Female students and professors from six Tokyo universities, including the University of Tokyo and Sophia University, created a group called Safe Campus Youth Network and have been studying gender-based violence. As they gathered once a month, they gradually began to share their job-hunting experiences and discovered that many female students had fallen victim to sexual harassment while seeking employment. Some students were asked questions unrelated to work by male company employees, such as “What kind of relationship do you have with your partner?” or they were asked out for drinks. The result of this discovery was a rare news conference held Monday by those students and professors, where they urged the government, companies and universities to take measures to end the sexual harassment of university students seeking employment.

Although workplace harassment has captured media attention in recent years, the news conference was an eye-opener because not many people are aware that sexual harassment of student job-seekers is so prevalent. The government, companies and universities must strive to identify and root out this problem.

According to a survey of university students by the business news website Business Insider Japan, as of Nov. 24 a whopping 359 out of 723 people, or about 50 percent of the respondents, said they had experienced sexual harassment during the recruitment process. Three-quarters said they have never told anyone, not even those close to them, about their traumatic experiences.

In Japan, where lifetime employment is still common, many people consider the company they join after graduating from university to be a very important choice on their career path. As a result, most hesitate to report their experiences of sexual harassment to the companies out of fear that doing so would lower their chances of being hired.

Universities likewise don’t seem to be of much help to students who are sexually harassed. Since few students report their experiences to their school, it is hard for the universities to grasp what’s going on. Moreover, the schools tend to refrain from criticizing companies outright as their main goal is to enable students to land jobs at those very same firms. “People suffer in silence and offenders are not punished,” one student told the news conference.

Harassment reportedly ranges from forced sex and inappropriate touching to verbal abuse. Company employees who take advantage of students’ vulnerability should not be tolerated.

Experts point out that changes in the job-hunting environment are also creating a breeding ground for sexual harassment. In the past, there were no smartphone apps for students to meet with alumni to seek advice, but now connections can easily be made online. In addition to job interviews, students now have various opportunities to meet company employees, such as internship programs. For students, these opportunities are also considered part of the recruiting process.

In October, the labor ministry drafted guidelines to prevent workplace harassment, but the definition of workplace in the guidelines is relatively narrow. Meeting with job-seeking students outside the office could be construed as a gray zone under the guidelines. As a result, students say the guidelines do not reflect reality and fall short of preventing harassment.

The International Labor Organization’s convention and recommendation to combat violence and harassment at work that was adopted in June recognizes that harassment in the workplace can constitute a human rights violation and poses a threat to equal opportunity. The ILO convention and recommendation cover not only employees but also job-seekers and applicants.

The harassment of female students also goes against the spirit of Article 5 of Japan’s equal employment opportunity law, which stipulates that employers must provide equal opportunities for job-seekers and applicants regardless of gender.

The government can do many things to protect female students. It should provide student victims of sexual harassment with sufficient public consultation services and require companies to provide training and education for employees to prevent harassment. They should also consider introducing punitive measures for sexual harassment offenders and their employers.

Victims of sexual harassment may be able to speak about their past experiences years after such incidents, but it is often difficult to speak up when harassment is ongoing. Considering this, it is very courageous of those students to speak out in public about the problems they are now experiencing. The government, companies and universities must heed their voices and tackle this serious issue in a sincere manner.

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