Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, was invited to address the United Nations on March 29 about the issue of combating sexual harassment in the workplace. She will present Israel’s precedent-setting Voluntary Code Against Sexual Harassment.

“We started working on this several years before the current #MeToo campaign,” Sulitzeanu tells ISRAEL21c. “The code is an interesting idea that could be adapted and implemented in other places in the world.”

Based on the Israeli law against sexual harassment in the workplace – be it an inappropriate look, remark, touch, text message or worse – the code provides concrete details on how to implement the regulations, which Sulitzeanu compares to “a quilt with a lot of patches missing.”

For example, the law requires every business or organization with more than 10 workers to designate a special ombudsman to deal with sexual harassment complaints, but it doesn’t specify details about training and supporting this ombudsman.

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers turned to the Israel Standards Institute four years ago to help add definitions and explanations to the laws after winning a tender from the Israeli Ministry of Economics to draft a voluntary code to give managers a more exact tool for avoiding and handling sexual harassment incidents.

Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. Photo via Facebook

With this funding and additional funding from groups including the Hadassah Foundation in the United States, Israeli labor law experts from women`s organizations worked for two years on guidelines.

“We also developed, with Dr. Zeev Lehrer from Tel Aviv University’s department of gender studies, a tailor-made intervention that enables us to specifically understand the special characteristics of sexual harassment in a specific organization and then develop a prevention program suited to the organization,” Sulitzeanu says.

The priority is to introduce the Voluntary Code Against Sexual Harassment in local municipalities, businesses and organizations that the association identifies as high risk – such as the military, police, healthcare organizations, airlines, media outlets and first-response networks – because of vulnerability factors such as big gaps in age and gender (usually, older men supervising young women), nighttime working hours and frequent operations outside the office environment.

The municipality of Ra’anana was the first to adopt the voluntary code for its thousands of workers, followed by a high-tech company (EIM). Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency response network, will adopt it next.

Israel is a leader in this area

Sulitzeanu’s invitation to the UN has its roots in a cosponsored resolution that Israel spearheaded in March 2017, titled “Preventing and Eliminating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” in light of statistics showing up to 60 percent of women worldwide have experienced this.

The resolution condemns sexual harassment in all forms, especially against women and girls, and emphasizes the need to take measures to prevent and eliminate it, raise awareness, educate, promote research, and collect and analyze data and statistics.

“Israel succeeded in passing this resolution in the UN and that positioned Israel as a leader in this area,” says Sulitzeanu. “That’s why they called me to talk about the voluntary code.”

As far as she knows, no other country aside from Australia has any similar code of conduct to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Just as Israel is the startup nation for technology and science, we are also the startup in social initiatives,” she says.

Subculture of sexual harassment

The code also applies to situations such as child athletes traveling to competitions accompanied by adult coaches, doctors and physical therapists. Sulitzeanu saw the danger inherent in such circumstances long before this year’s revelation of sexual abuse by the US Olympic gymnastics team doctor.

“It’s not enough to talk about the law in at-risk organizations,” she says. “Some have a known subculture of sexual harassment and need tailor-made interventions.”

Sulitzeanu expects employers to be eager to embrace the code in order to avoid lawsuits and the loss of productivity that comes from sexual harassment allegations due to absences, emotional stress and office gossip.

“This is a precedent-setting way to deal with the problem,” says Sulitzeanu. “I hope the government will compel every municipality to have this code, and I hope all organizations at risk will also adopt it. It is not complicated or expensive and it makes your workplace a caring, safe place for employees.

“Once these guidelines are embedded in the DNA of the organization they become easy to implement.”

The Israeli Standards Institute will conduct an inspection of each participating workplace every two years to determine if the standards set out in the code are being upheld.