Opinion: For women, speaking up isn't always an option. Here's why.

Photo by: wan mohd / CC BY-NC-ND

Women worldwide have been inspired to share their personal experiences of harassment using the hashtags #MeToo drawing attention to an issue that most men have been unaware of until now. It has shown how common sexual harassment and assault is in the workplace and how harmful it is to women’s careers and well-being.

But what about the aid sector? Devex has been promoting the #Aidtoo campaign to encourage women working in this sector to come forward and highlight their experiences. But it has not been easy work, despite clear evidence that the problem is widespread in the sector.

Devex journalist Lisa Cornish tried to elicit feedback by inviting women who belong to the 1000+ strong Women in Aid & Development, or WiAD, group in Australia to share their experiences, anonymously if they preferred. The invitation went onto the WiAD website, the Facebook page and face-to-face at networking events in Sydney and Melbourne. In all, only one anonymous response was received, though views of why women may be reluctant to speak up were forthcoming.

This low response raises the question of why so many women in the aid sector still feel reluctant to step forwards with their stories — though there have been some examples, such as those who have spoken out about their experiences at Save The Children UK. Yet that is the exception rather than the rule. We urgently need to know what makes many women working in development unwilling to name offenders and what needs to change to create a more open dialogue on the issue.

Speaking out can be challenging

There are of course a number of factors in play that appear to mitigate against women speaking out in this sector.

First, celebrities highlighted in the media, people in entertainment with profile, and women in senior corporate roles are perceived to have more power and control over their careers and are seen to receive vocal and sustained support from peers. Women in this sector have few opportunities to engage with peers as they usually work in small siloed organizations and, until WiAD came along, there were no women-only networks to join in Australia. Consequently, women can’t engage easily with others or learn of others experiencing similar issues or be assured that if they speak out they will be supported and encouraged by their peers.

It’s a sector that’s all about individuals providing support to the least powerful people in the world. They work in small organizations and a sector where jobs, especially good jobs, are difficult to find and competition for them is high. By speaking out and taking a public stance there is strong fear of damaging their personal reputation and career prospects in a sector with only one or two degrees of separation worldwide. We know this is a fear for all women in every sector who have spoken out to date, however here it is magnified as staff move between agencies, projects, and countries frequently and reputation is critical.

Regrettably, women may also feel shame and believe that it was their own fault despite growing numbers of women speaking out on what happened to them, wide acknowledgement that this is the fault of men, and women have little ability to prevent or avoid it. 

Sector response and support

So who speaks up for the women and protects their careers and their good name?

This is a sector that supports and invests in those living in poverty and vulnerable to ill health, poor education standards, low incomes, and lack of access to economic opportunities. Staff are committed to delivering services to communities, not simply for money but for personal satisfaction and values. They work for less than average wages, live in low-cost accommodation, and compromise their quality of life for others. They deliver a better tomorrow and know that every dollar possible will implement programs that changes the world for the better.

Women should receive support and protection from their employers, but organizations have limited funding and prioritize spending in the field. Some larger agencies have human resource staff, but most don’t. Harassment and discrimination policies are sometimes rudimentary and management skills to implement and oversee them can be highly variable with responsible managers all too often men.

In addition, women (and men) are seen by donors and supporters as simply an administrative cost to be eliminated from the bottom line in the ever-escalating demand for the elusive and unattainable holy grail of zero administrative costs. Women (and men) know that any negative publicity about an organization will impact its reputation and consequently its income, so is it surprising that women protect their organization by not speaking out about harassment and sexual assault?

Of most concern is their fear that if they complain, their agency will ignore or refuse to accept or investigate complaints, move or even sack the staff member in order to protect its reputation.  

How to move forward

It is safe to assume that women who have been on the receiving end of harassment and assault in this sector realize they are not alone thanks to recent media promotion of #MeToo. This provides women with the realization that they are not alone and that the shame of unacceptable behavior should be on the perpetrators not on the survivors — but it is not enough.

To change behavior in this sector, organizations must not only have best practice policies and standards in place but they must be championed and implemented consistently and from the boardroom level down to ensure a safe workplace. Women who make complaints must not be brushed off, bullied into dropping them or lose their job by being sacked or having to move to get away from a perpetrator. They must be supported, encouraged, and protected from further assaults. Given the size and lack of individual organization resources, a shared and independent body that would receive, investigate, and rule on complaints would be of huge value and assure confidentiality, protection of identity and career prospects of the woman and of the organization.

Offenders must be identified, exposed, and no matter their seniority be disciplined, relocated or sacked where appropriate without references that enable them to offend elsewhere.

Women need courage to share their experiences and their peers need to provide support and encouragement. Joining a network like Women in Aid & Development to meet and befriend peers, talk, and build trust is a great start. Men of course, must also lend their support and encouragement to effect real change.

Finally, sector media must step up and join Devex in highlighting the issues, take a stand to raise the issues and highlight the unacceptability of harassment and sexual assault anywhere at any time.

About the author

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    Chris Franks

    Chris is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors with over 18 years governance experience, currently serving as chair of RESULTS International Australia and previously as a director and chair of not-for-profit, government, financial services, personal insurance, and health insurance boards.