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How to address gender-based violence by enabling a positive corporate culture

Reos Partners
September, 2023

This article was co-authored by Mahmood Sonday and Colleen Magner.  

Learn how Reos Partners works with companies within the South African mining sector to help them effectively address GBV.

GBV in the global mining sector 

In the beginning of 2022, the world got a glimpse into gender-based violence (GBV) in the global mining sector when Rio Tinto, a multinational mining corporation, released a report entitled Report into Workplace Culture at Rio Tinto. The report lifted the lid on abuse of power, discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and GBV which have become normalised and ingrained in the company’s culture. Despite this revelation, the discussion about GBV remains complex. It is a deeply personal, pervasive, and endemic issue, which is all too often seen as a taboo. 

While businesses may argue that GBV is not something that they should be responsible for – as it is a social issue that should ideally be addressed through organs of the state – in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa published the National Strategic Plan to address GBV in the country in which he called on the private sector, multiple times, to address the issue. In South Africa, a country with one of the highest incidences of GBV in the world, there is little argument that it should be the responsibility of every corporate citizen, especially when the impact of the scourge can significantly hurt their bottom lines. The 2022 report entitled, The Costly Impact of GBV: Private Sector Perceptions and Realities in South Africa, compiled by The University of Johannesburg, in partnership with Shared Value Africa Initiative, Mid Sweden University and supported by KPMG noted that the combined cost of medical care for GBV victims, human capital loss and judicial costs came in at a conservative R36 billion in 2019. 

We have been working with companies within the South African mining sector to help them tackle GBV. While mining companies are acknowledging that these issues are prevalent within the industry, the sheer scale of the problem is not fully understood. It requires confronting the issues of problematic gender norms, poverty, and inequality – and how these social realities catalyse the vicious cycle of violence that disproportionately affects women. 

What is GBV?

When discussing GBV, it’s important to understand that there is more to the issue than rape and the physical abuse of women. Research shows GBV is very nuanced and includes bullying, micro-aggressions, the making of threats, and harassment. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines GBV as “any act … that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.” 

There is also a common misconception that GBV is a poor people’s issue – that it only affects the mine workers underground and communities where resources are scarce, and violence is used to wield power. Research, however, shows that the issue is found across all races, and economic strata,  all the way up to the upper echelons of business, including boards and their executives. 

The initiatives in which we have been involved reflect the pervasiveness of GBV and highlight the sensitivities around working with this social issue. Yet, the clear impact of GBV on workplace culture and productivity demonstrates the need to deal with this issue as a matter of urgency. 

Impacts of GBV on workplace productivity

Studies have revealed a clear correlation between what happens at home and workplace performance. As mentioned, GBV does not only encompass egregious acts of physical violence. The ‘more discreet’ behaviours or microaggressions can have a severe impact on the well-being of the victims of this type of behaviour. Regardless of the corporate level in which GBV is perpetrated, it has a spill-over effect on team culture, ultimately hampering performance and productivity. 

Our research reveals that while South African mining companies have procedures in place to deal with cases of GBV, they can inadvertently do more harm than good. While investigations into cases seek to get to the truth of the matter, our experience is that they can be stressful processes because often, once a case is reported, there is an investigation, people are questioned, and the case is moved between various departments. Then due to ineffective processing, these investigations can be lengthy, delaying resolution for both parties. In these instances, there is a high psychological cost on victims, who may need to continue interacting with alleged perpetrators, which leads to cases being retracted, and other victims being discouraged from reporting cases. We have also had reports that retaliation against victims is a regular occurrence. 

This is where we have been investigating a change in the approach to how mining companies, and all South African businesses, deal with GBV. 

A change of culture

The issue of GBV in mines is a tricky one. Mining culture, historically, and by its nature, is masculine and top-down.  The typical response of mines is to treat acts of GBV like any other problem, like, for example, health and safety. 

So while there have to be repercussions around GBV, we believe that the complexities of the issue also need to be understood. Creating platforms where companies can educate their people about GBV through dialogue is therefore far more productive. 

