lifting a woman's dress is a form of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in tech: the Weinstein effect and a mum Kenyan society

The culture of sexual harassment also rocks the tech industry and the Kenyan tech community has not been immune either. Exhibit A the sexual harassment scandal that rocked Ushahidi shaking tech industry to its core.

If you thought gender inequality was the only problem affecting the tech industry, think again. There’s a new kind of stain on the reputation. A stubborn stain.

Ushahidi, a global crisis mapping platform, was in the spotlight for the better part of 2017. The sexual harassment claim pitting a junior employee against a senior member of its team shook the tech industry. The worst part yet? There were claims that the company had been covering up harassment cases against women working for the company. This exposé is a first in the Kenyan tech scene but this does not, in any way, suggest that it is the only case.

Influential figures in the Kenyan tech scene spoke up against the harassment with some terming it as unacceptable. The entire case ended with a few tech leaders calling for a proper examination of the events that led to the harassment and ensure protection for those working in the industry. Full stop.

One such leader was Ory Okolloh who laid emphasis on the need for the tech community to have tough conversations. In a blog, Okolloh said that she and other tech leaders were working on creating a forum to discuss sexual harassment in addition to creating a code of conduct that would govern organizations and individuals. In addition to Okolloh, there are other powerful women who have shaped the tech industry. These women have, for the large part, single-handedly revolutionized the local tech scene. It would be great if they all came together and focused their effort on fighting sexual harassment in the tech space. We will wait.

It seems that the Weinstein effect did not quite spread in Kenya since no one else has publicly come out to share their experience. The allegations, however, signal the existence of a culture of sexual harassment in the Kenyan tech space. Reports of the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexism in the Silicon Valley are quite telling and they paint a picture of an industry that is faced with challenges facing other sectors especially the entertainment industry.

Sexual harassment thrives in a mum society

A friend of mine Cate (not her real name) once told me of how her boss would come over to her cubicle, drag a chair, sit, and proceed to run his hands through her skirt in the middle of holding work-related discussions. Her resolve? She would try to avoid him as much as possible. She shrugged off the awkwardness and never confronted him about it. Her reaction is reminiscent of the way the society handles and perceives sexual harassment. Girls are told to avoid being sexually harassed instead of sending a warning message to the perpetrators. We are told to dress “modestly” to avoid provoking men or avoid certain things or situations that can potentially put us in trouble. What happened to nipping problems in the bud? Patriarchy at its best!

Women are often the victims of sexual harassment and since the Kenyan society still, albeit partly, believes in male superiority, women are encouraged to keep quiet. While a wave of stories have been told about how influential men demand sexual favors from women in exchange for jobs or promotions, they have never made it to the mainstream media. All they are rumors. The society does not want to bring down the man who spent his entire life working to build an empire. He will not let you do that either. If you poke the bear, he will ensure that you become “unemployable”. Your new “status” quickly spreads.

But then, there’s the risk of speaking out

Victims of sexual harassment especially low-level employees are afraid to speak up. This is because the leaders they will approach may not take their claims seriously and, in the end, they have the power to terminate their employment. Needless to say, the relationship between employees and their seniors is well defined and a majority of interactions happen in formal settings. Also, trying to find another job is not easy especially given the levels of unemployment and the “do you know anybody “syndrome in many local firms. On the other hand, people who are in high-level positions may perceive speaking up as a high risk that may give rise to unintended consequences. In most cases they do not think speaking up is worth the risk.

The society has to realize that there are deeper emotional and psychological issues that can result from this kind of harassment. Damaging a woman’s career is just a tip of the iceberg. A victim’s confidence and enthusiasm can be affected negatively. In some cases, some women suffer shame and blame themselves. To some women, the harassment leaves permanent scars. The kind that cannot be just wished away.

Tech leaders should do more to encourage people to speak up. People are still silent about their encounter despite the recent flood of all-too-similar stories both locally and internationally. No one deserves to be subjected to such treatment or even be put in a position where they are forced to exchange their job or career with sexual favors.

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