Foong Li Mei
Feb 26, 2018

Sexual harassment emerges from the shadows in Asia

As the #metoo movement spreads across APAC, victims of inappropriate behaviour are tentatively starting to come out of the woodwork in the advertising and marcomms industry.

#metoo has become the tag for a worldwide movement against sexual harassment
#metoo has become the tag for a worldwide movement against sexual harassment

Cindy Gallop wanted names. And she’s got them.

Since calling for sexual harassment victims in advertising to write to her last October, the industry veteran says her inbox has been flooded with hundreds of emails from both women and men all over the world, including Asia. The stories range from verbal harassment to molestations and groping to violent sexual assaults.

Gallop wants to gather enough victims to expose the perpetrators in public. Her aim is to “break this wide open in our industry, in the same way that this has been broken wide open in Hollywood.”

By this, the diversity advocate is referring to the sexual harassment allegations made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, which have led to a flood of exposure implicating other showbiz top dogs as well. The publicity triggered a worldwide campaign called ‘#metoo’ on social media, with sexual harassment victims using the hashtag to tell their stories.

Some of these stories found their way into Gallop’s inbox.

“Everyone named their harassers [in these emails],” the consultant and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld tells Campaign. “And it is always a superior, or someone in power.”

It is an open secret that sexual harassment is rife in the region’s advertising and marcomms industry, according to Karen See, co-founder of leadership and coaching consultancy Embrace based in Hong Kong. The former advertising CCO tells Campaign that she has personally experienced lewd comments disguised as compliments and inappropriate late night calls from colleagues on a business trip.

Jeanette Phang, executive director of marketing sciences at OMD China, says she also hears about powerful men in agencies making amorous advances—but only through what she calls “the whisper network”.

Whispers and secrets risk remaining the only way the subject is talked about, however. Gallop is finding it difficult to get victims to go public because they fear retaliation from harassers in high places.

“Everybody is scared shitless. There is no regional difference in terms of this between Asia and the rest of the world,” says Gallop, who is also the former founder and chair of the US branch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Yet with the #metoo storm gathering momentum here, the advertising and marcomms industry may find it harder to keep the lid on its sleazy streak.

Last December, popular blogger ‘Haachuu’ named Yuki Kishi, a former Dentsu Japan executive creative director, as a sexual harasser. ‘Haachuu’, whose real name is Haruka Ito, told the press that the incident occurred when she was working under Kishi in Dentsu. The accusation resulted in Kishi’s public apology and resignation from Tokikitaru, a company he founded.

Haruka Ito (image from Ito's Line blog)

Ito is one of few victims to go on the record, though there are signs that some are reaching a tipping point. Personal accounts from the advertising and marcomms industry in Malaysia, Singapore, India, China and so on are surfacing online, albeit written anonymously.

Victims have also told Gallop that they would be willing to go public if more people banded together to expose the same harassers or agencies.

Whistleblowing on sexual harassment, after all, is a rough battle to win alone, particularly in Asia where many cultures already inculcate shame on sexual topics and people are allergic to losing face. 

Lack of awareness is another strong deterrent against the reporting of violations. Phang points out that there is little clarity on what constitutes sexual harassment in China, as opposed to in other markets that conduct more training in this field.

The laid-back and trendy work culture promoted by some advertising and marcomm agencies may be a further cause for concern.

“Among the sexual harassment victims working in the industry whom I dealt with, there appears to be an expectation that they should accept sexist jokes about body parts or even bawdy behavior in the name of humour. Taking offence, on the other hand, would make one seem uptight,” says Corinna Lim, a workplace harassment expert and consulting director at Catalyse Consulting, the corporate training arm of Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in Singapore.

Top-down trap

No matter how open a company’s leadership appears to be, the hierarchical mindset entrenched in the Asian work environment may hold some employees back from taking sexual harassment reports straight to the top, as an ex-CEO of an international branding consultancy in Shanghai found out.

Speaking to Campaign on the condition of anonymity, he recalls a close working relationship with subordinates of various rungs. His door was always open; they seemed to have no qualms sharing personal issues with him.

But an employee—a fresh grad—did not seek his help when she was sexually harassed by a colleague from the Tokyo office. Instead, he was only alerted when the victim confided in another female director. The Shanghai chief filed a report to his Tokyo counterparts. Last he heard, the harasser has left the company.

“New recruits may find the odds to report harassment insurmountable. They may not have formed deep social bonds with their colleagues, and they may not know what behaviours are acceptable and what are not,” he says.

He adds that the lack of clarity on how management deals with unacceptable behaviours compounds confusion for fresh grads, especially when the harasser is practically the face of the company.

“Employees should not be left guessing. Any shadow of doubt in the minds of victims or whistleblowers would stop them from coming forward.”

Sexual harassers know this too. The workplace harassment experts Campaign spoke to emphasise that power imbalance is a bulwark for harassers, which is why junior employees are often the most vulnerable to transgressions by superiors. In other words, the predators keep getting away with it because the ‘prey’ feels they have no one to turn to.

“While men can be sexual harassment victims, most victims are women because they are seen as having less power or are seen as being less assertive. Harassers are also more likely to pick victims who are timid,” says Lim.

Advertising and marcomm agencies are often less hierarchical than more traditional companies, but Gallop points out that power may be vested in the ‘rock-star status’ that some creatives enjoy.

