Recently, the startup world was once again hit with another instance of sexual harassment.
500 Startups’ co-founder Dave McClure was recently in the spotlight after a New York Times article revealed how a previous job applicant, Sarah Kunst, received unwanted advances from him after her interview.
“I was getting confused figuring out whether to hire you or hit on you,” said McClure in a Facebook message to Kunst.
Kunst later found that she wasn’t the only one who had been harassed by McClure.
This incident also spurred on Cheryl Yeoh, founder and ex-chairman of MaGIC (a startup and entrepreneurship programme run by the Malaysian government) to shed light on her very unpleasant encounter with McClure 3 years ago in her home.
In her recount, he not just followed her into her bedroom and propositioned her after the other guests left – he even pushed himself onto her, and attempted to kiss her.
It was only after she had said ‘no’ multiple times that he finally left.
But these encounters don’t just happen in isolation.
Workplace sexual harassment, while not openly discussed, is something that persists- with 54% of respondents in an AWARE survey revealing that they’ve experienced it at their workplaces.
We spoke to several Singaporean working women who shared with us their personal experiences with such inappropriate encounters.
*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity
When I was around 18, I used to work in a photography company – a very small company. The main team just consisted of 4 people, myself included.
I worked the closest with my boss because we did the same job so I spent a lot of time with him.
But he started being weirdly physical. Like if I’m using the computer, he’d come over to look at my screen and he’d be smelling my hair and complimenting my smell.
This eventually progressed to waist holding and thigh touching. He would come REALLY close and kiss my cheeks too.
I was super confused, and I didn’t know what to do. “Should I quit my job? But I need money to pay for school? Then what?”
So I tahan-ed for a few months…many months in fact…until I eventually quit.
I was working at a startup, and the male co-founder would say stuff like ‘chio bu’ and ‘nice dress’ to female employees, which is a bit inappropriate in my opinion.
It was to the point that if you go to him to discuss stuff, you’d have to make sure you are firm with not being comfortable with it so that he cannot ‘sexually harass’ you.
For example, he wanted to send me overseas, but said that he and I would have to share a room.
I DIDN’T LIKE THAT AT ALL.
I was also getting weird messages from him at one point of time, so I had to tell him “Let’s keep our conversations and messages work-related”.
He was very agreeable on that, thankfully.
Honestly, I feel like the management could be more supportive in dealing with such cases.
This happened at my old company.
There was a new male colleague who would always drop by my desk and like chat with me. And it’s not like those 5 minute chats…he’d literally grab a chair and sit with me until the end of work!
Then, I used to go for yoga after work, and he insisted on following me there. It’s a long story, but he ended up joining my yoga class as well.
He didn’t even have proper attire for yoga, so he stripped down to his undershirt and shorts…I felt uncomfortable throughout the class, because you know, yoga poses can be quite…yeah.
And then he’ll wait for me after class (I actually went for yoga with my friend, so both of us hid in the shower room for damn long.)
Then a few months later, his girlfriend actually Whatsapp-ed me about this. I don’t know why, and if he had been cheating or what, but yeah.
So I was an intern at a high security area when I was an undergrad.
I had to walk through the gates every day, so I ended up encountering the guards…and whenever I walked by, the entire group will just keep staring. I felt very uncomfortable.
And even those higher ranking people working there, they’ll stare or point at me when I walked pass, which is really very rude.
Not specific to the workplace per se, but this other incident happened at the office’s gym, where all its staff worked out at.
There was this middle-aged (don’t know what rank) guy that will always be there when I gym after work. So once, he talked to me to ask for help and whatever bullsh** but even after I said no, he’ll lurk around ALL THE TIME.
And it wasn’t just on the day he tried to talk to me, it was like every other day that he’ll be non-stop eyeing. There was once he tried doing small talk again, asking me where I worked, and which level I was at and so on.
Obviously I didn’t give much info because he was such a creep!
There was this particular male colleague (who I wasn’t close to at all) who kept making lewd comments and introducing me to his rich friends, because I had just undergone a breakup.
