Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)

Hong Kong’s equality watchdog targets sexual harassment on university campuses with online course

Equal Opportunities Commission aims to debunk myths about sexual harassment after poll by Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts student union finds the problem rampant at the institution

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 7:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 11:10am

The city’s equality watchdog has launched an online course to debunk myths about sexual harassment on university campuses and explain its legal implications.

The course, which takes an hour to complete, targets both staff and students at tertiary institutions.

It comes after a poll conducted by the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts student union found sexual harassment was “rampant” at the institution.

The survey showed 12 per cent of students at the academy had suffered sexual harassment at the hands of professors, and 18 per cent had witnessed classmates sexually harassed by teaching staff.

The study also found 94 per cent of students were unaware of mechanisms in place to report cases.

“Owing to misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature of sexual harassment, school managements sometimes fail to handle complaints properly,” the Equal Opportunities Commission noted in a newsletter published on September 6.

“But worse, victims are often reluctant to report cases due to embarrassment, while a lot are even unaware of their rights and the channels to do so,” it said.

The academy’s student union launched its survey following the South China Morning Post’s report in April on a sexual harassment case there settled out of court.

The publicly funded institution, along with the chairman of its school of drama, Ceri Sherlock, paid HK$1 million to a former head of the school, Peter Jordan.

He had sued the academy and Sherlock last year under the victimisation provisions of the sex discrimination ordinance.

Jordan, whose contract with the academy was not extended in 2013, claimed he had been victimised after reporting students’ complaints to the management.

The president of the student union, Ryan Lo, said he appreciated the equality watchdog’s reaction to the survey.

“We can see they are concerned about sexual harassment on campuses, but ... information that can be accessed whenever people need it – that would be better than a system that requires registration and logging in,” he said of the online course.

In its description of the course, the anti-discrimination body referred to Jordan’s case, but the professor told the Post he was little impressed with the initiative.

“They give the impression they are combating discrimination, but from my own experience they don’t do anything practical,” he said.

Jordan said he had applied for support from the commission before taking the case to court last year, but they refused financial assistance and also legal advice.

“I was lucky I had enough savings to be able to take the matter further, but I think most people would not be able to do that,” Jordan said.

From 2011 to last year, the commission received 440 complaints about sexual harassment under the sex discrimination ordinance. Fifteen came from the field of education, of which none was granted legal assistance.

A spokesman for the commission said the complaints “are submitted to its Legal and Complaints Committee ... for careful consideration”, where a number of factors are considered, “such as whether the case raises a question of principle, whether it can set an important legal precedent, the strength of the evidence and likelihood of success”.