WOLF WHISTLES, leering glances, "accidental" touches, suggestive remarks - these are actions that you may expect to receive if you are passing a construction site. Instead, for many women in today's working world, it is a common occurrence in the office. At a recent forum on sexual harassment "What Women Want", organised by marie claire magazine, it was apparent that such actions are unacceptable to women in the office environment.

In her opening address, Minister of Women and Family Development Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said that what women seemed to want was legislation to ensure that sexual harassment does not become accepted practice at the office in particular. "Sexual harassment, which is any deliberate or repeated verbal comment, gesture or behaviour of a sexual nature which is unwelcome, is an abuse of power/authority which seems to be directed primarily at women. It is generally a problem of gender discrimination and is not about sexual pleasure," Shahrizat said.

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She went on to add that sexual harassment was once seen as a private matter but has since been brought into the public domain. "It is viewed as a serious misconduct," she said. That it has become a serious problem is apparent by the fact that the Ministry of Human Resources launched its Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 1999. However, the code has its limitations as it does not make it compulsory for corporations to adopt or practice it.

Indeed, its limitations are apparent by the fact that despite extensive promotion by the Department of Labour, by June 2001, only 4,500 corporations (only 1. 125 per cent of the 400,000 employers registered with Socso) had implemented it. While a separate Sexual Harassment Bill, which holds employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace and provides complainants with timely and meaningful access to legal address, has been proposed, it is still in its infancy despite strong support from the Women and Family Development Ministry. In the meantime, the problem seems to flourish in many corporations.

One of the speakers at the forum, Dr Asma Abdullah, a specialist in intercultural management, education and training services, said that the Asian mentality of jaga air muka was perhaps one of the reasons why sexual harassment continues to happen here. "There are a lot of hidden dimensions that allow us to be perceived as victims. It is part of our culture to be non-confrontational and there is no doubt that culture is the mould in which we are all cast," she said. She added that the Asian practice of politeness also made it difficult for us to confront our superiors.

"Because of that, we tend to wave conflict behind the scenes," she said. "We are a harmony-driven culture. This means that we tolerate situations rather than confront them in the hope that the problem will go away," she said. In his presentation, Datuk Muhammad Sauffee, director-general of the Ministry of Human Resources, said that what may be viewed as sexual harassment may differ on the perceptions of the parties concerned. "For instance, when I walked up to the rostrum, I was aware that the eyes of the majority of the women in this room were on me.

It was not a situation that I was uncomfortable with. It would be important to define what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and indeed what is merely social interaction as compared to sexual harassment," he said. He added that there should be a mechanism to help identify what constitutes sexual harassment. He also said that it was important to create awareness of its existence and it was best that if such cases occurred, it was settled within the place of employment rather than at any other tribunal.

In her presentation at the forum, Betty Yeoh, an executive committee member of the All Women's Action Society (AWAM), said that sexual harassment generally occurred because women were seen as quiet or weak. "It quite often occurs when the perpetrator is in a position of power and can get away with such an act," she said. She emphasised that sexual harassers were not necessarily all male. "It is not a problem that is confined to the male sex," she said. She also said that sexual harassment cuts across all professions although in the statistics she quoted, 38. 8 per cent of the victims were factory operators while 36.9 per cent were in the clerical field.

"There does not seem to be an age limit either as there have been cases reported where the victim was nearing retirement age," Yeoh said. Yeoh added that sexual harassment must be viewed as discrimination because it denies victims the basic right to work in a conducive environment. "When any form of violence occurs, you face personal insecurity. This in turn leads to the victim becoming suspicious of his/her surroundings which ultimately leads to the creation of a hostile environment," she said.

The writer can be contacted at Appendix 2. 8 Jobs & Money: Jobs: Labs' labour lost as women stay away: Careers in science: Men are still dominating technical work - and the imbalance gets even worse after career breaks, when there is a high drop-out rate among their female counterparts. Wendy Smith The Guardian - United Kingdom; Mar 23, 2002 Nick Medcalf originally trained as a chemist and picked up chemical engineering as part of his work on process design. Working for Smith and Nephew, he is involved in helping to build novel tissue bioreactors.

These are the tiny vessels needed to help the growth of human tissue outside the body. His working goals are to create organ culture for liver, heart and kidney replacements. Mr Medcalf also travels extensively to conferences, topping up his subject knowledge along the way. Chances are he will have a long and fulfilling career in science made all the more pleasant and palatable by a serious salary. According to the Institute of Chemical Engineers, their number are among the best paid of the scientists and often earn more than accountants, doctors and lawyers. But to Mr Medcalf and his male colleagues will go all the spoils.

Women will largely miss out. Not because they have been excluded from entering the profession in the way that budding female surveyors and architects have been kept out by a male-dominated building industry. Their absence is more about a huge drop-out rate after they have children - an issue that is causing concern in many circles. It is well documented that getting anyone to study the sciences nowadays is an uphill struggle and men will invariably outnumber the women on many university science courses. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency in 1998, 38% of students studied science and, of these, less than half (42%) were women.

The situation worsens when you look at what happens to their job prospects after a career break. According to a January 2002 report from the Department of Trade and Industry, Maximising Returns, there are 50,000 women science, engineering and technology (SET) graduates not working in their respective industries at any one time. And of those who do go back to work, a mere 8,000 will go back to a job that makes use of their original university education. So what is it that is turning this scarce number of highly trained women off from returning to a workplace that needs them?

As Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt said recently when she launched a raft of plans to help female scientists to de velop their careers after a break: "This is just a waste of women's talents. " The report suggests that women returning to work from a SET background do have additional problems compared with women returning in other graduate occupations. They may fear they have missed out on knowledge whilst they had been away that may be difficult to catch up on. Their line manager, man or woman, can prove inflexible in traditional, hierarchical organisations and there is a shortage of part-time working. Oh yes, and money.