Like “Aiyah, just go on a date with him and ask him to buy you everything you want. After shopping go hotel and ‘sleep’.“
He’d also look at my outfit and say stuff like: “You should wear this skirt, they like this type of clothes.”
It was my first job, so I was just shocked and didn’t know what to do. Thinking back on it though, it wasn’t just lewd, it was also insulting to the education my parents used their hard-earned money to pay for.
So basically I had to meet a client out of working hours to talk about some content partnership with his company.
We got acquainted via LinkedIn, and he decided that we meet at Ann Siang for drinks, which at first I was a little sceptical of because I don’t even know him personally.
But seeing that he was from a big corporation I thought it should be ok (taking my chance here), plus drinking with clients can’t be that bad…right?
So I went to the bar (6-ish) and when I got there, I realised it wasn’t just him alone, it was with his friends. I’m like HOLD UP WHAT IS GOING ON. But his friends were all from respectable firms and were friendly.
So anyway as the night was going along, I was pitching to him about what my then-company was doing, he was asking questions and I was answering…this went on for awhile until he started getting touchy. He would casually put his hands on my waist and thighs and pretend that it was ok.
I had to pull myself out slowly and make it seem like I was adjusting my seat but it just went back and forth till I had to tell him I’ll follow up with him again via email. It got too uncomfortable and I felt like I was losing self-respect for letting this happened. But I’m glad I got away quickly.
But guess what… he moved to another company and asked for Biz Dev again at the same bar. Haha.
There was once when I was in a digital agency, and my boss tried to “pimp me out” by trying to get me to go out with one of our clients to a show so we could hopefully get more business from him.
It wasn’t explicitly said, but the guy was my boss’ friend and he saw me before and liked me. So my boss asked if I wanted to go to a show…and I thought he was just giving me the tickets or something!
You know, that client was gonna send me a dress and a limo for the show too?
Other times, when I was working the guest lists for events, these rich guys will want to take pictures with my female colleagues and myself...and they’ll stand too close or like put their arms around our shoulders like we were close buddies (which we were not).
I was 22 or 23 then, and was working at an SME with 3 bosses.
Two had terrible tempers, and only one was more relatable so we’d smoke together and chat outside of work. He’d give me lifts home as it was on the way, then once after a company dinner he claimed I was drunk and wanted to send me to hotel.
I declined, but after he said that he’ll send me home, he started touching my thighs and it got more inappropriate after that. I said ‘Please stop’ and he didn’t push it, but texted me after saying he doesn’t understand what was wrong with his actions, and ‘Isn’t it good to have someone take care of me so I don’t have to worry about money while I worked and studied’.
Anyway my other bosses found out after I confided in an ex-colleague, but I continued working, ignored him and maintained a professional relationship after till I left the company for other reasons.
Sexual Harassment Doesn’t Just Refer To ‘Inappropriate Touching’
As seen in the examples, sexual harassment isn’t simply defined as ‘inappropriate touching’.
Unwelcome sexual advancements, lewd comments, stalking, and suggestive gestures also constitute harassment.
Some of our respondents also revealed that they felt “confused” when the incidents happened, and most kept the incidents to themselves.
Their silence is understandable, though.
The fear of potentially losing their jobs if they ratted on their colleagues (sometimes, bosses) is one that unfortunately persists, especially if the management doesn’t do enough to ensure that such cases of harassment are dealt with harshly.
Said one of the respondents to me, “It sucks that sometimes the harassment is more insidious because of the company culture. Those are harder to pin down because there might not be clear actions by others to constitute harassment.”
Workplace sexual harassment (of both males and females) is a topic we need to stop pushing under the rug.
Hopefully, with more honest conversations and discussions about it, we will see fewer and fewer instances of this at the workplace.
If you’re a woman experiencing workplace sexual harassment, reach out to AWARE’s hotline at 1800 774 5935 (Mon-Fri, 3pm-9.30pm) or email them at [email protected]. If you simply wish to find out more, visit the Ministry of Manpower’s website on harassment: http://www.mom.gov.sg/faq/workplace-harassment.