Unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace: an aid worker’s story

Content warning: This post discusses sexual assault.

The strength and bravery of Brittany Higgins telling her story over the past weeks has triggered a lot of women to speak up about sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. I have a very small story to tell by comparison. But I would like to tell it.

I once had an older, senior (white) male colleague insist on kissing me on the lips as a greeting in the workplace.

That’s all.

No sexual assault.

No sexual harassment.

He would just deliberately position his face (or mine) to turn what I thought would be a peck on the cheek into a kiss on the lips whenever we met.

I didn’t like it the first time he did it. I never liked it. I thought it was inappropriate. I thought it was a bit weird.

One time, he did it when I was unprepared.

We were on a work trip to Papua New Guinea. A group of (all male) colleagues and I were getting off a minibus at the hotel. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, work bags and suitcase in hand and unsteady in my high heels, I looked up and the lip kisser was right in front of me and then he was kissing me on the lips. I felt ambushed. I felt trapped. I felt scared.

I was surrounded by a group of men greeting each other with handshakes, back slaps and bravado. I was greeted by a kiss on the lips and a moment of terror.

Only one of my colleagues seemed to notice what had happened. He also thought it was a bit weird. He didn’t say anything at the time, but he brought it up later, over dinner and red wine, in front of two other white male colleagues (including my boss). I felt like a deer in the headlights. My heart pounded. I froze. Maybe I laughed and shrugged it off. Maybe I sounded tough and resilient like it wasn’t a big deal.

But inside, I was in fight/flight/freeze mode.

At that point, someone could have kindly and gently enquired how I felt; asked if I wanted to talk about it, then or at another time; asked if I needed anything or anyone. Maybe they did. I can’t remember. I was frozen and in survival mode.

Instead, the lip kissing incident seemed to become a springboard for a rather (for them at least) philosophical conversation about inappropriate sexual conduct in the international development sector and what was and what was not appropriate.

My boss seemed curious about where I thought ‘the line’ was, giving examples of behaviours and asking if I thought it ‘crossed the line’ as if I was a dispassionate observer of these things.

They seemed completely oblivious to the fact that this wasn’t a hypothetical, academic debate for me. A few hours earlier someone had crossed the line. My line. But that didn’t spur action or support from them. Just curiosity and abstract questioning.

As the dinner wore on, I got angry.

I got angry with my boss, who advocates for gender equality in developing countries while seemingly unable to see inequality when it occurs under his nose.

Angry that even after my workday was finished, and my colleagues were relaxed and could switch off and hold philosophical debates, I was working overtime: working to educate my colleagues, working to make sense of what happened hours earlier, working to feel safe again.

I felt so alone walking back to my hotel room that night. As my male colleagues chatted lightly about what books they would read before going to sleep, I quick-walked to my room before they could see me burst into tears. I called my husband just before midnight, sobbing.

I self-medicated so I could sleep that night. We had a big presentation the next morning and I wanted to be well rested and prepared. Instead, I was awake, upset and utterly alone while my male colleagues (and the lip kisser) presumably slept soundly.

I only belatedly realised that the lip kissing that day had triggered a flashback – a visceral, physical, psychological memory – of a past sexual assault.

I attended the presentation and meetings with the lip kisser the next day. I suffered through the indignity of listening to him and my male colleagues advocating for gender equality in PNG while I felt totally disempowered by them.

Several months after the incident, I decided to leave my job.

Not just because of the incident, but because I was tired.

I was tired of the workload I was juggling. The formal, paid work. The hidden trauma and healing work. The unpaid caring work.

And I was tired of the hypocrisy. I had my Pollyanna-ish view of my work, my colleagues and my bosses shattered. They all talked a good game about gender equality and supporting women but when there was a woman in front of them struggling, they didn’t (or couldn’t) see it. It was every man for themselves it seemed.

