What Happens to Colleagues who Join Fights Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
“Young Women’s Questions on Work-Care-Solidarity”: Meet the Victims’ Ally
Members of the press met in July for the program “Feminist Dialogues on Labor”, hosted by the Korean Women Workers Association. We discussed how work was being discussed in our respective circles and asked which people and perspectives were excluded from discussions about ‘labor’ in our society. We then listened to and recorded the stories of women who helped us address these questions. That’s how the eight-article series, “Young Women’s Questions About Work-Care-Solidarity,” was born. (“Feminist Dialogues on Labor” Press Corps of the Korean Women Workers Association)
A manager is accused of committing sexual violence against an employee. The manager’s allies claim that the victim is lying for political purposes or that what the manager did wasn’t even sexual violence. These are the ‘official’ rebuttals that have been repeated every time a politician has been accused of sexual violence.
This wasn’t much different in the case of former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, which made me feel betrayed and helpless. I felt betrayed that an influential figure in the history of Korean women’s rights was revealed to be a perpetrator of sexual violence and that his colleagues were slandering the victims. It also dawned on me that my workplace wasn’t safe either. At the same time, I felt helpless because I had to keep working so I could survive. Women commonly experience sexual violence at work, but to continue making a living, they keep working at that same job or end up in a similar one.
I met with Kyung-yoon (pseudonym) who had been an ally for victims of sexual violence at work. I asked her about where she found the strength to stand in solidarity with victims, what she remembered of those experiences, and how she’s doing now. Through Kyung-yoon, I got to hear the stories of countless women who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence in the workplace.
What happened after five colleagues accused a manager of sexual harassment?
Kyung-yoon encountered sexual violence at two jobs in a row, at different workplaces. Both incidents took place within the first three months of her joining each company.
In the first case, a manager committed sexual harassment at a company dinner. The manager inappropriately touched the employee sitting next to him. When the victim rejected his advances, he cursed at her. The manager was known to often say, “Beware of [getting entangled in] problems with women.” Kyung-yoon wasn’t aware of what had happened at the time of the dinner. She found out the next day when the victim told Kyung-yoon herself. After careful consideration, five employees, including the victim and Kyung-yoon, decided to come forward about the manager’s behavior.
Like most people, Kyung-yoon’s paycheck was her main source of income. She also had debt to pay off. If she were to get fired, there was no doubt she’d fall on hard times. I asked about her motivations for siding with the victim despite her precarious situation.
“The perpetrator would say, ‘Women’s issues have been scary recently. Feminism has really been on the rise.’ Knowing he said those things in addition to finding out he committed sexual violence, I became angry. He probably didn’t take sexual violence seriously, and he’d never been called out for his behavior. I even learned that he’d committed sexual violence against others numerous times in the past. When we tried to come forward about the problem, other managers tried to stop us and told us that there had been other cases of sexual violence in the past. Our older colleagues also told us that they had experienced similar harassment by him before.”
“Since we knew we could be fired for this, we made sure to discuss this situation together. We promised to never get fired or quit voluntarily. We also said we would not do anything we hadn’t all agreed upon together. We assumed that each of our jobs would be impacted differently since we were all on different teams. We all shared the same views, so we decided to act only as a group.”
The company’s response justified the group’s fears. When Kyung-yoon and her colleagues demanded that the perpetrator be moved to a separate work space, the company tried to move the victim instead. It was strange that they would isolate the victim rather than the aggressor. A month later, Kyung-yoon was fired for poor performance. One of her colleagues was also fired, for ‘creating a negative environment’. A few months later, the other three members of the group quit on their own.
“The [members of our group] on teams with big workloads didn’t have this problem, but they stopped giving me any work at all. A month later, they fired me due to poor performance. Apparently, I was terrible at my job, even though I had no work to do. The other person they fired at the same time was let go for fostering a negative work environment. Why did they call it a negative environment? They probably felt the atmosphere was getting worse because we kept bringing up sexual violence.”
Article 14, Section 6 of the Equal Opportunity Act stipulates that employers cannot retaliate against employees who are victims of sexual harassment or report sexual harassment. According to Article 37 of the same act, violation of this law can result in imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 30 million won for the employer. There’s also a Supreme Court ruling stating that employers should protect victims of sexual harassment and their allies. Nevertheless, the company still fired Kyung-yoon and her colleague.
