Earlier this year, Women in Law Hong Kong (WILHK) and Thomson Reuters co-hosted an event called "Let's Talk About: Harassment" where around 70 men and women attended a discussion on harassment with a specific focus on sexual harassment. With #MeToo and #TimesUp grabbing headlines all over the globe since last October, including in Hong Kong albeit in a more muted way, victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment have been speaking out and sharing their experiences publicly. This has prompted discussions on how to address these difficult issues.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment occur everywhere: one out of every seven women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime in Hong Kong. In a 2014 survey of 6,000 workers in service industries (e.g. retail, catering, healthcare and nursing), one in five people reported to have been sexually harassed in the last year. It is therefore important that we discuss these issues and get a dialogue going in an informative, inclusive and safe way, and this was the impetus of the event.
Topics of the evening included the various categories of harassment, how sexual harassment is defined under Hong Kong law, the role of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the potential liabilities of employees and employers, examples of harassment investigations in Hong Kong, and gender equality, but the most interesting and engaging part of the evening was the break-out discussion groups. Some topics discussed:
-Gender equality: Does today's wave of feminism run the risk of alienating not only men, but many women too, if there is disagreement on the appropriate method of communication, how to achieve justice, and how to adhere to the principles of free society?
-Backlash: Will men, out of fear of being accused of harassment, overcompensate and inadvertently exclude women even more?
-Speaking out: Why is harassment so hard to report? Why is it hard to speak up as a claimant, as a bystander? Who takes on the risk when an incident is reported?
-The role of men: What can/should men do to help eliminate harassment?
-Gender biases: We are a product of our own upbringing, of parents of the 50s, of societies based on decorum and traditions. What are examples of the more subtle type of gender biases? What unconscious biases have you noticed? Is the messaging for boys/men and girls/women different with respect to assault and harassment?
As a backdrop, issues like defining justice, professional ethics and risk management were discussed.
What Should Companies and Law Firms Do to Reduce the Risk?
- Create supportive environments and engage the whole workplace.
- Carry out a climate survey to assess the corporate culture and identify where the gaps are. The employees are the ones who know where the abuse happens and who's doing it.
- Put a confidential complain procedure in place allowing victims and bystander to report without fear of retaliation.
- Put in place a process that enables thorough investigation of allegations by professionals who are independent from the accused, the complainant and their teams.
- Have standards, code of conduct and best practices in place that prevent harassment and discrimination and promote respect, civility and equity in the workplace.
- Have clear definitions, expectations of conduct and real consequences for misconduct in policies.
- Give bystander training, create awareness, coach acceptable behaviours that promote best practices.
Tips on What Individuals Can Do:
- Don't harass!
- Listen. Be supportive and available.
- Respect confidentiality, even on serious issues, and take the lead from the individual.
- Get educated - be aware, understand the climate, be equipped with counter arguments.
- Don't use terms that perpetuate stigma: "Don't be such a girl/sissy" "man up" "bossy".
- Challenge inappropriate comments and unconscious bias: "I'm offended." "That's not funny" "You sound like you need some [diversity] training."
- Exclude yourself from the conversation - that act in itself is making a statement.
- Don't be a bystander. If you witness harassment, help the person being harassed by intervening or removing that person from the situation.
- Influence policy - in your company, comments to government, with your purchasing/investing/employment/voting decisions.
- Donate to a local charity and volunteer with a local organisation.
Resources in Hong Kong
- Caritas Hong Kong
- Equal Opportunities Commission
- Mother's Choice
- The Women's Foundation
- Women's Commission
To quote Maya Angelou, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." By opening up the forum for discussion, WILHK aims to encourage collaboration, integration and education amongst law firms and in-house counsel, foster the development and retention of women in the legal profession, and bring to the forefront the industry issues affecting women working in the legal profession in Hong Kong.