To add insult to injury, the well-meaning if somewhat clumsy male colleague who raised the lip kissing at dinner that night in PNG blithely told me a few months later that the incident had been the subject of many a splendid dinner party conversation he had had with friends since then, and – I might be interested to know – his friends were evenly split on whether they thought the lip kissing constituted sexual harassment. A label I hadn’t even thought to apply.

I still don’t know what to label it. All I know is that whatever it was, it led to a decision to leave a job and to temporarily leave a sector I had previously loved – my ‘dream job’.

And it led to loss – of income, of self-esteem and of career progression.

And it made my body and mind go into survival mode when the news of Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape by a colleague in Parliament House was revealed. All because some bloke didn’t think to ask me how I would like to be greeted – where my personal ‘line’ was – and just made that decision for himself.

We need to provide working environments that feel safe for everyone, including women, and those who are transgender, gender non-binary and gender diverse. We need to recognise the many ways that women can be affected by unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. We need to ensure that women are supported to do their job and maintain their careers.

Anonymous is a mid-career, white Australian woman who has worked for a number of NGOs, universities and research institutions in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Editor’s note: Anonymous and signed comments will be accepted on this post, in line with our usual editorial and moderation standards.

If this post has raised concerns on sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au in Australia, or 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain in PNG on 7150 8000.

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  • The incidents and experiences outlined above are, sadly, the norm in this environment. I worked in international development as a civil engineer for many years and experienced discriminatory behaviour and sexual harassment in every duty station in which I served. I also witnessed it happening to other women. Most women simply left the sector as they knew that reporting these incidents and fighting the systemic misogyny was pointless.

    I worked for many years with the UN, where gender-based harassment was endemic. In one instance, when stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, I was physically and verbally assaulted by one of my male staff members. I was then summoned to Kabul so that the matter could be further investigated. The attack was afforded a cursory investigation but I was cleared of any contributing or provoking behaviour. The staff member concerned had his contract terminated and was repatriated.

    Shortly after I received an email from a senior UN staffer in Kabul suggesting that I “should look to my management style” and a second stating that I should have been able to “see beyond my own personal issues to focus on what’s important” and adding “I bet you … expect to be paid for …. non-performance”.

    I then took the matter to UN headquarters in New York who undertook a more thorough investigation which found in my favour. I had been Regional Manager of the Jalalabad office but following these events was immediately demoted and transferred to Kabul to undertake menial work. Three months later my contract was terminated by the head of the Kabul office on specious grounds which I could easily defend. The males in this office who had conspired to take retaliatory against me were then promoted to very senior posts.

    I have now written a book on this and other aspects of international development that need addressing urgently. I feel very strongly about the (often) perverse culture that exists in this sector and the failure of large international organisations, that should be the harbingers of world’s best practice, to address this and related issues.

  • Thank you Anonymous and others who have shared their stories here. The culture of ‘boy’s clubs’ is supported and enabled in consulting firms, and makes a mockery of any attempt to at gender and social inclusion programming. I have experienced first hand this misogynistic culture as a gender and social inclusion expert. During one particular nasty consulting job, I was referred to everything from a ‘feminazi’ to the ‘MILF that does MELF’ by the male team leader and his crony drinking-partner M+E advisor. I documented and brought these matters to the attention of the consulting firm and the donor, I was then ‘let go’ for ‘not fitting into the culture’. Too right! I will never ‘fit into’ and accept a work culture that does not treat women with respect.

  • Thank you for sharing Anon.

    This is such an important conversation to start having and it starts with the courageous people like yourself and those who have also shared here.

    My comment/ story is about the role of power imbalance and hierarchy in perpetuating sexual harassment and assault.

    I hope it helps others.

    Within weeks of starting my job in this sector I had a manager who started making inappropriate comments about my appearance. This escalated over time to exposing himself in the office in Australia and overseas. I was very young and found the pressure of this behaviour coming from my boss extremely hard to navigate and understand and I did not know what to do or how to respond. It went on for seven years. When I gained more confidence and pushed back it escalated and became physical. Eventually, I discovered that there were many other women in the office this was happening to. When the organisation finally recognised there was a gender imbalance and hired a woman in a senior role (there had barely been a female past manager level for 40 years) women started to come forward. He left and continues to have a successful career in PNG.

