Rania was exuberant when the email pinged in her inbox – their agency had bagged a prestigious project right after her impressive presentation. The office broke into a mini celebration. Her boss called her to the cabin and visibly excited about the achievement, pulled her close for a hug and an impromptu peck on the cheek. Almost instantly, she felt as though a cold towel had been thrown on her. Taken aback, her smile faded. Was he genuinely celebrating the deal or did he exploit the moment to get a bit too familiar? Should she complain to HR about the incident or would they think she was blowing things out of proportion?

Withdrawing from the cabin, Rania (name changed) walked over to her desk and dropped into her chair, her brain swamped by a flurry of emotions ranging from anger to shame. She contemplated writing an email to her HR officer to report the boss’s action, but decided against it. She then wondered if she should share the experience with a colleague of hers. In the end, after much thought, Rania decided to just forget about the incident promising herself that if it was repeated, she would inform her office higher ups.

But not all women are preferring to remain silent. With the #MeToo campaign taking the world by storm, hundreds of women have gathered courage to be vocal about unfair advances by colleagues at workplace.

In October 2017, #MeToo spread virally as a hashtag used on social media, demonstrating the widespread prevalence of harassment at workplaces. While many celebrities were mentioned in these controversies in the US, over the past few months well known personalities in India too are facing similar allegations.

‘I am amazed by this revolution,’ says Ilaria Caielli, co-author of UAE 101, a guidebook to Emirati culture that includes interesting anecdotes and cultural tips. ‘The #MeToo movement is changing the workplace by highlighting gender power dynamics. Those in power – mainly men - have not been aware of the level of privilege that they and their colleagues have taken for granted.’

Moushami Dighe, strategic planner at a Dubai-based ad agency, has mixed feelings about this movement. ‘On the one hand it is an empowering feeling to see women speaking up, and people and authorities taking notice and action. On the other hand, it is disheartening to see how every woman has had at least one #MeToo moment in her life.’

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Natasha Amar, a Dubai-based travel blogger, observes, ‘It’s important to make society aware of the fact that women can feel threatened in all walks of life, even in these supposedly modern times.’

One point that came through during interviews with women was that many feel that workplace harassment is widespread and not restricted to any particular field.

Life coach and founder of Change Associates, Rita Baki admits to having counselled several women victims from various walks of life. ‘I have had clients go through this in offices, hospitals, schools, restaurants, stores, banks... whatever workplace you can imagine. I’ve heard stories about verbal harassment by co-workers, remarks about women’s bodies and appearance in the office, unwelcome advances incuding on some occasions, physical harassment by a senior male.’

The good news, though, is that such incidents are not common in this country. ‘[I’ve not faced such experiences] with my Arab colleagues in the UAE,’ says Moushami, who has worked in the US, Singapore and India before calling Dubai home. ‘The Arab culture is such that there is a very clear distance to be maintained between males and females at the workplace or social scenarios.’

She, however, mentions that such incidents have occurred ‘with expat men from other parts of the world’.

Recent statistics on Middle East workplace comfort is encouraging. According to a survey conducted by job site bayt.com and YouGov, UAE leads the Middle East for gender equality in workplace as offices in the country are the most gender-mixed in the region.

There is no doubt that with at least 120 different nationalities and cultures coalescing together, Middle East offers a unique working environment. One of its many pros is that it offers employees the exposure of a multi-dimensional thinking box, with linear representation from different countries that directly benefit the brand in understanding it’s diverse audience. ‘It clearly gives you the chance to dip your toes into expat life. This brings about greater tolerance and the ability to appreciate and empathise with cultures that are different from the ones you’re comfortable with,’ says Natasha.

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Rita, who is a certified NLP coach and hypnotherapist, offers a different perspective: ‘In such a melting pot environment, everyone comes with his or her own culture and values, and this means people have to be that much more mindful of their actions. ‘What is okay in my culture may not be okay in yours, and vice versa. Being culturally aware helps us ensure that we are not overstepping anybody’s boundaries.’

That said, what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a matter of perspective and socio-cultural conditioning. But ‘uncomfortable advances’ that occur at the workplace need to be corrected and addressed, feel women.

There is an entire spectrum from the minutest to the most extreme form of harassment. Following discussions with women, it is clear that there are some actions that are clearly uncalled for.

‘Women instinctively know how to differentiate between right and wrong,’ said one interviewee, who preferred anonymity. ‘Not all of the accusations mean that the men in question are serious offenders. It’s about what’s appropriate for a certain formal relationship and what’s incompatible and crossing the decency line.’

