Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh is a high-profile name in Kuala Lumpur, having been one of the youngest Malaysian women to head a government agency for corporate innovation.
So when she spoke up in July 2017 about having been sexually harassed by an American investor while negotiating a deal for her agency, it stirred up a storm of debate in the country.
The incident happened in 2014 but Yeoh only broke her silence after another woman disclosed this year that she had been harassed by the same investor.
Her story lit a spark, which advocates hope will push Malaysian organisations to take sexual harassment more seriously. It has certainly prompted many women to come forward with their own stories, including on a radio talkshow.
Animah Kosai, a lawyer and advocate for making better workplaces, said she had received many messages from women disclosing verbal harassment such as vulgar jokes at their expense, as well as from women who had been physically harassed. Some of these messages had come from abroad.
While Yeoh’s experience took place in Kuala Lumpur, sexual harassment is undoubtedly also a blight on workplaces in other parts of the world as well.
In July 2017, a Singapore lawyer was disbarred following a complaint from his assistant that he had tried to take advantage of her after tricking her into entering a hotel room in 2013. The Singapore media reported last year that the Association of Women for Action and Research had received more than 250 reports of sexual harassment in the previous year.
Similarly in Hong Kong, an equal rights watchdog’s 2015 survey on sexual harassment at work found that one-fifth of the female respondents had been harassed but many did not report it. Most of the victims were from ‘vulnerable groups’ in the service sector such as retail, healthcare and catering.
Like Malaysia, these countries also have legal provisions against sexual harassment but enforcement remains difficult.
The number of actual cases in Malaysia is unknown because sexual harassment at work tends to be handled internally and is also often under-reported, said Yu Ren Chung, advocacy manager for Women’s Aid Organisation of Malaysia.
But he said these anecdotal stories suggest that it’s not uncommon, and that there is also a fairly high level of awareness of this issue.
“People may not know the details of the law but they do know that they do not want to be subjected to such behaviour,” he said.
Yet he noted that very few companies have actually taken the topic seriously, citing as an example the ‘Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ which had been adopted by only a few hundred companies despite having been in place since 1999.
Malaysian laws do provide avenues for redress, from criminal offences for the most serious cases such as sexual assault, to redress under employment laws and the right to sue the perpetrator in court.
But Yu said that realistically, it remains difficult to obtain redress unless the relevant organisation already has a comprehensive policy in place.
Even then, it can be a long and drawn-out matter. Emily, a secretary who wants to be known only by her first name, recounted her struggle to obtain redress several years ago after she received suggestive text messages from a colleague.
As her company had a comprehensive worker’s protection policy and took her complaint seriously, her colleague was disciplined. But he sued the company for unfair dismissal, forcing Emily to go through a long process in court.
“People gossiped and ridiculed me but I decided that I did not want to be a victim. Going to court was a nerve-wracking process,” she said.
Groups like the Women’s Aid Organisation are pushing for a law to compel companies to set up clear and safe mechanisms to address complaints, and to close the gaps.
This might help reduce the challenges in speaking out about wrongdoing in the workplace, be it corruption, fraud or sexual harassment. People often fear being labelled a trouble-maker, and also don’t think employers and authorities are committed to real change.
“Fear and futility are the two biggest challenges,” said Animah who regularly gives talks and runs workshops on speaking up in the workplace.
Sexual harassment, she said, is not a petty issue because it can reveal a workplace culture which silences people from speaking up about wrongdoings.
“If you don’t change the workplace culture with regard to sexual harassment, other problems will crop up. It can start with sexual harassment and end with corruption,” she said.
She advocates all companies formulate a strong anti-sexual harassment policy, as well as organise training sessions for their staff.
Even if people are aware of the issue, many remain uncertain about what constitutes sexual harassment, and are wary about being regarded as over-sensitive. They also need to be taught how to keep evidence such as text messages, emails or videos, and to write down verbal remarks to be emailed immediately to themselves or someone trusted, she said.
The difficulty is getting companies to give the issue priority but Yu, from the Women’s Aid Organisation, said there is now some momentum, with the authorities more interested in pursuing laws to compel companies to better protect their employees.
“It is really time to create a better workplace for all,” Animah said.
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