Sexual Harassment is a Gender Equality Issue

China Development Brief, no.50 (Summer 2011)

中文 English

This article discusses the factors that make sexual harassment so widespread and problematic in China, showing that the sources of sexual harassment are no different in China than in other countries and can be traced to existing gender norms and power imbalances between men and women in the workplace.

Zhongze’s efforts to change businesses’ attitudes toward sexual harassment was not an easy task. Since the project started in 2006, the vast majority of businesses have either opposed initiatives or taken a wait-and-see approach by refusing to participate. In contrast, six businesses had the courage and insight to experiment in going beyond their legal responsibilities, highlighting the persistent and innovative role of the NGO, Zhongze, in addressing the problem of sexual harassment1.

“This problem is due to deficiencies in the law, as well as traditional gender roles. These factors lead to businesses with an archaic understanding of sexual harassment,” said Secretary-General Lin Lixia of Zhongze Women’s Watch. China’s sexual harassment problem is rooted in a nascent legal system, unresponsive businesses, and traditional gender roles and other cultural factors. These are all mutually intertwined and often form the major obstacle towards a more gender-neutral society. Unfortunately, improvements in gender equality have not developed in step with China’s sustained economic rise.“The development of gender roles in China is particularly backward.” said Ma Leijun, officer of the United Nations Task Force Group on Gender (UNTGG) Thematic Area on Gender Equality, which frequently provides data refuting the common perception of women in China holding a high status in society. The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Report, published annually, ranks different countries based on gender development and women’s rights. The United Nations uses these rankings to determine indicators for gender equality to judge progress in equal participation in politics, economics, and occupational opportunity. In the 2009 report, China was ranked no. 72, behind the following Asian countries: Japan (56), Vietnam (61), and South Korea (67). Another 2008 report from the United Nations and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs evaluated the implementation and progress of China’s Millennium Development Goals. They concluded that China has become the world’s model for poverty alleviation, but still faces major challenges in the areas of gender equality, AIDS prevention, and sustainable development.

Developmental aid from the United Nations to China has been irregular. In recent years, China has experienced an obvious trend of withdrawal of international funds. Ma Leijun noted, “The Global Fund, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), and other organizations and programs, which previously provided funding to China are gradually withdrawing funding. This year, staff and projects in the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) were halved. However, last year four agencies were merged to become the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (hereafter referred to as “UN Entity for Women”), and increased the amount of aid into China. The new UN Entity for Women is expected to become a driving force for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace is About Power

“According to Tsinghua University professor Sun Liping, abuse of power is currently China’s most serious problem. Our research intends to ascertain whether sexual harassment is an issue of power distinct from gender discrimination.” said Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Sociology (CASS) researcher Tang Can. The research Professor Tang refers to is a study funded by Oxfam Hong Kong from 2004 to 2007. The research involved 24 case studies of sexual harassment, analyzing interviews of victims, relatives, lawyers, and judges. The analysis paid special attention to the subjects’ behavior, body language, and logic, which indicated that sexual harassment was shaped by a specific transitional period and culture. According to Western feminists of the 1970s, sexual harassment has its roots in gender-based social inequality. The Chinese case study also validated this conclusion.

The research study found that in some cases, sexual harassment would develop into rape. In cases where women were unable to stop the harassment, the generally lower social status of women and the harasser’s powerful relationships and behavior put her in a vulnerable position and her refusal had little effect. This was contrasted with cases where female victims successfully rejected their harasser’s attentions. They found that in these cases, the victimizers and the victims were often of equal social status; the social interaction between the two would qualify as coercive. Sexual harassment thus occurred when a victim and the harasser’s positions of authority were significantly different.

In addition, Professor Tang and other researchers’ studies have shown that the social environment and the institutional system are two major factors influencing sexual harassment. If management is sufficiently impartial and deliberately conscious of the problem, women’s efforts in resisting sexual harassment can be rewarded. The third factor is whether a woman has the knowledge and skill to fend off sexual harassment. Judging by this research, gender inequality and unequal positions of power are the root causes of sexual harassment, constraining the choices and options available to both the victim and the harasser. Multinational statistical studies from the International Labour Organization support this theory. As there is no social safety net for victims or channels for assistance, it is critical that businesses and senior management step up and become an important line of defense to the vulnerable by providing prevention programs. Professor Tang said, “Compared with those in the normal workforce, those without a formal workplace are even less likely to be able to lodge complaints about their situation.” Certain workplaces have developed a poor response to the problem of sexual harassment, Professor Tang found. Those surveyed commonly replied that their employers were not at all concerned, ignoring women’s interests, dignity, and feelings. Women found it hard to receive fair and equal protection from management. State-owned enterprises were specifically mentioned as exemplifying this situation.