Work colleagues often have social/familial interactions outside the workplace, so friendly conversations will naturally take place about topics other than work. ‘This is fine but needs to be kept within a respectful boundary,’ says Rehna (name changed on request), a senior manager at an MNC.

If one examines what is considered as inappropriate, two things stand out starkly — intent and consent. If this is made clear, then the entire existence of #MeToo can be dismantled and can lead to the creation of a perfect world for women to work in, she says.

‘A hug or a kiss by consent of the co-worker is a legitimate entity and does not raise questions of any kind. A pat on the back without malicious intent is harmless. That said, if the colleague were to intentionally have prolonged physical contact that is uncomfortable for the receiver, it should set off alarm bells regarding the intent of the colleague,’ she adds.

The fallout of the #MeToo movement is that it has opened up discussions among women – and among men – with regard to the relationships between colleagues.

Roy Sharif, an artist based in Abu Dhabi, couldn’t agree more to the fact that men need to be involved in the discussion because while they may look like the problem, they are really a big part of the solution.

‘Today’s socially aware and independent men are well aware of their behaviour towards women,’ says Roy. ‘We also respect women a lot because of our positive relationships with leading women in our lives – like seeing our mom work while taking care of us as kids. We know how tough it can be out there for them. A sensitive man understands this and wants to make the workplace comfortable for them.’

So, do women have a hint of what they find uncomfortable? ‘To give a few examples, the workplace is not the place for flirting or teasing of any kind,’ says Rita. ‘Staring at a woman, making her feel watched, breaking her personal bubble, all mean that you are overstepping your boundaries.’

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Moushami drives home the point further. ‘Anything that is a breach of my space — physical or verbal; any comment that is derogatory on me as a woman or as an individual that is not related to my work; any action or words of discomfort or speaking to me in a manner that isn’t professional [is unacceptable],’ says Moushami. Polite behaviour and manners also extend to the business environment.

Says Ilaria: ‘In general, everyone needs to learn to respect colleagues’ culture, just as we expect them to respect ours. In the Middle East, modest clothing is extremely important – for women and men. Be mindful not to wear revealing clothes. Also, for men it’s recommended not to approach a female Muslim colleague with a handshake or any form of a physical greeting.’

This in no way means that the region is a tricky place to work in, say the women we spoke to.

‘Because of the presence of an Arab culture where the space between man and woman is a cultural norm, it automatically has a halo effect on the expats in the workplace,’ says Moushami. ‘It goes beyond work conduct; it is cultural conduct of working in a place in the Middle East.’

Some behaviour experts believe that a discussion on workplace harassment of women is beyond that of a culture and region and more of a gender mindset issue.

‘A lot of men in power think that women around them are attracted to them, and encourage advances with an assumed expectation of interest and acceptance from the women. Power distorts the vision,’ observes Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University in New York.

‘Most cultures look at women as a currency in their social circles, which makes this a global problem, irrespective of which part of the world workplace you belong to.

‘Just like having a car and a great house is seen as a mark of progress for a man, landing with a desirable woman is seen as an achievement by the peers, which makes this a relevant social problem that only the next generation can alter with a better mindset,’ adds the founder-editor of the academic journal Men & Masculinities.

There have been cases around the world where more than a business proposition is on offer and a woman has to choose if she wants to move up the career ladder with these fringe activities or turn them down at the risk of affecting her career graph negatively.

‘A friend of mine turned down a huge collaboration as the person in question was interested in more than just a business proposition with her,’ says Shamira Mitha, head of Public Relations at Verve. ‘If you have a choice, be strong and say [an emphatic] ‘No’.

‘As a woman working in a predominantly man’s world — the hospitality industry — I’ve always put down any subtle advances and just moved away - even if it has meant loss of business.’

Which brings the discussion to why some women are reluctant to speak up when they are forced into uncomfortable situations. For many, it is the fear of being dismissed from their job and so they prefer not to report such incidents.

‘[Workplace harassment] can be uncomfortable, make us feel vulnerable, and lead to complicated situations. But as a woman, I’d rather deal with the problem than live in the fear of the consequences of speaking up,’ says Natasha.

So, what are the best ways to cope with extreme non-consensual incidents?

‘First, the woman should remember that she is not alone; there are thousands of women who have gone through similar situations. There are plenty of resources available to help her get through the situation too,’ says Rita, who has counselled several women.

