The reality of sexual harassment

The sexual harassment legislation has finally made its way through the Parliament of Barbados.  This piece of legislation is a welcomed addition to the other statutes which regulate the work spaces in Barbados.  However, there is substantial difference between legislation which can manage a situation when it occurs and behavioural change which steers people away from the problem in the first place.

I am in no way suggesting that the legislation was not a necessary component in the desire to reshape female/male relationships in the work place.  I am however convinced that the legislation is only one component in rectifying work place based sexual harassment.

When a store owner or a home owner demands sexual favours from his clerk or housekeeper, he does not view his behaviour as wrong for a number of reasons.  He believes that his money and ability to have access to the woman he employs, gives him the right to also demand sex. He may offer additional treats or inducements to the employee, further abdicating himself of any sense of wrongdoing.

As important as the perception of the male employer is the view of his female employee.  Many women surrender to the overtures of their male bosses because of the financial gains to be had.  Others opt not to jeopardize employment by making ‘fuss’ with the boss.  Still other bosses and their female employees believe that their relationship is a genuine progression.

In those cases, women do not immediately see how they are being manipulated. Just because legislation has been enacted will not make the female employee who is suffering under her boss’ unwanted attention or those thinking they have something ‘special’, avail themselves of the law.

The more fundamental tier to behavioural change is education and awareness building.  Men have to be taught about problematic aspects of their construction of masculinity and then how to turn those aspects into more positive manifestations of being.  Men have to be taught, for example, that giving a struggling mother of three pampers in exchange for sexual gratification, is neither normal nor commendable behaviour.

Men need to stop seeing women who work in various sectors as ‘easy game’. The only way men will adjust their view of women is when the majority of women make them aware that we are no longer willing to accept the same things in the same way for the same reasons.    It is not the responsibility of women to change the view of perpetrators of sexist behaviour and yet, as long as we accept sexist behaviours, enough will be there for us to receive.

While I stop short of saying which camp should begin the initiatives at cultural change needed to bring the intent of this bill to fruition, I am convinced nothing will change until both female and male behaviours change.  The female movement for equality and recognition in Barbados has spawned a set of as or more powerful male oriented organizations.

It means that the female lobby is not responsible for fighting for the positive adjustments for women while also being responsible for the ‘perceived displacements experienced’ by male counterparts.  Since men and women in Barbados are both seized of lobbies to protect their interests, we can get down to the real business of engendering change.

We can ask frank and real questions, and pursue frank and real answers. How do we as a community pursue the behavioural change that we desire?  How do we change the perception of both women and men in the Barbadian society? I have a partial answer but I think most will accuse me of reaching and the rest will think I am simply blaspheming!

I ask for a chance, though, an opportunity to expand at least.  I think the church and the line of theology which we pursue as Barbadians is problematic.  It keeps a lot of the issues we are trying to readjust entrenched.  I believe that the close mindedness and binary thinking that ‘christian’ adherence demands is hindering many mature national discussions which we need to have.

If we pass legislation which demands that women be respected but still read a Bible which insists that women are no higher than the chattel possessions of her husband, where are we really? The doctrines of the church keep Barbadian women firmly in their places in relation to their expectations about the behaviour of men.

It encourages women in Barbados to be pleased that sexual harassment legislation is on the book even if it will mean little to our daily existence.  If we never change the discussion so much that the most powerful and rich business men feel the need to take us seriously, nothing has been achieved. Not even a blatant call out, such as I hope this could be, has weight.  This because I know that the consciousness is simply not there.  The businessmen know it too.

So, do we have a new statute and not much more past that?  Is it long live the new liberated class of Barbadian woman? Or long live the patriarchy?

Source: (Marsha Hinds-Layne is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women (NOW). Email: mhindslayne@gmail.com)

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