A couple of weeks ago, Heather and I got the chance to attend a workshop on sexual harassment in the workplace with one of the attorneys, Sanja, from the WLC. The workshop was for members of the Communications Workers’ Union, located at their headquarters about 20 minutes from our office. We educated the union members, all shop stewards in the postal service, about the laws regarding sexual harassment and workplace protections.
At the beginning of the session, Sanja asked the group if anyone had experienced or heard about an instance of sexual harassment in the workplace. No one raised their hand. At first, the group, a diverse group of men and women all having served between 15 and 30 years in the industry, contended that sexual harassment wasn’t an issue within their union. This surprised me, but as the hours went on, it became clear that the workers just disagreed on what actually constituted sexual harassment. Each time Sanja described a form of harassment, one of the workers would interject and pose a “what-if” situation to see if something they deemed as trivial would actually qualify. We engaged with issues like whether a woman is “asking for it” if she chooses to wear tight clothing (she’s not), or whether or not cat-calling or whistling at someone was appropriate in the workplace (it isn’t). While they all agreed that very serious forms of sexual harassment were unacceptable, there was much more disagreement on the other aspects of the law.
What struck me most during the training though was the group’s reaction to a particular one of Sonja’s explanations. At one point, after a bit of disagreement over an issue, she stopped and took out a piece of paper. On it she drew three stick figures, each one a bit taller than the last. She then drew a fence just above the heads of the figures.
“So let’s say that since we want to help these people see over the fence, we give them each a block of the same size to stand on. Is that fair?”
The group shook their heads no. Sanja then asked what they could do to make the situation fair. After a bit of discussion, the workers all agreed that they needed to make the blocks different sizes so that everyone could see. Then Sanja drew the picture again.
“In South Africa, our law values equality of outcomes,” she said. Sanja pointed out that this situation could be considered a form of what they call “fair discrimination,” citing affirmative action as something that operated under the same principle. Some people were given larger blocks so that everyone could succeed. The group seemed to immediately understand the importance of what she was saying, nodding their heads in unison.
“Sexual harassment is a form of ‘unfair discrimination,’” Sanja continued. She explained that sexual harassment deprives someone of their Constitutional right to human dignity, making them feel that they are worth less than others. By sexually harassing someone, you’re hurting their chances of reaching an equal outcome. Even seemingly small instances of harassment serve to effectively chip away at someone else’s block.
From that point on, the tone of the training shifted. The workers stopped arguing over what constituted sexual harassment and started asking what they could do to stop it. By the end of the workshop, every one of them asked Sanja to follow up with a training at their individual workplaces.
I struggled a bit with the fact that her lecture would have been fairly controversial in the United States. While “fair discrimination” may lead to an equal outcome, it impedes one’s access to individual liberty, a capital offense in some parts of America. In South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid is apparent and the memories are still very real, the concept of equality holds a much different weight. There’s a greater sense of collective responsibility to right the wrongs of the past, and an understanding that those inequalities won’t correct themselves.
In light of multiple US Supreme Court decisions this week, it’s important that we analyze the lens through which we shape our view of equality. In South Africa, one might judge policies based on equality of outcomes. Unfair discrimination, in marriage or at the voting booth, chips away at people’s access to a level playing field. Fair discrimination, like in college admissions, attempts to ensure equality where the playing field isn’t level to begin with. The ends of each type of discrimination are at the focus of the analysis, as opposed to the means.
Beyond the courts, this notion of equality forces us to confront the barriers to entry for those who have faced discrimination. It makes you think about the impact of gender stereotypes, access to education, or racist slurs. It makes you think about how policies like paid maternity leave might increase the number of female CEOs. And It’s the reason why 20 union workers could understand why anything that compromised a woman’s ability to reach her full potential was an impediment to justice.