The development industry has a sexual harassment problem. Here's how to combat it

Photo credit: from Pexels

Photo credit: from Pexels

The following story was shared anonymously by a woman development worker who was forced to leave a prestigious junior professionals program prematurely due to unwanted sexual harassment from her superior. This story was originally published by Devex on February 20, 2018 as part of the ongoing Women Working in Global Development campaign, a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.

The story: When sexual harassment shifts a career trajectory

I was still young and finishing up my graduate work when I received an offer to intern at a development bank that was a part of a prestigious junior professionals program.

I was really excited — it was my first time working for a multilateral donor and I would be part of a program that helped fledgling young professionals launch illustrious careers in international development. I arrived on my first day, nervous, like anyone would be, and my supervisor seemed very distant. He told me he was busy, and I assumed it was a bad day.

I was wrong. I would work on projects by myself with no direction or supervision, and the “busy” continued for six or seven months. Then, all of sudden the supervisor became very interested in me. He would use the organization’s internal messaging system to chat with me. Initially I thought he was interested in how my work as going, with instant messages such as, “Hi, how are you doing?” To be honest, I was happy to get his messages after the way he had treated me before. I thought that perhaps my hard work had paid off, and I could earn a reference, so I kept chatting with him.

It was small talk at first, until it became incredibly awkward. He started asking me what I was wearing and if I liked giving men hugs. I had never encountered this type of behavior before and his attention did not let up. The stressful interactions and messages started to affect my ability to work.

I was so distressed that I eventually left what was supposed to be a two-year internship well before the end. Initially, I was unable to talk about the experience and even telling the story now has been difficult. The hole on my resume felt shameful — because I didn’t power through and complete the program.

I was able to go on to have a great career since — even returning to that same development bank a few years later working on a different team, but it doesn’t make up for that initial experience.


Quantum’s take: Sexual harassment is extremely common — and can leave a damaging emotional toll

This woman’s story is unfortunately all too familiar for many women in international development and beyond: Intimidation and harassment by a co-worker or supervisor, resulting in discomfort and work disruption, possibly leading to a transfer or quitting altogether. As we learned from the Devex #aidtoo campaign, workplace sexual misconduct in global development is much more common that we think — 86 percent of aid workers report knowing a colleague who has experienced sexual violence in the course of their work.

You might be thinking, but how credible is this woman’s story if she didn’t report the offense to human resources? The answer is, most women don’t report harassment. Their reasons might be financial (maybe she has a mortgage to pay, or she may be the sole breadwinner in her household), professional (she may be climbing the ladder and not want her progress stalled, or may need a professional reference for her next job), or personal (she may fear backlash, or she simply does not know the avenues open to her). In most aid organizations, protocols exist to bring perpetrators to justice and to make the workplace a safe place for women. Unfortunately, most of the time they don’t work.

A 2017 ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 33 million U.S. women have been sexually harassed — and 14 million sexually abused — in work-related episodes. Yet nearly all women — 95 percent —r eport that male perpetrators of such abuse usually go unpunished.

And the reality is that, whether or not harassment is reported, all of these women survivors carry the emotional toll with them for years to come, if not the rest of their careers. Our storyteller continued to feel shame about quitting the junior professionals program. Although she is resilient and was able to recover her career, the harassment she faced wreaked havoc on her self-esteem and sense of self-worth as a professional.

It’s not a matter of if but when sexual harassment will come to light at any organization. The sooner organizational leaders begin to take definitive and transparent steps to address the problem, the safer the office will be for all staff who work there.


The fix: What can leaders do? 

Here are five steps leaders can take to combat sexual harassment in an organization:

1. Accept that your organization is already affected by sexual harassment and violence, what you don’t yet know is the current scope of the problem.

2. Believe the accusers; develop an internal response mechanism to make sure victims are supported and create multiple confidential reporting channels rather than one centrally-managed one.

3. Abide by a zero tolerance policy for sexism and harassment.

4. Properly vet and train all personnel in sexual violence prevention and response.

5. Ensure the same policies are applied in the headquarters and the field.

Would you like to submit a story about overcoming adversity in your career that could help other women? Click here.