Two in five workers in Singapore have been sexually harassed at the workplace in the past five years. This is the sobering key finding from a survey by market research company Ipsos in collaboration with gender-equality organisation AWARE—the first-ever nationally representative survey on workplace sexual harassment in Singapore.
The survey was conducted in November 2020. Respondents comprised 1,000 Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents who had been engaged in paid work (full-time, part-time, self-employed and freelance) in the previous five years.
Importantly, when respondents were asked “Have you been sexually harassed in the workplace within the last five years?”, only 1 in 5 responded in the affirmative. However, when specific harassment situations were described to them, 2 in 5 reported that they had indeed experienced such behaviours—indicating a major gap in understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.
The harassment situations illustrated in the survey included:
- Pictures, jokes, texts or gestures of a sexual or sexist nature (approximately 1 in 5 reported experiencing this; approximately 1 in 10 experienced this behaviour on seven separate occasions in the past five years)
- Alarming or offensive remarks or questions about their appearances, bodies or sexual activities (approximately 1 in 5 reported experiencing this; approximately 1 in 10 experienced this behaviour on eight separate occasions in the past five years)
- Crude and distressing remarks, jokes or gestures of a sexual or sexist nature (approximately 1 in 5 reported experiencing this; approximately 1 in 10 experienced this behaviour on five separate occasions in the past five years)
- Unwanted physical contact, attempts to initiate romantic or sexual relationships, implications that career prospects were tied to sexual favours, and more.
Harassment was most often perpetrated by the victim’s peer or senior in the office. Disappointingly, the survey found that few (only 3 in 10) survivors of workplace sexual harassment made official reports about their experiences. Those who did not often cited a desire to forget about the incidents, a belief that what they experienced was not severe enough, or a perceived lack of evidence. In 2 in 5 cases where reports were made, the harasser was reassigned or dismissed; however, in another 1 in 5 of such cases, the harasser faced no consequences despite evidence of harassment.
“We have known for years that workplace sexual harassment is a problem in Singapore, as many clients at AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre have experienced it,” said Ms Shailey Hingorani, Head of Research and Advocacy at AWARE. “However, up until now we have not had national data available on its prevalence. This survey changes that. It affirms that workplace sexual harassment is a pervasive and urgent problem; it also affirms that we cannot rely on official cases as our only measure of prevalence, due to frequent under-reporting. Lastly, it underscores the importance of identifying sexual harassment with clear illustrations—seeing that generalised definitions may be inadvertently perpetuating misconceptions.”
In making sense of these findings, AWARE pointed to a few inadequacies in Singapore’s current policy approach to tackling workplace sexual harassment. For one, the Protection from Harassment Act does not inform employers of the protective and preventive measures with which they must comply; neither does it educate employees about their employment rights. Furthermore, the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment does not explicitly place a legal obligation on employers to prevent workplace harassment.
AWARE therefore recommends that the Government introduce national legislation against workplace harassment, as well as regular anti-harassment trainings across industries and the universal adoption of grievance handling policies.
Ms Hingorani noted, “We recognise that Singapore is, in some regards, ahead of many countries in addressing the scourge of sexual violence. However, when it comes to workplace sexual harassment in particular, we appear to lag behind countries that have specific legislations on the matter. Giving employers an explicit statutory obligation to prevent and address sexual harassment, and educating workers on the remedies available to them against their employers, would provide a firm foundation from which to eradicate this very insidious and damaging behaviour.”
Ms Melanie Ng, Director of Public Affairs at Ipsos in Singapore, said, “This research identifies a worrying prevalence of sexual harassment in the Singapore workplace today, and that it is the case for both women and men. While more education around the subject needs to happen, employers need to ensure that the reporting channels in their workplaces are accessible, safe and effective for employees to get the help that they need.”
This article is also published here.
AWARE is Singapore’s leading women’s rights and gender-equality advocacy group. It works to identify and eliminate gender-based barriers through research, advocacy, education, training and support services. AWARE embraces diversity, respects the individual and the choices she makes in life, and supports her when needed. AWARE’s corporate consultancy and training arm, Catalyse, trains employees and employers in preventing and managing workplace harassment. aware.org.sg
Ipsos is the world’s third largest market research company, present in 90 markets and employing more than 18,000 people. Its passionately curious research professionals, analysts and scientists have built unique multi-specialist capabilities that provide true understanding and powerful insights into the actions, opinions and motivations of citizens, consumers, patients, customers or employees. Ipsos serves more than 5,000 clients across the world with 75 business solutions. Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos has been listed on the Euronext Paris since 1 July, 1999. ipsos.com.sg
Annex – Case studies from AWARE’s Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory (*not their real names)
- Maria* was groped at a company social gathering, with several colleagues bearing witness to the act. The perpetrator claims that he did not know Maria was uncomfortable with the contact. A police report was filed and an internal investigation was launched. Some months later, Maria was informed that the company would only take action after police investigations were carried out. The harasser continued to make her feel uncomfortable at work. Eventually, Maria decided to quit as a result of the unsafe work environment.
- While on an overseas work trip, Nadia* was sexually harassed by a colleague, who repeatedly asked her to come to his room, telling her that he was lonely. Nadia filed a report with her manager, but the manager decided not to take any action because the perpetrator was scheduled to depart the company anyway.
- Jonathan* was sexually harassed by his male supervisor. The supervisor made comments about Jonathan’s private parts and repeatedly required him to stay late in the office. Although Jonathan reported the incidents internally, his case was dismissed because HR found it hard to believe that a man could be subject to sexual harassment.
- Priya* was encouraged by her boss to go out for late-night drinks with clients, and instructed to wear “sexy” clothing both in the office and when she was out with clients. She was also told to get physically close to clients. When a client hit on Priya and invited her to his hotel room, she reported it internally. However, the company did not take any actions.