What remains for the ally
Being low-ranking employees in the company hierarchy certainly didn’t help the group’s case. Their bosses threatened to fire the victim and the colleagues who had filed the complaint. The victim was pressured, during work hours and even on a shared car ride home after working overtime. Though she had initially promised to file a police report if the company didn’t resolve the sexual harassment case against the manager, the victim eventually changed her mind. Even when Kyung-yoon and the other colleague were fired, the victim didn’t sue the perpetrator and the company. She chose to leave the company quietly.
“I think that the threats to fire her colleagues in addition to all the work she had to do clouded her judgement. Even though her team was busy, the boss kept calling her in during business hours. He’d try to appease her and ask, ‘You’re not that kind of girl, so who’s putting you up to this?’ Or he’d threaten, ‘You’re the reason they’ll all get fired.’”
Since the victim changed her mind, Kyung-yoon wasn’t able to make an issue of her wrongful termination. There had to be proof of sexual violence in order to prove wrongful termination. Since the victim didn’t testify about the sexual violence, Kyung-yoon would likely seem like a strange person or be sued for making a false accusation. In this situation, Kyung-yoon had to face the repercussions of the complaint all by herself.
That first experience affected how she dealt with her next experience of sexual violence in the workplace. At the company she’d started at right after being fired, there was another case of sexual violence. Kyung-yoon hadn’t witnessed it herself, and the victim didn’t tell her right away, but she quickly realized that sexual harassment had taken place. The bosses would publicly call the victim a “weird girl” and shift the blame [for the harassment] onto her. The victim chose to resign and soon after, Kyung-yoon also left the company.
“I was so physically and mentally tired after going through the first case. After I was fired, I also fell into problems with debt. The colleagues who had fought alongside me didn’t end up sticking together. Since the victim changed her mind about filing a report, I couldn’t enjoy my time with them. So I decided that unless a victim reached out first again or they really needed my direct help, I wouldn’t get involved anymore.”
A career hindered by sexual violence
Even after she’d left the two companies, the sexual violence cases continued to be stumbling blocks. Repeatedly encountering sexual violence in the workplace caused her to lose her motivation to find a job. Looking back, there were problems at the two companies even before the sexual harassment had occurred. At the first company, her male colleagues would discuss porn at every company get-together. Kyung-yoon felt that this would happen again no matter where she worked. She became more sure of this as the Park Won-soon scandal unfolded.
“The first case stressed me out so much that I started losing my hair and getting headaches for no reason. I even lost weight because I couldn’t sleep well. Then, when there was a case of sexual harassment at my next workplace that also wasn’t properly resolved, I felt so sick and tired of it all. I don’t know of any company that’s properly resolved cases of sexual violence, and it’s even rare for victims to actively pursue a case. Coworkers don’t even try to help out. I assume that this will happen again when I get a new job. I started looking for work again recently, but then the Park Won-soon scandal broke out. It’s been hard to get back onto job search websites. I hate it.”
Having filed the complaints also made it difficult to prove her work experience. She had to hide the fact that she’d left the companies because of sexual violence even though she wasn’t the perpetrator. If she told interviewers that she had left the companies because of sexual violence, they would get worried that she would be disruptive at their companies too. While the perpetrators are the ones who have done something wrong, those who bring their misdeeds to light are treated like troublemakers.
“Even though I left because of sexual harassment, I still learned how to do those jobs, and they’re still a part of my work experience. But since employers ask why you left past jobs, I can’t include those positions on my résumé. It doesn’t reflect well on you if you say that you quit due to sexual harassment. I can’t lie either, since the interviewers call the previous employers. To be frank, companies don’t like employees who raise questions. I’ve been attending trainings while on unemployment, and they told me to refrain from saying bad things about my former employer. Employers will think, ‘She’s probably going to raise issues at our company. She’s difficult to work with.’ Since I can’t include those experiences on my résumé, I have to accept a lower salary offer. I worked at the last place for less than a year though, so it’s not a huge problem if I don’t mention my reasons for resignation. I don’t know what people who’ve worked at a company for over a year but quit because of sexual violence end up doing. Do they still mention their reason for resignation? I’m curious.”
A bystander is ultimately a silent perpetrator
While Kyung-yoon was advocating on behalf of the victim, she worked alongside countless bystanders. Because colleagues didn’t speak up in the first case, the boss was able to successfully pressure the victim into giving up. In the second case, the company offered a solution that was favorable to the perpetrator, and colleagues did nothing while rumors about the victim spread.
Kyung-yoon expressed complicated emotions when asked how she felt about bystanders. She said she understood that they had to keep working to make a living. However, she argued that a bystander is just a silent perpetrator.
