A workplace without violence against women would look like a place where women feel safe, respected, and celebrated as individuals and professionals. It is a place where women do not have to tolerate inappropriate, sexual, or discriminatory remarks by others. Rather, women know that they can confidentially report and seek help if they ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable by a colleague or work partner. It is a place that will punish perpetrators. And a place where women are trusted and never blamed for any harm that comes their way.
A workplace free of violence against women looks like a place where women and their work are evaluated and compensated purely by merit, absent of social and cultural influences or imposed gender standards. Such a workplace would focus on the content and quality of the female staff member’s work, not their clothes or appearance. It is a place where women receive feedback, compliments and congratulations on their ideas, intelligence and professionalism, not their physique. It is a place where women can hold any position—be it CEO, secretary, finance director, or security guard.
A workplace devoid of violence against women would look like a place where women’s careers, job security and professional growth are not threatened by getting pregnant or starting a family. A place where her responsibilities as a wife or mother are not used as excuses to take away her professional responsibilities and limit her progress. In fact, it is a place where women, like men, can decide to have families (or not) without facing repercussions at work. A place where women can hold multiple identities—professional, mother, girlfriend, daughter.
A workplace absent of violence against women would look like a space where both women and men feel comfortable to express their true selves and work to their fullest potential. It is a place where gender norms and stereotypes are challenged—where staff engage in candid conversations about deep-rooted cultural beliefs on masculinity and femininity. It is a space where women’s assertiveness and men’s compassion are celebrated equally. It is a place of respect, openness and tolerance. A place where women are comfortable and encouraged to share their opinions freely because they know and are told that their voices are valued.
For workplaces, like that described, to exist there must be internal governing systems that protect and promote women’s equity and rights. Workplaces must have gender-sensitive, diversity-inclusive and anti-discrimination policies. For instance, places of employment must institute and enforce anti-sexual harassment policies to ensure that neither women nor men, experience sexual harassment or violence. In the unfortunate event that a staff member experiences sexual harassment, there should be multiple contacts within the organization that she or he can report to, and the staff member should be made to feel comfortable and safe reporting. There should be transparency in the investigation process, especially in cases where the perpetrator is in a position of power. In these instances, it should also be clear that staff have the option to report outside of the organization.
Such a workplace would require mandatory policies that protect women’s jobs in the case that they become pregnant and/or create families. It would also require policies that stipulate equal salaries for men and women of the same position and ensure equal opportunity for promotions and pay raises. Relatedly, the policies would mandate that staff, including management and leadership, be comprised of an equal mix of women and men. The workplace would provide free sanitary pads and bins, with male and female bathrooms that are clearly labelled and with functioning locks.
A workplace free of violence against women and girls would extend its anti-discriminatory and gender equality principles beyond its own operations and require discontinuing partnership or service with any organizations or individuals that engage in activities that oppress, abuse or discriminate against women or girls. Ultimately, such foundational systems would ensure that workplaces have the formal and legal incentives and disincentives necessary for violence-free workspaces.
However, without the appropriate mindsets to transform policies into reality, such internal systems are practically useless. Therefore, workplaces must invest in measures to promote staff attitudes, behaviours, and practices that are intolerant of violence against women and which promote gender equity. For instance, having an anti-sexual harassment and violence policy is not a solution in and of itself. All staff, including management, must also be trained in preventing and responding to sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Relatedly, staff orientation would include training on how to abide by the work policies and systems, with routine reorientation for all staff. The workplace would also provide regular workshops and seminars related to professional and personal development—including topics ranging from how to challenge gendered language norms to active listening and managing diverse project teams. Similarly, events like International Women’s Day (March 8th) and International Day of the Girl Child (October 11) would be celebrated in such a workplace with key speakers, discussions and activities to promote awareness on the value and benefit of women’s empowerment and gender equity. Other team building events, like staff retreats and happy hours, would encourage unity, comradery, and respect among staff.
If workplaces were to institute the mentioned systems, policies and activities, staff would work within environments with minimum standards of etiquette and practice. More importantly, staff would work within spaces of respect, inclusion, and diversity. In turn, all staff—both women and men—would recognise their role in promoting gender equity and fostering safe spaces for women. Bringing this utopic workplace without violence against women into reality will require persistence, compassion, and grit. But together, women and men alike, we can and we will make it a reality.
The authors of this blog placed third in an essay competition and were awarded a trophy on 10 December 2018 at the UN Women Gender-based Violence SHE-Summit in Lilongwe, Malawi.