I was already in the tro-tro to work when I began to reconsider my outfit. I must have lost weight since the last time I wore the cotton blouse I decided to put on that morning and it was a little lower than I was really comfortable with.
However, it was my bottoms that really caused a stir once I got to the office. Falling just above my knee in African print, I thought my walking shorts were professional and fitting for the environment – my male colleagues thought they were arousing.
In fact, my shorts were so tempting, one co-worker joked I was turning him on. “It’s not that provocative on a white woman,” though, because “white women always dress like this, but if you were a black woman, hmm – it would be too provocative to wear shorts like that.”
So it was partly a racial issue as much as it was an issue of sexism, but here in Ghana women are used to the comments their outfits draw from their male co-workers. The next morning, a female colleague told me I should consider what the men were saying about me when I chose my wardrobe, as if my dressing more conservatively would make them back off their sexual taunts and proposals to marry me.
One study from the University of Ghana in Legon sited as much as 75 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace – unwanted repeated proposals; unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, questions or remarks; and pressure for dates, were some of what I experienced but could include unwanted touching of intimate body parts; pressure for sexual favours; and attempted or actual sexual assault or rape – but almost every woman I talk to has a story to share.
“Sometimes they will be saying something like why are you giving this whole body to one person, why don’t you let me enjoy some as well?” says Leticia Esi Anaman, a former practicum student at Skyy Power FM in Takoradi, who’s experienced sexual harassment at her school.
Most workplaces don’t have sexual harassment policies in place and women don’t often report incidents to their bosses or school authorities.
“Sometimes when they start, I think they are just making fun, but it becomes so irritating when you see this person everyday and that’s all they say,” says Esi Anaman.
Many young professional women agree.
“When there are no such measures put in place, women will always be harassed,” says a student at Cape Coast University who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of jeopardizing her attachment placement. “Sometimes when somebody sees you and the guy behaves that way with you, eyebrows are raised that you are kind of cheap or something. So you have to be careful.”
But objecting to these advances causes trouble. “Some don’t take it seriously. They say they are just having fun. And those who take it seriously, you end up losing them…they think you are intimidating, so they just avoid you, so you lose them as a friend,” says Anaman.
But harassment in the workplace is also a two-way street. According to the University of Ghana report, women can also be perpetrators when they force themselves on men in higher positions to receive some benefit, breeding a culture where women need to trade sexual favours in order to work their way up the corporate ladder.
“I want to be able to move freely with people, but that doesn’t give them the authority to say whatever they want,” says Anaman.
Nor should they dictate what you wear or how you go about your work.