“I can empathize with bystanders to an extent. They’re the result of how our society is organized—they were raised within that. There’re even some victims among them. At first I thought, ‘They have no choice but to work and make ends meet, that’s why they’re scared.’ But actually, they’re just cowards. This most recent case made me realize that bystanders are just silent perpetrators who maintain the status quo. With them around, we can’t solve the problem.”
Kyung-yoon also pointed out that it’s society, not individuals, that must change if we are to overcome the bystander effect. Anyone can turn into a coward if they have to worry about feeding themselves.
“If we want more people to support victims, our society needs to adopt the mentality that sexual violence can be prevented. Otherwise, everyone will be too worried about themselves and end up staying silent. That’s why it’s hard for me to insult the bystanders who don’t support us.”
When asked if having more legal knowledge or authority at work would have made the situation better, Kyung-yoon firmly replied no. She said that it doesn’t matter how competent the ally is if the victim doesn’t have any confidence that the issue will be solved. From Kyung-yoon’s point of view, sexual violence in the workplace can’t be solved by individual people like victims or allies. She said that society should take action to solve this problem.
“In our society, there’s no strong conviction and belief that the problem of sexual violence in the workplace can be prevented. Korean society thinks that that’s just the way things are, so women should accept it and live with it. If a victim withdraws their statement in order to keep their job, their working conditions become unsafe. I don’t think that companies should be left to handle sexual violence cases internally. In my case, at least I was able to raise the issue, but in a more hierarchical office, you probably can’t speak up at all. Instead, the community should investigate what’s going on within the company, and if a problem is found, they should help address it. With the way that sexual violence is currently handled, either the victim or their friend has to take initiative to resolve it, whether it’s through a women’s organization or something else. In these situations, I don’t know if having more [workplace] power would help me solve the issue.”
A society that believes that sexual violence in the workplace can be prevented
While Kyung-yoon felt helpless, she didn’t have any regrets. If anything, she seemed frustrated that she hadn’t tried other alternatives to solve the problem.
“Recently, I’ve been thinking about how I should have just reported it to the police. From the moment I heard about the manager’s problematic behavior, I could feel that this company had no intention of internally solving these problems. Even though reporting it would have just created a bigger problem, I wonder if external forces could have pushed it along. Of course, if the victims were to take back their statements, I could be reported for making false accusations. It just feels like I wasted time fighting against a company that was corrupt to begin with.”
When asked what she wanted to say to those in a similar situation—the colleagues of someone who’s suffered sexual harassment in the workplace—she said she’d tell them that they can solve the problem, it not their fault, so let’s fight together. To Kyung-yoon, the two cases of sexual violence were neither wins or losses.
“I still want to continue telling victims and their colleagues to take action. It’s not our fault, after all. There’s a lot of folks who become depressed from experiencing sexual violence because it’s sad and hard to deal with, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I want to tell them to pick themselves up because we can fight it together. If they seem unsure or aren’t up for it, I’ll just have to accept that I can’t do anything about it. It’s important for them to take their financial situation into consideration too.”
A few weeks after the interview, Kyung-yoon got a job as a short-term contract worker. She said that the company practices blind hiring and doesn’t ask about your previous employer or your reasons for resignation. When asked how she felt about the job, Kyung-yoon said she felt relieved to have a much-needed source of income this month. However, she lamented that she’d be back on the job market at the end of her contract period. While congratulations were in order, it felt bittersweet.
While interviewing Kyung-yoon, I could tell she was carrying many burdens. From raising the issue of workplace sexual violence to getting fired, she’d handled all her problems on her own up to this point. There aren’t many people who’d put their livelihoods at risk to combat sexual violence at work like she did. Like she said, society, not individuals, must bear the responsibility of preventing sexual assault in order for brave victims and allies to come forward. I dream of a society that believes that ending sexual violence in the workplace is possible, and I truly hope that there will be no more frustrated allies and hopeless victims who have to suffer alone.
*Thinking about “labor from a feminist position and feminism from a labor [class-conscious] position,” the Korean Women Workers Association is campaigning to spread the importance of gender equality in the workforce. Since 2018, we’ve been talking with women workers about the sex-based discrimination embedded in our lives and how to create gender equality in the workplace through the membership group Femi Worker Club. (Please contact email@example.com to become a supporting member and to participate in the small groups.)
Published October 6, 2020
Translated by Stella Chung
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8860
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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