Of men and women

Can’t stop talking about sexual harassment

When Song Shanmu was arrested in China for sexual harassment in May, blog readers asked me to write about what you should do when you are sexually harassed. My first reaction was, “No thanks!”

Song Shanmu’s anonymous sexual harassment victim

That’s because sexual harassment is a highly sensitive subject for the CEOs and HR chiefs who hire recruiters like me. It seemed financially unwise for me to blog about a subject that would annoy my clients.

Besides, I started this blog to provide simple and fun career tips, and when it comes to sexual harassment, nothing is simple or fun. I’d much rather write about whether you should sleep with your boss to get ahead.

But I did some research, and found that sexual harassment is a problem that faces 4 out of 5 women in China. I recalled back two decades to when I was sexually harassed. And I thought, with the profile I’ve been so lucky to build in my career, if I don’t stand up and speak publicly about this topic, who will?

Then, I struggled with what to write.

I know what corporate CEOs and HR chiefs would like for me to say, which is that if you are harassed, you should obediently report the incident to your company. But privately, my top-level friends acknowledged to me that claims of sexual harassment often lead to retaliation against the victims.

Finally, I muddled my way through a blog post, offering what was a decidedly imperfect solution. I posted it late on a holiday weekend, thinking it might slip by unnoticed.

China’s Media is Leading the Way on Sexual Harassment

Joy speaks on sexual harassment on China Radio International (click to listen)

But then, Xu Qinduo, host of Today on Beyond Beijing on China Radio International, and Ji Xiaojun, host of Crossover on CCTV News, each decided to devote an entire show to sexual harassment, and asked if I would be willing to be featured.  I do not want to be known as the Sexual Harassment Lady in China, but I did feel it important that two such respected national media leaders wanted to bring this subject out into the open. So, I agreed. You can access the resulting shows by clicking on the images at right.

Joy speaks on sexual harassment on CCTV News (click to watch)

I’ve been especially touched by the grateful emails from those blog readers and TV and radio listeners who are currently being victimized.

I also learned a lot from being on these shows. Here are my further thoughts on this subject:

  • Men are victims too, and in the States now comprise 16% of harassment claims. Most of these are cases of male-on-male harassment, but there are instances of female-on-male harassment as well.
  • On the CRI show, women’s rights attorney Zhang Weiwei celebrated the outcome of China’s first legal victory for a victim of sexual harassment. The woman won a RMB 3,000 (US$440) judgment against her boss, and then was fired for the litigation. My own feeling is that while this case may be a step forward for women’s rights in general, it was not a victory for her personally. As I noted in my earlier blog post, I believe that if you are harassed, your goal should be to stop the harassment without harming your career.
  • The biggest reason that workplace harassment has declined in the States is that when harassment occurs, companies are liable, and in the past two decades, several high-profile cases involving deep-pocketed employers and huge payouts to victims have led employers in general to implement internal reforms. In China, when a victim brings a claim against her harasser, only the harasser himself is responsible for his actions. While Song Shanmu is sitting in jail, his company now faces no legal consequences. I hope that China moves to hold companies liable for harassing behavior by their managers.

Great Companies are Built on Great Workplaces

I believe there are “carrot” and “stick” incentives for companies to prevent harassment in their ranks. The “stick” of legal reforms and the threat of lawsuits is important, but over time, the companies that win in the marketplace will be those that recruit and retain the best talent. And the best talent does not choose to work in abusive environments.

I look at my baby daughter Pip, who’s still only squeaking now. That’s her in the video. Watching her, and anticipating the arrival of her little sister this October makes me imagine the future that they’ll inhabit. Let’s stamp out abusive behavior when we see it around us, so that in another couple decades, when your children and my children enter the workplace, sexual harassment will be mostly a scourge of the past.

By joining hands to create strong workplace cultures, we can build – and lead – the great companies of the future.

Comments in English and Chinese are welcome, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.