“In cases of abuse of power involving sexual harassment, state-owned enterprises are apparently unable to control the problem. The management of state-owned enterprises seems to have unlimited power. Of the 24 cases in the research study, over half took place in state-owned enterprises. According to Professor Tang, state-owned enterprises still have a problem in dealing with sexual harassment cases. “Sexual harassment is seen as immoral behavior that is corrupting society. A trend of highly politicized cases caught the attention of the general public, and the backlash of opinion condemned both the victim and the harasser alike” ((Editor’s Note: One such case was a 2009 incident involving Deng Yujiao, an employee at a karaoke entertainment center, who stabbed a government official when he tried to force her to have sex with him. Deng’s case sparked a firestorm in the blogosphere and media about sexual harassment and whether she should be punished. She was tried in court for murder but was set free after the court found her guilty of a lesser charge of using excessive force in self-defense.)). This approach is often harmful to both the victim and the harasser. Moreover, this allows the state-owned enterprises to shift the blame and cover up the problem, and government agencies to avoid dealing with it. In fact, their lack of empathy towards the victim causes harm and forces the burden of proof on her, even to the extent that when the victim lodges a complaint, she is persecuted from all sides. This is a not at all uncommon situation.

Professor Tang and other researchers have clearly shown in their studies that there is a huge gap in attitudes and awareness towards sexual harassment between academics and the general public. In recent years, the unofficial public view on sexual harassment is that the victim is somehow inviting it. Cultural attitudes further blur the lines of responsibility between the harasser and the victim. Professor Tang said that accepting or rejecting sexual harassment is not a matter of personal attitude. It is simply unacceptable to ask women to sacrifice their own interests and employment opportunities. This research study is aimed at correcting errors in the general public opinion, and to help guide the general public on the traditional cultural response of victim-blaming, and to focus attention on gender equality, equal protection under the law, and defects in the legal system.


  1. Editor’s Note: Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Services Center is the new name of China’s oldest independent women’s legal aid NGO, formerly known as Beijing University Women’s Legal Aid Center. Zhongze’s recent efforts to work with businesses to address sexual harassment are detailed in another CDB article, “A NGO Works with Companies to Prevent Sexual Harrassment”. 

