As women in Asia become emboldened to speak out about harassment, finance organisations need to take the issue seriously, says Cesar Bacani
This article was first published in the November 2018 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
In May, a mayor in Japan resigned after four female members of his staff filed formal complaints against him, citing inappropriate behaviour.
‘It cannot be denied that there is harassment, so long as the recipient perceives an action as harassment,’ the 66-year-old mayor told reporters. ‘And so now, with courage, I’d like to honestly own up to committing harassment and apologise to the victims.’
The #MeToo movement, which has reached its first anniversary, has come to Asia. Women everywhere are starting to feel empowered, with groups such as The Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong urging people to #BelieveSurvivors.
Workplaces led by men and with women among the staff are typical of offices throughout Asia, particularly in the finance field.
CFO Innovation, the online publication I used to edit, has chronicled the gender imbalance among the region’s finance leaders. In 2016, for example, there were only three women in the list of 50 best-paid listed-company CFOs.
Worldwide, women account for less than a third of the total number of partners in the Big Four accounting firms, according to their latest annual reports. Yet, around half of the workforce comprises female staff.
To their credit, the Big Four have a timetable to raise the proportion of women partners to 30% or more, while Deloitte is the first Big Four accounting firm to be led by a woman CEO. Those initiatives should be accelerated and finance functions must follow suit to address a lack of female representation at senior level.
I’m not saying that harassment is automatically rife when there is gender imbalance. But there is the risk that the dominance of men could foster a lack of awareness of what women consider as harassment. That can lead to reputational issues in the age of social media and the #MeToo movement, among others.
For me, the key is to recognise the importance of perception. As the Japanese mayor said, if the recipient perceives an action as harassment, then that’s what it is. In the current climate, the accuser’s perspective bears weight, particularly if the accuser is in a subordinate position. Someone who has the courage to speak up, it is argued, must be listened to. Because why else would the powerless go against the powerful? The accuser has far more to lose than the accused.
What to do? I think office guidelines should be updated and disseminated in the light of #MeToo, not least to make everyone aware of the new dynamics of acceptable gender relations. The human resources department has a key role to play, but the involvement of a credible third-party investigator must also be an option, particularly when the accused is someone high up in the organisation.
At root, sexual harassment in the workplace is about power. When those who wield it are almost exclusively men, some may be emboldened to misbehave. The #MeToo movement should remind everyone that such behaviour is not, and never has been, acceptable.
Cesar Bacani, journalist
"Office guidelines should be updated in the light of #MeToo to raise awareness of the new dynamics of gender relations"