Don’t overlook bullying of women in the workplace

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Although workplace bullying is not gender specific, research confirms that women are fundamentally victims, irrespective of their hierarchical position within an organization. 

Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, stalking and other forms of family violence and abuse have long shaken women’s lives. What is too often not considered is the violence and abuse women must endure in the workplace. 

Women activism campaigns often project a very specific message of physical violence as abuse to women. The visual depictions of a battered and physically bruised woman are often the face of the campaign. The violations that women endure are not restricted by any means to the physical abuse.

Through time immemorial, irrespective of race or religion, our realities around the construction of gender have been consistent. These include the perceptions that women are fragile and are suited to the traditional and nurturing roles of wife and mother. If she had to enter the workplace, it should be an extension of these nurturing roles into careers such as teachers, nurses or social workers.

However, these perceptions are being challenged as women aggressively take on what have been the previous male-dominated careers in the science and engineering sectors, as well as bring forth a new perspective of leadership style in organizations. With still a long way to go in order to reach parity with the male counterparts, women face a number of challenges in the workplace.

The significant hurdles that women in the workplace must face are issues of the glass ceiling, the maternal wall (mommy track), workplace stress and role overload. These barriers, linked to the traditional constructions of gender, are emphasized and brought about by what is defined as the “boys network” which is a patriarchal network in which gender oppression is rooted. 

This is a group of men who contribute to the oppression by women by obstructing all possibilities for promotion and they sit on committees which drive policies such as that of remuneration. They bully women overtly in attempts to break them down emotionally.

Although workplace bullying is not gender specific, research confirms that women are fundamentally victims irrespective of their hierarchical position within an organization. Cassell (2011) describes workplace bullying as “harassment that inflicts a hostile work environment upon an employee by a co-worker, typically through a combination of repeated, inappropriate, and unwelcome verbal, nonverbal, and/or low-level physical behaviours that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, harassing, humiliating, degrading, or offensive”.

South Africa is indeed lagging behind on research and awareness on workplace bullying. As with any abusive behaviour, the underlying issue is that of the balance of power – workplace bullying is no different. However, the manner in which women perceive it is rather peculiar. Women in the workplace often overlook the circumstances surrounding the bullying behaviours as they identify it as the male leadership style and take no recourse against it with the fear of not being taken seriously or being victimized and marginalized. 

Women are subjected to verbal, cyber abuse or mere actions which exemplify their portrayed “unworthiness” to be in the space that they are in. Another form of bullying is referred to as mobbing, where groups of individuals intimidate, humiliate and exclude other members of the staff. Often this is done by email or confrontation and is targeted at maliciously forcing the targeted worker out of the workplace, according to international research by deFalco & Crabb.

Groups that are at risk include new employees and women on succession planning paths, according to international research. The media does not often highlight stories of harassment of women in workplace, and this is purely due to the fact that many women do not come forward.

A 2018 South African study into sexual advances in the workplace confirmed that 30% of women were victims, and 22% remained silent. This is mainly because women who are victims in these instances are persecuted as the perpetrators who solicited these acts of violence. For fear of being tarnished by society and desecrated in the world of work, the women employee remains and endures her suffering in silence. In the case of a single income household, the woman often sees herself as having no choice but to continue working under these conditions.

What exacerbates the situation is when fellow female colleagues band together with their male counterparts. Due to the power men hold in the workplace (76.5% of top management positions are held by men according to the 2018/19 Employment Equity analyses), some women feel that aligning with men assures their success. In this alignment, they expound this pervasive culture of workplace bullying. Victims who remain within the organization suffer from severe stress which lead to physical manifestations and burn out.

From a recourse perspective, the current situation remains bleak. While education on this topic continues and organizations attempt to evolve in support of women who undergo such malicious behaviour, by developing policies and processes to vindicate the victims, one needs to bear in mind the dark reality. People who sit on policy making and investigative panels are predominantly men, who delay the processes in support of their male colleague aka the perpetrator. 

In a recent South African study, women who had reported cases of workplace abuse and bullying had to voluntarily resign eventually. This was due to the fact that they had to face their perpetrator on a daily basis and endure severe victimization as well as ridicule while the investigation process was prolonged for periods of up to three years.

In saying this, women need to take cognizance of the struggles generations have undergone to have made the strides some women get to enjoy today in terms of certain levels of parity. Although still a long way off from gender balance in every sphere of life, women need to maintain the strength and fight. Women are urged to literally break the silence and speak out against any form of violence, inequality, bullying and lack of parity whether in the home, workplace or society at large. 

Although these traumatic and difficult decisions may not augur well initially, it paves the way forward to pass the baton of strength from woman to woman, and the steadier we stand, the stronger our wall against the inequalities we face. Give strength to other women and speak out!

As transformation takes place in organizations and we begin to see more diversified boards and management teams from a race and gender perspective, the prescriptive manner in which we manage matters such workplace bullying will change and processes of investigation and the conclusion of matters will be expedited.

Although the South African law does not provide for cases against bullying in the workplace, it falls under the ambit of unfair discrimination covered by the Employment Equity Act Section 6(1) which states that:

No person may unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against an employee, in any employment policy or practice, on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, birth or on any other arbitrary ground.

Section 6(2) also provides that: “Harassment of an employee is a form of unfair discrimination and is prohibited on any one, or a combination of grounds of unfair discrimination listed in subsection (1).”

South Africa proudly boasted that from a board perspective, it has 24% female representation, one of the highest internationally. At senior management level, female representation is 34%. However, in our quest to develop women as part of our economy and within leadership roles, mutual respect is key, and proper channels for the management of misconduct and misdemeanours need to be put in place and well communicated. There is no excuse for any behaviour that makes one feel uncomfortable.


Dr Aradhana Ramnund-Mansingh, an academic at MANCOSA and former Human Resource Executive.