    He is widely regarded as charming and popular. His behaviour was in many ways manipulative and when I spoke to the other women it was apparent there was a clear and common pattern of behaviour.

    It is never ok for someone in a position of power to take advantage of others in this way. The use of power over others to acquire sexual gratification is a huge problem in our sector and it must be stopped.

    Thankyou Anon for starting this conversation and sharing your story. We really do need to keep up the momentum if we are to achieve change.

  • Thank you Anonymous. I’m sorry that this happened to you but unfortunately it is so common in this sector. Many years ago somewhere in the Pacific a fellow expatriate tried to break in to my bedroom after I rejected his extremely forthright and intimidating physical advances. I reported the incident to my two male managers, who told me that tensions were raised because we were in a conflict environment and that I would react differently otherwise. I understand that the perpetrator went on to physically assault a local woman and suffered repercussions from her wantoks before leaving the country. Well that’s what one of the male managers told me when he recounted these events to me with humour. Of course I was living back in Australia by then while the said two managers went on to have illustrious careers in the sector. Fifteen years later and I still feel angry about this.

  • Sorry that you had to go through this, but thank you for sharing your story. We need to collectively stand up to toxic, misogynistic behaviour.

    I am a Papua New Guinean woman who won’t stand for such inappropriate behaviour.

    It’s also of great concern to me that white male development workers can come to my country and advocate for gender equality, yet act in such an appalling manner.

    We already have a mammoth task on our hands dealing with gender inequality in PNG.

  • Dear anon – I’m so sorry that you went through this traumatic incident, and that it shaped your trajectory negatively thereafter. It’s awful that your employer didn’t have any framework for support to you (eg pre-deployment briefing and real support channels) and it’s doubly awful that this older male behaved with such hypocrisy, and indeed impunity. Presumably for many years.

    In this story I see myself in one of the clueless male colleagues discussing these things blithely over dinner. I’m going to be doing some reflecting on this. Wishing you all the best.

  • I am her daughter and seeing my mum like this was very hard it is very wrong to do this and is so incredibly rude. All I want to say is good work mum.


  • Thank you Anonymous for posting. You should not have doubted yourself or should you ever. This was plain and simple an assault. We have been victims of different forms of harassment at the workplace. Sometimes bawdy jokes, sometimes deeply disturbing explicit comments. Often when we stand up for ourselves or others we are not well accepted. I appreciate you sharing your story so others may also have the courage to come out with theirs and stand up to harassment and assault.

  • I am so sorry to read your story but even more sorry that I am not more surprised.

    During my first field assignment I was shocked and disappointment to step into a culture of sexism and sexual harassment, despite the values espoused by the organization. I was one of only two female international staff and all of the local female staff served in domestic functions. Despite being a technical expert, I was routinely excluded from strategic decisions, and rather asked to perform secretarial work, such as attending meetings with our head of office to take notes for him. On one occasion I was asked – in writing- to not attend a strategic decision making meeting so that I could cook dinner instead for my male colleagues.

    I experienced recurrent sexual harassment by a male colleague where I felt obligated to laugh off him making repeated comments about my appearance in the workplace even though they made me feel very uncomfortable. Ultimately, on an evaluation mission in the field where I was the only female present, the male colleague felt emboldened to make unwanted sexual advances towards me. After I asked him to share with me his feedback on a document, he pushed me to work on it together in his room where he had moved the WiFi router. He proceeded to suggest that we work on it together on his bed. Upset, I left his room but he did not take no for answer. He repeatedly knocked on the door to me my room and sent me texts asking me to reconsider spending the night with him. When I reported the incident, I was informed by my manager that it was not considered sexual harassment but was attributed to “cultural differences”. Several of my male colleagues who openly spoke of frequenting sex workers and a male colleague dating a local staff (despite it being strictly against the organization’s policy) was also attributed to “cultural differences”. Yet, I simultaneously was informed that my boyfriend was not welcome in my room with the door closed due to needing to respect the cultural values of my male colleagues.