“The word 'superior' absolutely applies to a male creative cosseted and lauded by the agency, who is therefore in a position of far greater power than the account director who he works with and harasses,” she says.

Cindy Gallop, who is campaigning for an end to sexual harassment

The industry’s ongoing struggles with the gender balance in senior positions further tips the power scale to male superiors. According to Campaign Asia-Pacific and Kantar’s 2017 Gender Diversity study on the media and marketing landscape in the region, only 26% of respondents working in agencies and 10% of those working in non-agency settings have a female CEO.

Sexual harassment risks are frequently an extension of the inequalities entrenched in particular societies, too. This is especially true in Japan, notes Rochelle Kopp, managing principal of Japan Intercultural Consulting (JIC) and an expert on workplace harassment. Kopp notes that Japanese women are socially pressured to resign when they get married or have kids. The country’s taxation system also discourages the lower wage earner in a family—usually the woman—to further her career.

This means women don’t rise in the ranks because they quit in their early thirties, says Kopp. “What we get is a lopsided situation in which most of those holding top posts are men, and women in the company tend to be younger than them. These men end up not having female peers or equals to call them out on inappropriate behaviours.”

Gallop cautions that a testosterone-charged, male-heavy leadership can mean more “bro-endorsement” for sexist and salacious misconducts. Victims working in such environments told her that their reports of indecent acts had fallen on deaf ears.

But a woman may not necessarily feel safe when working under someone of the same gender. Joelle Chew, a senior marketing executive for the startup GoCar in Malaysia, experienced this in her previous job as a marcomm fresh hire. She was instructed by a female boss to act coquettishly and ‘softer’ around a new male leader in the company—exactly the traits of an easy target, as workplace harassment experts pointed out to Campaign.

The reason given was that the leader interacted better with women who, Chew quotes her boss, “behaves like one”.

Chew, then a headstrong 23-year-old, told her superior that she was upset by the sexist suggestion. The boss brushed her off as being too sensitive and emotional. Chew soon left the company.

“What hurts the most was the fact that it was coming from an older woman to another younger woman… it was severe enough to scar me as a young working professional when I realised that what my then superior said [puts me at risk of] sexual harassment.”

Tipping the scale

Governments obviously have a part to play in ensuring workplaces remain safe. But can they tip the balance of power back to victims in Asia?

Since the Singaporean Manpower Ministry issued an Advisory on managing workplace harassment in 2015, which included providing information and training, Lim has observed an uptake in interest in workplace harassment consultation sessions.

Internationally owned firms in Singapore, including advertising agencies, have been among the early adopters of the recommendations, according to Lim. Local companies, on the other hand, seem slower to adhere to the non-mandatory Advisory.

Elsewhere in Asia, the official stance on workplace sexual transgression varies widely. At one extreme lies Japan, which (nominally at least) obliges employers to prevent sexual and power harassment in the workplace. At the other extreme is China, which has censored the use of words like ‘#metoo’ and ‘anti-sexual harassment’ on social media.

Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines all have legal provisos to prevent and investigate sexual harassment at the workplace, though the same cannot be said for Indonesia.

But protection policies can ring hollow if they are not properly implemented. India, for example, has drawn up the Vishakha Guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace. Laid down by the Supreme Court of India, the guideline requires an employer to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in each office or branch that has more than ten employees of any gender, as well as prominently displaying the penal consequences of sexual harassment.

But in 2015, a survey by EY found that one in two advertising and media companies in India did not train their ICC members.

Another survey by the Indian National Bar Association showed that 66.7% of the country’s employees felt that the ICC did not deal fairly with their complaints. Around 69% ended up not reporting sexual harassment incidents to their management for fear of retaliation or repercussions.

Other Asian countries appear to be just as skeptical about the ability of management and HR departments to handle such cases appropriately—Lim, Kopp, See and Phang all say they have observed this, in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and China respectively.

Lim has encountered many victims who were more angry at their human resource departments than at their harassers because of the way HR interrogated them.

Campaigners at a Time's Up rally in London in January

OMD’s Phang says that in China, there is very little HR support at the company level. “There isn't a clear process of reporting or exposing such issues. Even if [victims] wanted to report, they would not know how to report it. So why rock the boat when you can just leave and go to another company or industry? There are many jobs in the market in China, so moving on is easy.”

This situation may improve in the face of the #metoo tsunami. Embrace's See, for one, notes heightened recent interest from companies about workplace harassment training. Rochelle Kopp, meanwhile, thinks that top leadership sorely needs to educate itself on how to manage such complaints and instill confidence among employees to come forward.

And this is one of the best times to do so. Lim reasons that the #metoo wave has seen many victims who have exposed their harassers being celebrated as courageous. If Singaporean victims need support in speaking up, she encourages them to contact the Sexual Assault Care Centre of AWARE for free and confidential services.

Both Lim and Gallop also urge those who have witnessed or heard about violations in their workplace to speak up on behalf of the victims.

“Who has the most power in a sexual assault case? Those who witnessed or know about it, apart from the victims. These bystanders have less risks of being shamed or suffering retaliation, and they can be the voice of justice,” says Lim.

“The other powerful party here, more so than the harasser, is the management. Management has the power to do the right thing, pre-empt sexual harassment by having policies in place, and walk the talk when things go wrong.”

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