Sexual harassment caught me by surprise

” Beauty Provokes Harassment, the law says, but it looks through men’s eyes when deciding what provokes it” ~ Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

I know sexual harassment at the work place by male colleagues/supervisors/ bosses is widespread and not a new phenomenon. Except that somehow I thought I was immune from it. So it caught me by surprise. It was during the best time of my career, a job I got after a graduate degree from Europe. I was part of the senior management team advising and reporting to the CEO and the only other female in that aspect. So I thought I was kind of off limits. My harasser, wasn’t my supervisor or any person with a high position – he was my junior.

The company I was working for was an international organization, a leading development agency that works in over 40 countries of the world.

And the response I got from the Director of Human Resources when I reported the incidence was:

 You know, you are an attractive beautiful young woman, so good looking

She was beaming while saying that, as if I needed validation for that. I never expected that as a first response when I reported the sexual harassment I faced at work.

It started with a random text message on one of the local business trips. The first came late at night, at the end of a business dinner hosted by our partner organisation. It was from the number I couldn’t recognize then so I brushed it as it ended up being sent to my number by mistake. Then that number becomes a source of daily unwanted text messages. Some asking for my presence in certain places in specified times, others declaring the sender’s ” love” for me.

Few weeks past the first text message, the person decides to show up in my office. Apparently, he was sitting in an office next to mine. He appeared and started making pleas, saying it was him that I was receiving those messages from. Then he started to show up daily, bearing number of gifts and repeated insistence. My polite ” no” and then annoyed repeated rejection never worked. The situation escalated into aggravated stalking that included following me to the field visits that he was not part of and making a scene at the hotel I was staying. It lasted 8 months.

I never saw it coming because it comes from a person I least expected it from, to say the least. I never thought I would report such a incident just to be ignored by management either. To my shock and dismay, while I continued reporting the series of incidents , I was told to act cool. They preferred to justify the act, speculating the possible reasons that caused the harassment. Most reasons cited included, me not looking like a married woman; how I supposed to look as one – that I would never understand. It was even pointed out that I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring thus that might have been misleading.

A senior professional, an advisor to the director and member of the senior management team, I thought I was kind of off limits. Apart from the toxic work environment it created, the way the management handled it was my utter source of disappointment. They preferred to treat the matter as minor trespassing and tried to handle it informally and with no real effort to make it stop.

Then I decided to take the matter to the head office of the organization. One thing that made me file official complaint to the US based head office, in addition to the incident reaching intolerable level, was the desire to make a point that management cannot ignore such incidents and for the sake of other female employees that do not have voice or power like I did, though that appears to not matter in this case.

I reported the case, giving all the details and how I was treated by the management at the country office. It caused a serious investigation, the harasser was almost fired, all the staff including him were forced to take a sexual harassment online course.

After few months, I left the organization. I now have interest in the issue of sexual harassment at work as I know what it means for a person to go through it. Especially female workers that might work with organizations with no policies or systems to tackle the issue.

” In all societies, both women and men are powerfully conditioned to repress the daily realities (of sexual harassment and workplace glass ceilings) and to collude with the rest of society in keeping these dimensions of shared experiences hidden” ~ William Keepin

Bethlehem N. Woldeyohannes

Bethlehem N. Woldeyohannes is a Feminist Writer, a Newspaper Columnist and Media and Communications Consultant based in Addis Ababa.

  1. Fantastic work woman. Keep it up. From the US’s view, they also would loveand they try to sweep it under the rug. Usually, it takes a person who is persistent to make sure actions are taken.
    It is up to women like you to start the heroic work. Keep it up. God bless you.

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