By Meron Tekleberhan
Addis Ababa, June 8, 2011 (Ezega.com) - About two weeks back, as I was doing research for an article on ‘Women Bosses’ (Ezega.com, May 23rd 2011), I encountered repeated insinuations regarding sexual demands made on women in the workplace. This week I decided to follow up on these allegations because a few people commenting on my previous article made similar claims.
Are women really forced to provide sex to get ahead in the workplace? I asked several professional women to answer this question and, although most initially denied having encountered such requests, they all agreed that it’s something that they wouldn’t be surprised by. I enquired how they could be so sure if they had never had such experiences by themselves and a few reluctantly admitted that they had indeed been propositioned by male supervisors. However, all were quick to assure me that they had never consented.
Lyla* (35) was more forthright. She had nodded vigorously when I asked my first question and she willingly agreed to answer my query in detail.
“Many women are ashamed to talk about the sexual harassment they encounter because they are somehow made to feel that it is their fault. Others have accepted it as the only way to get ahead and are willing to accede to such requests. I understand both sentiments because I’ve been there. I was offered a job in exchange for sex a few weeks after I graduated from college by a friend of the family. It was easy to say no then because I was young and I was confident of my employment possibilities. A few years later, however it was harder and finally impossible. I was a very well-paid Personal Assistant in an International Organization when my boss let me know that the renewal of my contract depended on my willingness to gratify his sexual needs, and I had no choice but to say yes. I just couldn’t imagine leaving my job and threatening a lifestyle that was the envy of my friends, so I cooperated with his demands.”
Lyla’s story may seem shocking to some but it’s definitely not exceptional. According to Ato Tesfu, a human resource management specialist, women who encounter such demands repeatedly learn to believe that there is no other way they can attain professional success. Many lose confidence in their abilities and seek out opportunities whereby they can influence supervisors or upper management through sexual favors.
“There is a lot of effort being exerted to ensure that women have equal opportunities in the workplace, but the workforce is dominated by men. This not only increases the vulnerability of women to such pressures, but it also increases the susceptibility of women to thinking sex is a legitimate means of earning a promotion. Women robbed of their confidence in this manner opt to concentrate on their physical attractiveness and sexual prowess instead of building their professional capacity.”
Ruth* (29) agrees that male supervisors try to take advantage of their position to sexually harass female workers. She, however, rejects the idea that women have no choice but assent to such requests.
“Women can say no and they should. Most men who try to take advantage of a woman in this way are cowards and are afraid of being exposed. The one time my former boss tried to be inappropriate with me, I threatened to scream and I meant it. He made my life miserable after that and I eventually chose to leave the organization, but at least he never touched me again. I understand that many women can’t afford to lose their job, but it is better to lose a job than to lose self respect.”
Aida*(31) thinks that Ruth’s comments are generalized and hasty. According to her, all women from household workers to those in the highest echelons of their professions are perceived as sexual objects first and as people next.
“Women who submit to sexual demands in the workplace do so because of years of social indoctrination. In spite of the good intentioned efforts to promote equality for women, this attitude has yet to make itself part of the social fabric. Many men believe that all women are created for their pleasure, and they are threatened by women professionals. Such men choose to exert their superiority by making sexual demands. Women that grow up in such an environment are not surprised when they encounter sexual request in the workplace. To many, it seems prudent to fulfill their assigned role as sexual objects and earn position and status that may otherwise be denied to them. Those who initially refuse to co-opt themselves in this manner may be forced to change their minds due to extenuating financial or social pressures.”
Ato Tesfu agrees with Aida’s assessment. “Sex can be seen as a commodity in the workplace. Women who are willing to employ this currency are guaranteed of increased benefits and prestige. Some organizations are rumored to have informal hiring practices whereby sexual compliance is part and parcel of the recruitment and promotion requirements. Even though many people know which organizations have such reputations and why, there is no desire to formally corroborate this. Most women are silenced by a culture of shame that does not differentiate between victim and predator. They are made to feel as culpable as the men who are taking advantage of them, especially if they feel they have benefited professionally or financially from such relationships.”
Young women can quickly be disillusioned when they encounter such demeaning requests, which is contrary to some of the effort being made for equal opportunity. Some may even choose to barter sexual favors for professional betterment on their own terms due to a cynical outlook shaped by the attitudes they encounter. Even so it’s easy to calculate the loss of confidence and self esteem that women endure when forced to use their bodies as a means of earning professional success.
Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.