‘The top priority in these situations should be that the woman seek help so that she can work through it.

‘Some women confront their colleagues, others take recourse to legal action, yet other escalate it to the higher ups in the organisation. [The choice] depends on what is best for her. The best way to get over something is to get through it, so be patient with yourself.’

Talking to a therapist, counsellor or a close friend can go a long way in the healing process. ‘When we talk about a problem, we are saying to it — ‘I acknowledge you, I acknowledge how you have affected me, and I am going to come out the other side.’ We are taking away its power to cast a shadow over our lives. Talk in your own time, when you feel you are ready, but please, talk.’

It is also important that the victims seek the help of the society and the immediate ‘society’ at the workplace is the Management. Their role in these situations is crucial and defined. Men and women who are willing to stand up for the right voice, need to be assured about their job and economic security which can be done only by the senior management. ‘If the management backs the right voices, there will be less fear and more courage in making the workplace safe and pulling out the weeds that make it uncomfortable for women to live and function,’ says Rehna.

Sara Khoja, Partner at Clyde & Co. Law Firm, agrees. ‘I would suggest the first step would be to speak to a colleague or a manager and then review any policies the employer has in place to deal with concerns,’ she says. ‘It may be that an informal discussion can resolve the situation. If the incident is of a more serious nature, then a formal complaint should be raised and the internal procedures followed first.

‘A female employee can always resort to external complaints e.g. the police since such harassment is potentially a criminal offence.’

There are several companies in the region who are taking necessary steps in ensuring their workspace is fair, ethical, inclusive and safe. Hilton Middle East Africa is one example. It was awarded the Number 2 best workplace in the world recently by the Great Place to Work.

‘Hilton is committed to an inclusive workforce that fully represents many different cultures, backgrounds and viewpoints,’ says Julia Miller, director of compensation & benefits at Hilton. ‘We have four talented female general managers and hotel managers in the UAE who are great role models. By elevating women to leadership positions and offering meaningful support, we are making strides in creating an environment where all our team members can thrive.’

Another way of building a safe and thriving workplace is by ensuring staff are aware of the company’s code of conduct.

A senior human resources executive at a leading recruiting firm, says that every time they recruit an employee, ‘we take them through an expected code of conduct. Besides the regular code of ethics, we have recently added few crucial points that acknowledge the presence of the other gender at work. It says ‘one should should respect the privacy of their colleagues and maintain physical and emotional decency at all levels. One should respect the dignity of their colleagues and strive to create an environment where everyone can thrive, irrespective of their gender’.

Sara feels this an extremely crucial practice for any organisation to follow. ‘It is very important in an employment context for employers to set norms in the workplace and to make it clear what standards of behaviour are expected from all employees at all levels,’ she says.

‘It can be confusing establishing common standards of interaction against a multi-ethnic background such as the Middle East, especially with regard to men and women interacting in the workplace. So it is also important to deal with misunderstandings in a sensitive manner. To this end I always suggest that part of the staff on boarding programme includes sessions on workplace culture and business practice. These sessions should also be open to any employee who wishes to attend by way of a refresher.

‘Managers should also be given specific training on how to deal with these issues in the workplace, so that they can identify flashpoints early on and deal with complaints both on a formal and informal basis,’ she adds.

Tips on how to improve gender dynamics at work

According to Dr. Rasha, there are some constructive ways to make the workplace a more positive place for women:

✱ Encourage an open and honest conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour within the business.

✱ Make it clear that inappropriate behaviour in any shape or form will not be tolerated.

✱ Ensure a dedicated and approachable member of the human resources team is available to discuss any concerns and worries with.

✱ Take all concerns and worries seriously and with the utmost respect and deal with them straightaway.

WHAT'S THE DEAL?

Inappropriate

1 Having random or social conversations, using language with ulterior meanings and implications that can make the woman feel uncomfortable.

2 Expressing gratitude or appreciation for her efforts and performance using physical gestures or romantic hints.

3 Using indecent wording/gestures when expressing concern for her health and general wellbeing.

Appropriate

1 General and respectful concern for her welfare and health.

2 Always using decent and respectful appreciative words when praising her performance at work.

3 Work colleagues often have social/familial interactions outside the workplace, so friendly conversations will naturally take place about topics other than work. This is fine but needs to be kept within a respectful boundary.

Information: Dr Rasha Bassim, Specialist Psychiatrist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai