Working in Colombia: Dealing with Sexism
Sexism in the workplace: always a controversial topic, and very tricky to discuss. This is a difficult article for me to write, especially considering that there is so much I love about Colombian culture – it’s hard not to seem too negative. However, seeing as in my last article I mentioned the harassment that a woman can expect in the street, and the atmosphere of machista culture in general, I thought it necessary to include my experiences of the sexism I’ve experienced while working in Colombia.
I would like to stress that I can only speak for myself here. Many women might not have experienced anything of the kind. However, I would say that rumours and anecdotes from female friends have led me to believe that my own experiences may not be so exceptional. Here in Colombia, a variety of factors have contributed to a rather unique situation, as I understand it.
A traditionally machista and male-dominated society, going back thousands of years, has in the past decades clashed with an influx of women in the workplace, due to poverty, economic instability and accelerated development. Add that to rampant job insecurity and a pervasive culture of informality in professional contexts, and you can naturally expect some tension.
Comments on my appearance, highly personal questions about my sexual experience and likes/dislikes, and threatening invasions of personal space are all things that I have experienced.
I am in no way suggesting that sexual inappropriateness in the workplace is a uniquely Colombian feature. I don’t doubt that women everywhere around the globe may at some point face problems of this kind. Like I said, I can only speak for myself, and for this job.
Working as an English language assistant in a Colombian university, via a respected British organisation, puts me in a strange position. On the one hand, foreign women in Colombia are, as a rule, subject to fascination and seen as highly sexualised beings. On the other hand, I have the stability and perceived power of my own government behind me.
Workplaces and working relationships in Colombia are by and large more informal than what we might expect in the UK. We should also bear in mind that Latin cultures are, as a rule, far more physically open and demonstrably affectionate. Certainly, some cultural sensitivity and understanding is called for.
Nevertheless, this can be misleading to a foreign worker. A man inviting a female co-worker for a post-work drink in London might not raise any eyebrows, but here male-female platonic friendships are seen as far less viable.
My comments were taken far less seriously – even laughed off. “Welcome to Colombia,” I’ve been told. “Don’t worry, he’s like that with all the girls.”
For example, a woman I know who is on the same program as me, in a different university, became good friends with her tutor. Gossip spread and the next thing she knew, the man’s wife had been informed that she was having an affair with him. A virulent and nasty campaign of cyber bullying was then levelled against her for a long period of time. This problem was extremely hard to deal with on an official level, as the man involved was the boss, and his wife was not an employee.
While working as an assistant in Colombia, rumours, teasing, inappropriate remarks, comments on my appearance, highly personal questions about my sexual experience and likes/dislikes, and threatening invasions of personal space are all things that I have experienced. These may all be common occurrences for young women in working environments, but I think the main difference that I’ve seen is how this is dealt with.
In the UK, complaints of this kind are given much more official and serious attention. Here in Colombia, things are generally more unofficial than what an English person might expect, and my comments were taken far less seriously – even laughed off. “Welcome to Colombia,” I’ve been told. “Don’t worry, he’s like that with all the girls.”
One male co-worker sent me private messages on a daily basis, numerous messages inviting me for drinks or asking me increasingly personal and sexual questions. On several occasions, he also conspired to make sure he and I were alone in the office, leading him to touch me in ways that might not be considered harassment, but definitely made me extremely uncomfortable.
In Colombia, the unspoken rule is not to involve management or directors, and instead, to deal with things personally. This has a lot to do with the job instability that I mentioned, as well as a more informal/personal atmosphere.
My stress levels got to the point where I was forced to discuss the situation with my boss. She laughed me right out the door.
So when I politely but firmly did not respond to his advances (and I stress, not respond, rather than reject outright), he came back with insults–criticisms of my mannerisms, accents, and appearance. I was cold, he said. I gave off bad vibes, I was unfriendly and lacking in warmth.
Then, he proceeded to target me professionally – bitching to co-workers about my lack of experience and talent, giving me increasingly difficult tasks at the very last minute, in the knowledge that I would have no time to complete them, and then calling me out for being unprepared. My stress levels got to the point where I was forced to discuss the situation with my boss. She laughed me right out the door.
When the British organisation that places the assistants got involved with my case, a meeting was organised with the boss of my boss. Before this meeting, I was emphatically told not to bring up any problems I’d been having with the man in question, as it was too personal. It won’t go anywhere, they said. Making a complaint will make things worse. I was told this by a respected UK government establishment.
And do you know something? I agree.
You might stir up a world of trouble, but as they say in Spanish, mas vale prevenir que curar – better safe than sorry.
From my experience of working in Colombia, I’d even advise the same to another woman. Don’t do anything official. Don’t make complaints, don’t stir up trouble. You will be met with resistance, defensiveness, denial, and you may even experience personal criticism if you complain in an official capacity. You might end up causing more hassle for yourself. I’m sad to be saying this, but I have to – you can’t expect to enforce the norms of your own culture on another.
Take care with how you dress: your appearance will be subject to more comments than you might be used to. Try to keep personal conversations in the workplace to a minimum. I would recommend never discussing your sex or dating life. Do not get carried away with the informality of the workplace – try to remain professional.
Having said that, if you ever feel personally victimised, or that your safety is threatened, go straight to the top. You might stir up a world of trouble, but as they say in Spanish, mas vale prevenir que curar – better safe than sorry.
Working in Colombia: Dealing with Sexism
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Working in Colombia: Dealing with Sexism photo credit: Harriet M.