Incivility - #16DaysZW

  • Posted on: 25 November 2016
  • By: admin

Zimbabwe’s launch of 16 days of activism against gender based abuse has taken on different dimensions this year. 

At the UN’s official launch of the annual campaign attendees draped themselves in scarves of orange – the colour the UN has chosen to mark action against violence. At this launch the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said governments needed to step up their support of women’s movements and civil society groups to address what is a human rights violation, a health concern and a major obstacle to development.

Back home, the Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development Cde Nyasha Chikwinya told stakeholders who included the media, government officials and the civic society that Zimbabwe must take its fight against gender based violence to a higher level. The government has made a commitment that gender based violence which remains a major issue must be aggressively dealt with.

Here at the Research and Advocacy Unit, we will add to the blogosphere by posting a daily blog tackling a different topic each day, written by diverse members of staff, reflecting their diverse views.

Bullies: An invisible problem

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we usually focus on the most serious aspects of gender violence and discrimination, but often forget the more subtle problems. One of these is what some people call “incivility” and others call “workplace bullying”. It may sound trivial, but a recent South Africa study found that 31% of the people interviewed in a national sample reported frequent occurrences of workplace bullying. That’s a lot of people.

This hardly sounds an important topic for the 16 Days but maybe that is because we hardly ever think about incivility or bullying as issues that have more than individual consequences. I suspect that most of us when we think about bullying have sympathy for the victim, but probably also carry the thought about why does the victim just stand up for him or herself. Think of all those films where the bullied child finally stands up and gives the bully a smart klap, and gets his or her power back. 

But real life is not the movies, and bullying is not confined to the playground. In fact, the phenomenon of workplace bullying has received increasing attention in recent years, as the South African survey illustrates. 

Look at one definition. Workplace bullying refers to “a situation where one or several individuals persistently over a period of time perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of negative actions from one or several persons, in a situation where the target of bullying has difficulty in defending him or herself against these actions”.

It is a definition that could easily be applied to domestic violence, but the difference is that it is not common for one workmate to physically assault another at work, and certainly not over an extended period. So the definition refers to other kinds of behaviours: being shouted at, threatened, persistently criticised, ostracised, unwarranted sexual attention, and so on. It may have to do with overt power over subordinates, but can also emanate from groups of co-equals. Imagine you get the job that the team felt should have gone to one of them, and the cold reception that you get, the snide remarks that are made, finding that there is no-one to get advice from, and I bet you will feel uncomfortable at the very least.

Workplace bullying is not physical violent, it is psychological violence, and can be very subtle as in the example above, but it can be very overt. Think of the boss that explodes in temper when he thinks you have made a mistake, shouting and telling everyone just how useless you are. That is workplace bullying.

So why is this important for the 16 Days?

Well, the research shows that both women and men perpetrate workplace bullying. One study reported that women were 58% of the perpetrators overall, but the same research also showed  that, when the target of the bullying was a woman, she was bullied by a woman in 63%  of cases. It is much the same for men; when the targets are male, then the perpetrators will be male in 62% of reported cases. So same sex bullying is the most common. However, research also shows that women are much more likely to be majority of people that are bullied in the workplace. Of course, the prevalence does vary from country to country, and from one work context to another, but nonetheless, as the research progresses, it implicates a potentially serious problem.

The seriousness emerges from the findings that workplace bullying has both short-term and long-term effects. And the effects are not merely economic or organisational, but, as shown in studies of gender-based violence and other forms of violence, there are serious health consequences for the victims. These range from severe anxiety, disrupted sleep, loss of concentration, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), clinical depression, and panic attacks. There are also physical health consequences, and, of course, the effects of losing confidence in one’s abilities, changing jobs (often to less well-paid and demanding jobs), and the family and social consequences. 

Bullying is also about power. Several studies have shown that direct bullying by people in authority over others was more damaging than the indirect bullying by colleagues, and, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “this may be because supervisory bullying behaviour tends to be out in the open and in front of other colleagues, is more often of a verbal nature and includes acts like swearing, name-calling and threatening the safety of the victim”. Unsurprisingly, this kind of bullying results in the victims taking a very long time, nearly two years, before it is reported.

So what needs to be done about this? 

Firstly, recognise that it is a problem and probably a much bigger problem than we think. Secondly, recognise that it has serious short-term and long-term effects, and not just on employment, but also on the mental and physical health of the sufferers. Thirdly, recognise that the workplace is no different to any other environment: we reject domestic violence, understanding the serious ill-effects of assault and intimidation in the home. The unequal power relations in the home are no less evident in the workplace, and the inherent power in the usual hierarchic arrangements in the workplace does not come with the concomitant right to bully and abuse.

Finally, recognise that women bully too in the workplace. And, hence, if we want to stop this this, we all have to put our own houses in order, both men and women. Given that patriarchy never seems to show much interest in reforming itself, then perhaps feminism can make the difference, and turn the workplace into areas of civility and tolerance?

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