性骚扰背后是社会性别平等问题
付涛
中国发展简报2011夏季刊
“众泽针对企业进行倡导并非易事。项目从2006年启动至今,联系到的绝大部分企业均被抵触和观望情绪左右,拒绝参与,反衬了6家试点企业超越法律责任先吃螃蟹的勇气和胆识,也凸显了“众泽”作为民间机构,在性骚扰社会问题上锲而不舍的开创性价值。
“这 既与法律的缺失有关,也与传统的性别文化导致企业在性骚扰问题的认识滞后于进步的理念有关。”众泽妇女观察秘书长林丽霞说。中国的职场性骚扰问题背后,是法律滞后、企业缺乏应对动力、以及传统性别文化负面影响等因素的作用。这些因素相互牵扯,共同对社会性别平等的努力形成挑战。遗憾的是,中国持续多年的经 济发展,并未直接带来社会性别平等状况的同步改善。
“中国的社会性别发展还特别落后。” 联合国社会性别主题工作组项目官员马雷军经常拿出数据,来反驳中国妇女地位较高的公众印象。联合国开发计划署 (UNDP)每年都要发布人类发展报告,对各国的性别发展指数和性别妇权尺度进行排序。这些排序指标对联合国所倡导的“根本意义”上的性别平等,即男女在政治、经济等方面的参政就业机会进行衡量。2009年的最新排序中,中国位列第72位,位居亚洲国家日本(56位)、越南(61位)、韩国(67位)之后。另外一个参照来自2008年联合国和中国外交部就千年发展目标的实施进行的评估结论,认为中国在扶贫上已经成为世界典范,但在社会性别(平等),艾滋病防治和可持续发展三个方面,仍然面临重大挑战。
从 联合国对华投入援助资金的消长,从一个侧面透出其中的端倪。近年来,国际资金退出中国的趋势总体上非常明显。马雷军说,全球基金 (Global Fund)和英国国际发展部(DFID)等昔日对华援助的重点机构和项目已逐步淡出。今年联合国艾滋病规划署(UNAIDS)的人员和项 目减半,但去年联合国将四个机构合并,成立性别平等与女性赋权署(以下简称“联合国妇女署”),在华投入的资金量在加大。新的联合国妇女署被赋予期望,成为驱动社会性别平等和妇女赋能的一个更强有力机构。
权力关系左右职场性骚扰
“清华大学孙立平教授说权力滥用是当前中国最严重的问题,我们的研究是要探明,性骚扰中除了歧视,是否还有权力滥用问题”,中国社科院社会学所研究员唐灿说。
唐 灿提到的这项研究,是课题组在2004~2007年间由香港乐施会资助完成的,对24个案例涉及的受害者、受害者的同事、亲属、律师和法官进行的访谈分 析,主要通过定性的社会学研究,关注行为者的选择、行动方向和逻辑,指向特定的转型时期和特定文化下性骚扰现象背后的社会公平问题。性骚扰在70年代就被 西方女权主义者确认为基于性别的社会不平等,这项研究通过本土的案例研究对此予以证实。
课题组把最初的性骚扰发展为屈从性行为或者强奸的一组案例,与受害女性成功拒绝和遏止性骚扰的案例进行对比,发现后面一组案例中,骚扰者与被骚扰者地位较为平等,互动过程中缺少权力构成胁迫和威慑。而拒绝不成功的案例中,女性社会身份较低,在和骚扰者的权力关系和互动中明显处于弱势,她们的拒绝只能起到微弱 作用。性骚扰的发生与受害者与骚扰者的权力关系显著。
此外,唐灿等人的研究表明,环境和制度是影响性骚扰的第二个影响。用人单位如果有足够的公平和防范意识并以制度来保证,对女性的反抗效果很有帮助。第三个因素是女性面对性骚扰的智慧和技巧因素。
循 着这个逻辑可以判断,性骚扰背后是不平等的社会性别关系和不平等的社会权力地位关系,制约着施害者和受害者的选择和行动,这被国际劳工组织在多个国家的统计研究所证明。在对受害者的社会援助和救济渠道缺失的情况下,用人单位成为亟需建立的防治性骚扰的一道重要防线。唐灿说,相比之下在非正规就业领域,由于 存在单位缺失,更容易出现投诉无门的情况。
具体到单位对性骚扰问题发生后的反应,唐灿发现,受访者的共同反应是,单位并不关注,无视其尊严利益、尊严和感受,她们难以从单位行为中获得公平保护。其中,国企的特点被特别提及。
“在 涉及性骚扰的权力滥用上,国企的问题好像更加不可控制。集权制的国企老板权力不受控制,回想我调研的24个案例,国企一类单位占了一半以上。”唐灿说,面 对性骚扰问题,国企往往还有另一幅面孔:“特别关注社会道德,从高度政治化倾向出发关注秩序,从流氓败坏社会风气的角度看待性骚扰,对骚扰者施加行政处罚的同时,往往伴以对女性的道德和精神责备,受害者的个人权利不在其视野内。”这往往造成骚扰者和受害者两败俱伤。此外,企业推卸和掩盖问题,政府一些相关组织看似公事公办,实则使受害者感到缺乏同情心造成伤害,以及要受害者负担举证责任,甚至当受害者站出来提起诉讼时候,联合迫害受害者,这些情况也并不鲜见。
      唐灿等人的研究表明,在对待性骚扰的认知和态度上,学者和公众之间还有相当大的距离。近年来,非正式公众舆论仍然普遍认为性骚扰是女性有所迎合的结果,背后的文化扭曲使受害者和施害者责任不清。唐灿说,实际上接受或者拒绝性骚扰并不取决于个人态度,要求女性放弃生存利益和工作机会是一种苛求。这项研究是对公 众误区进行修正,有助于引导公众和舆论针对女性的传统文化苛责心理,转向关注性别平等以及保障这种平等的环境和制度的缺失问题。

 

Fu Tao is CDB Editor

Translated by Jane Luksich

Reviewed by Claudia Vernotti

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