+ A

Empowered by Me Too, but silenced by colleagues

Apr 12,2018
Empowered by Korea’s Me Too movement, an office worker, who declined to be named for this article, recently went to her company’s human resources team about her experience of sexual harassment. The perpetrator was her boss, and she wanted him penalized.

The company opened an investigation and concluded the accusation was true. He was eventually punished but “too lightly,” the employee said without going into further details out of fear of possible retaliation. She asked the company to mete out heavier punishment, citing panic attacks she was experiencing as a result of the harassment. The company dismissed her request, and she soon became the target of workplace gossip.

“Why is she still overreacting?” she once heard a co-worker whispering. Some of her colleagues directly told her, “He’s been punished already. What more are you asking for?”

Four months have passed since a prosecutor, Seo Ji-hyun, sparked Korea’s Me Too movement by revealing on a local evening news program that she was groped by a superior at a funeral in 2010. Scores of women have since come forward with their own stories of harassment in the workplace, but many later face backlash from their colleagues for speaking up.

One woman working in the literary industry, who also refused to mention her name for this article, recently accused an author of sexual harassment - only to have acquaintances in the industry blame her for the aftermath. “They told me I was starving their business and that the perpetrator treated me that way because he sincerely cared for me,” she said.

A 25-year-old college student surnamed Kim said she felt pressure to stay silent about the issue even while applying for jobs. During one interview at a conglomerate, she was asked how she might handle an after-work drinking party with senior colleagues “as the Me Too movement prevails,” in the words of one interviewer.

“The question was biased,” Kim said. “The Me Too movement is changing the social atmosphere, but it has failed to permeate through several corners of our daily lives.”

Cho Hyung-seok, who is leading a special investigation committee at the National Human Rights Commission on sexual misconduct cases in the arts, said victims need a place to turn to for protection. “In most cases, the perpetrators hold absolute authority within the group, which is why victims only speak out when they leave that organization,” Cho said. “There needs to be some kind of system that looks out for victims when they decide to become a whistleblower, a place where they can feel protected.”

Lee Soo-jung, a professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University in Suwon, Gyeonggi, said local authorities needed to come up with a practical rulebook for government agencies to follow when dealing with sexual misconduct cases, share knowledge with each other and create a professional organization that provides counseling services to victims.

Korea, according to Lee, lacks a “unitary process” that public officials can automatically visualize when they have to handle anything within the realm of sexual assault.

BY HONG SANG-JI, YU SUNG-KUK AND KIM JEONG-YEON [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]