    At the end of the mission when I shared my frustrations with sexism in the work place, I was retaliated against with an evaluation that said I was not “respectful of other cultures”, did not uphold the values of the organization and that I did not manage a high stress work environment well. For refusing to tolerate sexism and sexual harassment, I was punished.

    I wish I could say that my experience is an exception in the humanitarian sector, but I am realizing it is all too common. Blatant sexism and sexual harassment need to be extinguished by the humanitarian sector.

  • I’m sorry this happened too. It’s hard to believe men thinking kissing on the lips is acceptable. It’s clearly sexual harassment.

    So was some of the behaviour during the time I worked in Solomon Islands. I’m referring in particular to a small group of very smart young men.

    I was told later by one of their colleagues that they had a competition to bed local girls.

    Of course they all returned home to brilliant careers. I wonder if they reflect on their behaviour.

  • Thanks for sharing your story Anon. I’m surprised there aren’t more comments on the post or social media about this, maybe more will come through in the coming days.

    In my experience there’s something in particular about men working abroad in some countries, particularly some long-term expats, and their attitudes towards sexual impropriety that is particularly troubling. It would also be wrong to assume that this behaviour doesn’t make its way into some Australia-based workplaces as well. (It should go without saying that I am talking about some male expats, not all, and that there are many good men working in our sector, but just clarifying so this discussion doesn’t go sideways…).

    When I was very young and working in the media abroad rather than in aid, a group of expat men decided to make comments on a public forum and in an anonymous blog post explicitly mocking me, my body, and my apparently radical feminist views, using my full name and photographs — and from some of the details they shared, it was very clear that some of them were much older white men in my own workplace. All this for just existing as a young woman and working, and quite possibly being quite clear about my ‘line’ a few times with some of them. The workplace culture was definitely one element in the decision to change careers from working in newsrooms.

    In my aid-related workplaces I haven’t directly encountered issues like the above, but it is all too clear that in some of these international workplace environments the HR structures mean that even if you did make a complaint, there’s very unlikely to be any accountability, and the best option for your career is often to just leave. Having your visa tied to your employment also puts you in a more vulnerable position in some situations, as does the frequent use of short-term contracting.

    In smaller cities you also end up socialising with colleagues more than you would in other contexts, so your social circle and workplace are often tightly linked.

    Then of course there’s the question of – imagine how these men are treating local women both in and outside of the workplace if they are treating their colleagues in this way? This is something that always troubles me when I have seen or heard about this kind of behaviour.

    There’s also the issue of support when your workplace is in a particular environment, for example in a country with higher levels of sexual or other violence, and you may face incidents on the street or in daily life while based in that country for work. This often is seen as being ‘part of the job’ of being a development worker, and there’s not necessarily support or other structures in place for this, or those structures only activate for particularly serious cases.

    The international development workplace is complex, but should be more attuned to these issues given the topics we work on are often so deeply rooted in systemic inequality and that the principles of our sector are aimed at addressing this.

    Thanks for bravely sharing your experience and I am hopeful it starts important conversations and appropriate action if people witness behaviour like this. I also hope the kisser reads this and reflects on how deeply inappropriate that behaviour is in a workplace, and the impacts that these things have on women’s lives and careers.

  • Dear anonymous

    I am so sorry that you had to go through this disgusting experience. What he did is sexual harrasment. Plain and simple.

    Even though you might not want to go any legal or other route, maybe it would be good for your own healing to write to this man and explain to him the damage his behaviour has resulted in. It seems he’s completely missing any sense of self awareness or just ignored your vulnerability all together.

    Unfortunately the systems will not provide an environment that protects other women of such behaviours because the top leadership is mostly the same people who would behave in such ways.

    I hope you have managed to recover and heal from both your first and then the second sexual harrasment and assault situations.

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