after their reputations had been tarnished by their highly positioned harassers, which made it difficult for them to find employment in the same industry.

As a result of these changes in their careers, many of the women ended up taking lower-paying jobs, or becoming freelancers or part-timers, and earning less than they used to, said Aware.