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Violence Against Women in the ICT Sector

May 1, 2022

Last week, on the 25th of November, we comemorated the International day for the Elimination of Violence against women, which inspired me to take the time and write my reflections on the issue, as a woman working in the ITC Sector.

I think I never felt as in touch with and affected by the fact that I am a woman, until I started working for the company, at which I have been employed for the past 4 years. Before that, of course I could feel the microaggressions of growing up and living in a deeply patriarchal world as any other woman. But I could either not put everything into words, or felt that this is just the way things are, or thought that there were bigger problems in the world that needed addressing. And since I was always interacting with people in my university or then with very specific circles where sexism and misogyny were frowned upon, I even started to think for a while that feminism is not a relevant movement anymore. And this is how real life and work in corporate environment proved me wrong.

A little “humor” never hurts

One of the things that started this shift in me, regarding feminism and its relevance, was the humor of my male colleagues in the workplace. Once, while I was having a smoke break, trying to relieve my stress, a male colleague joined me and asked me how my workday was going. Frustrated, I started listing all the things I had to do and vent about the workload and that my working hours were not enough to cover everything. His answer was: “If you have your period you shouldn’t come to work.” He found it really funny and was chuckling, but I was lost for words. So, according to him, the fact that I was feeling stressed and overworked, was not my employer’s fault, I must for sure be on my period. I finished my cigarette in silence and returned to work.

Another day, again under a lot of pressure, I decided to wear my headphones, so I can work in peace for an hour, since I had to take care of some important tasks that required all my focus. Although I kindly asked everyone to give me this time I needed and keep their questions for a later time, a male colleague started to throw pieces of paper at me to get my attention. When I couldn’t ignore him anymore, I took my headphones off and asked him in an agitated way: “What?”. His response was “Maybe, we should find you a czech guy, so you can relax.” He thought it was funny, but I felt really angry and embarrassed to be thus treated for the whole open space to hear, in the presence of my manager (who didn’t react) and to hear all this from a person that was supposed to soon take his place. I decided then that if this guy would get promoted in my team, I would quit. My manager at the time later encouraged me to take this as a joke and not file a complaint with HR.

I even had to explain to another male colleague why it was not ok for him to call me “woman” when he was getting defensive (being a woman and being in charge of quality controls can get you a lot of this attitude) instead of using my name.

For all of the above colleagues and many more these were just jokes. This is a common issue also outside the work environment. To everyone, I want to say that some jokes are not innocent. Not only are they sexist and aggressive, they come from a conscious or unconscious belief, that women are not unhappy in their workplace because they are stressed, overworked, taken advantage off, but because of their hormones or lack of sex etc. So not only my gender makes me apparently unfit for my position but no amount of benefits, rewards, recognition will increase my work satisfaction, since all my issues are results of my sex.

But the most painful of all, was the attitude of my coworkers and manager. Nobody openly recognized that the above behaviours were wrong. Nobody ever stood by my side to tell these colleagues off. No one complained on my behalf when witnessing. Bystander intervention in these situations can be crucial, and we should all actively try to create a safe work environment for everyone. And we have to do it ourselves. Lower management and HR want seemingly smooth running teams. And they will not run the risk to discourage this behaviour. In avoiding terms as sexist or misogynistic, they are trying to make the victim drop the whole thing by justifying the perpetrator ( “It is just their character, do not take them seriously”, “You need to take into consideration that they come from a traditional society…” etc).

A closer look the the company’s approach and lower management’s attitude

A little while after the above mentioned incidents, a new colleague was hired for our severely understaffed team. He immediately showed he had issues with all the women in the team, he was constantly harassing a weaker female team member, he was passing sexist comments. This person was employed for almost 2 years, before the team managed to get a few more members, and the company didn’t extend his contract. We then found out that he has been to HR to complain about having to work with women (!?!).

I know, you must be shocked,or maybe think that this is an extreme experience. But let’s not focus on the specific case and reflect a bit on the system that supports it . Even if your company has a very strict attitude about sexim and bullying in theory (all of them do), when things get rough, your project is understuffed, they will hire almost anyone to do (or not do) the job , these inclusive rules can be bent. Because, an understuffed team is a constant problem. And when HR and management would get the chance to cover themselves to their managers, while at the same time pretend they care about the employees,by hiring someone at last, the actual interest of the employees is out the window.

Managers will try to smooth things, by talking mainly to the victims and trying to convince them that by enduring the harassment they are being the bigger people. HR will look the other way and even allow a person with such extreme attitudes to stay in the team, making your work life a nightmare (as long as they are not physically aggressive, there they draw the line), because they act in the best interest of the company. They just need numbers and proof of fake teamwork. When things get rough they will not act in the best interest of female employees.

Even if things do get physical, as it recently happened in an offshore branch of the company for which I work, the company’s future sexual harassment prevention meassueres where at most laughable. The company’s reflex was to create a mandatory test, covering behaviours that are considered sexual harassement and informing on the company outlets that you can use it if you are the victim of such cases and send it only to FEMALE employees. “Educating” in this stale way only the employees that happened to have the same sex as the victim doesn’t solve the problem. What solves the problem is zero tolerance to sexism in the workplace. What solves the problem is not enabling misogynists, just because you need them to sit on a chair. The solution to the problem is building trust in HR and the other escalation points, things that a lot of companies are failing to provide.

We can only trust and support each other

When you cannot turn to HR or the management for support, the only way is to support each other. We all need to fight together for a safe and equal work environment. Yes, the above text consists of my reflections on my personal experience. But I am sure that a lot of other women will see themselves in similar, hopefully less extreme, situations. For those fortunate enough to not have been through something like that, you should know that such things are happening in the same city, and we are counting on your support and solidarity. For the male readers, we really need you as allies. We call for zero tolerance to violence and harassment in the workplace against any gender.

We invite you to register for our webinar on Wednesday 26 January 2021 at 18.00 on the topic “Is equality in the workplace achievable?”. Find out more in the FB event.

The author is a member of union and an employee of an international IT company.