Through our work, we have realised that dealing with GBV demands that we start conversations. The discussion has to be nuanced and handled skilfully. The multifaceted nature of GBV means that it goes far beyond just addressing violence against women. It’s about working around the preconceived ideas and legacy issues inherent in a masculine mining culture. 

The conversation needs to build both trust and understanding. It needs to encourage a shift in behaviour. When working with companies, we recommend a more systemic approach, which includes: 

  1. Leaders committing time and energy to introspect and engage deeply with the subject matter. This starts at the board level. Leaders need to understand what dealing with GBV means for them personally, and then how they lead a company with this in mind. 

  2. The implementation of clear, but sensitive, policies and processes to address GBV. These policies need to be explicitly defined and communicated. This involves building capacity and awareness around GBV and having effective processes in place to deal with the issues, including victim support in the form of departmental reporting, keeping victims safe and psychological support.

  3. Creating awareness of how GBV manifests and address some of the assumptions about GBV.  In so many of our workshops, we have found that people don’t know what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Through this, we are trying to create self-awareness, where people can realise if and why their behaviours may be unacceptable. People are grappling with issues around the differences between sex and gender, norms around masculinity, and social norms and behaviours that are taken for granted.

  4. Creating safe ways where people can talk about their GBV experiences. We need to start normalising conversations around GBV and start building awareness of where one’s complicity lies. This is also where bystander intervention can be discussed, where people are encouraged to talk up about abuse when they are aware of it. These need to be conversations where we are not judging, but rather seeking to understand. These discussions have to take legacy issues into account. South Africa's apartheid history, along with a strong paternal culture, can see the conversation becoming polarised. So these sessions have to be managed very carefully, to allow everyone to have a voice but not to cause harm. It requires creativity, skilful management of the process and an understanding of the nuances. 

  5. Creating spaces for psychological safety where staff feel empowered to express their vulnerability. Leaders have to give men, in particular, the space to be vulnerable, but they also need to ensure that victims of any kind of abuse, be it workplace bullying, sexual harassment, or an assault of any kind, also feel safe with the right processes in place to protect them. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, talks about psychological safety in her book, Fearless Organisations. She argues healthier corporate cultures start with psychological safety. Research shows that the teams operating in a climate of safety, where it is acceptable to make a mistake, ask for help, and staff are encouraged to admit they are not sure how to do something, perform better.

  6. Ensuring cases are dealt with sensitively and quickly. As mentioned, GBV cases are often protracted and do more harm than good during the investigation phases. Information is leaked, workplace culture is eroded, and victims often withdraw their cases. It is critical that the disciplinary process sees justice being done, and victims are given a chance to heal. Within these processes, perpetrators have to be dealt with in a manner befitting their offences. 

Key takeaways

  1. GBV is an issue impacting all players in the global mining sector. 
  2. South African mines, and corporates, need to develop greater sensitivity in the fight against GBV.
  3. GBV is more than rape and the physical harm of women; it also includes the “more discreet” power plays, including bullying, harassment and threats.
  4. Corporate culture needs to adopt an approach that creates psychologically safe spaces that encourage dialogue for both men and women.
  5. Replacing a punitive culture around GBV with one of dialogue and understanding is the best way to keep victims safe.
  6. Fighting GBV in the workplace starts in the boardroom. Leaders need to dedicate time to understand the issue. 

In conclusion 

At Reos Partners, our experience and supporting research have proven that GBV cannot be stamped out through old-school punitive measures. It requires an engaging, more human approach, where dialogue leads to a deep shift in awareness and behaviour, along with putting effective policies in place that protect the victims and ensure they are getting the support they need. We advocate for creating spaces of psychological safety, where people can talk about the issues. This requires a cultural change within the business, one that is against violence of any sort and rather creates thriving spaces of productivity and belonging. 

This blog article was written as a contribution in the GIBS (Gordon Institute of Business Science) Acumen 45 Magazine on Effective Leadership. The full magazine can be found and read here in English.  

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