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Brazil’s public prosecutor’s office saw a surge in sexual harassment charges last year, up 26 per cent compared with 2016, as more women are taking steps to stop inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Here, a video from the country’s Ministry of Labour warns about the forms such behaviour can take. (You can watch the video at the end of this story.)YouTube

When the mayor of a southern Brazilian city called Nao-me-Toque (which translates, almost unbelievably, as “don’t touch me”), offered a female city-hall employee a promotion last year, it came with clear conditions. There had to be an “encounter” at his house, on an afternoon when he would tell his maid to skip work. “It has to be next week – before you can start the job,” Armando Ross said, in a video the woman secretly recorded.

Police are now investigating Mr. Ross for sexual harassment – which is a crime in Brazil punished by up to two years in jail – after the woman, who has not been named, recently gave them the video, apparently emboldened by a new public conversation about harassment.

#MeToo quickly spilled over from its U.S. origins last year to become a global phenomenon, but it has taken different forms in other countries. Women in Brazil seized the initial moment to make clear that they, too, were fed up with being groped at the office or offered opportunities in exchange for sex – and with the culture of impunity that so often accompanies these experiences. Forty-two per cent of women said in a 2017 national survey by the research institute Datafolha that they had experienced sexual harassment, in the workplace, the street or public transport.

But there was a rapid backlash to #MeToo here as well, with the argument that the anti-harassment movement wanted Brazilians to stop being, essentially, Brazilian – to stifle the famously warm and affectionate quality that characterizes many interactions here, both professional and otherwise. When the national news magazine Veja did a cover story on changing norms around harassment a few months ago, it ran with the headline, “No, gentlemen, not any more” over photos and text that were decidedly wistful for the more pleasant office of yore. The article said that “new standards demanded by feminists” were obliging offices to phase out “normal interactions” between men and women such as “giving a colleague a ride, hugging, and kissing.”

The article was emblematic of the complicated way this debate is unfolding here. There are activities considered perfectly normal in a Brazilian workplace – many people kiss hello, with a quick clasp of a hug, at the start of the day in the office; even the most professional of e-mails will be signed um abraco, a hug, while the boss will end a text with bjs, the short form for “kisses”; and there is lots of banter about personal lives – that might seem startling in a Canadian context.

“We are very informal and very relational – we touch each other a lot,” said Silvana Andrade, a Rio professor of human-resource management who gives sexual-harassment training. “It’s much more complicated, in a Latin culture, a sexist one.”

Yet, that doesn’t mean the lines are unclear, said Ana Bon, who studies workplace culture and teaches in the MBA program at Estacio de Sa University in Rio. “Yes, there’s a greater closeness – it’s a characteristic of our culture, our people,” Prof. Bon said. “But everyone knows when this is affectionate and when it is a violation – when it is against my will … We know how to differentiate between a kiss and a hug and a little joke – and the jokes that are really not a joke. You know when it’s made as a joke but it’s actually a reality.”

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Feb. 7, 2018: A reveller at a street party in Rio de Janeiro is given a temporary tattoo reading “Nao e Nao” (“no means no”) during carnival season.CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

In a long career in the technology industry, where she was often the only woman in the room, Prof. Bon said she navigated dozens of situations with men who commented on her appearance, let their hands linger or used a pet name while asking her to please get everyone coffee – although she was one of the most senior employees present. “I acted like I was deaf – because at that time you didn’t have any channel to protest,” she said, then added, “Even now, people don’t protest. Even now, if you talk, it’s the same problem: As the whistleblower – you’re the person who creates problems.” Lower-income women can’t risk the paycheque by speaking up, she said, while senior women don’t want to risk a career. “Women become furious but they don’t talk.”

Or, they didn’t. The public prosecutor’s office focused on labour issues reported a surge in sexual-harassment charges last year, up 26 per cent over 2016.

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Prof. Andrade attributes the increase to #MeToo and said she is optimistic, because the public conversation about the issue is more vibrant than ever before and because young women are much more insistent about what they will not tolerate. Most large companies now have an ombudsperson as a central point for complaints, she said, and women have another tool at their disposal. “Social media gives you a place to go and complain instantly,” she said. “A company can’t risk that impact on their reputation.”

Cassiano Machado, a managing director at ICTS, a Sao Paulo firm that manages outsourced whistleblower lines, said there is a rapidly changing understanding of what is acceptable workplace behaviour. “There is more information being provided by the media and also by the companies themselves … Consent about what’s allowed is being formalized internally,” he said. “Companies are responding faster than they used to before the Hollywood scandal – top management … doesn’t want theirs to be the company that appears in the media as the one that allows sexual harassment or doesn’t punish harassers. They are getting a better understanding of the real impact this can have on the bottom line of a company.”

However, Prof. Andrade said she has tried and failed for years to get the annual national congress of human-resource professionals (which is heavily dominated by women) to hold seminars on the issue. And when participation at training sessions she runs on harassment and inclusion is not made mandatory, then invariably she finds herself in a room containing only women.

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This past March, Brazilian sports reporter Bruna Dealtry was broadcasting live from a soccer victory party when a man tried to kiss her on camera. The incident was the catalyst for an anti-harassment campaign called #DeixaElaTrabalhar, or #LetHerDoHerJob in English. The journalist and others describe their experiences with harassment in the Twitter video below.Bruna Dealtry/Facebook

In research done last year by TREE Diversity, a Sao Paulo human-resources firm, a third of women said they did not believe their confidentiality would be respected if they reported harassment. Mariana Deperon, who runs the firm, said many companies are setting up hotlines, but far fewer are actually equipped to respond to a report in a way that supports the victim.

Vanessa Rodrigues, a 27-year-old videographer in the southern city of Florianopolis, was sexually harassed on a job last year, reported the incident to both the employer and the police – and found herself isolated and out of work as a consequence. She was filming a cooking show for a client whose on-site representative stood too close to her and made suggestive comments about her appearance. “But I’m a professional, so I tried to just carry on,” she said. Then, one night she woke up in the shared crew house to find the man masturbating with his body pressed to hers on the couch.

“When I saw him, I was paralyzed,” she recalls. “I said, ’For the love of god, you can’t do this – you’re married with kids, I’m married with a child.’” The man left and in the morning she called the manager who hired her and told her what happened. The manager said she would “deal with it internally,” Ms. Rodrigues said. But not only was the man not removed from the set – he showed up and began to complain that Ms. Rodrigues wasn’t competent. After a couple of days, she was fired. The harasser smeared her on professional Facebook pages that were her main source of jobs; when she called contacts trying to arrange new work, they told her she had a reputation for “causing trouble” and they couldn’t risk hiring her. She went to the police, who told her she would only have grounds for a complaint if she had come forward “within an hour” of the assault.

“He killed my career,” Ms. Rodrigues said. “Businesses are saying they have new policies – the policy is to hire new people so they don’t have to deal with the problem.”

Valdirene Silva de Assis, who heads the federal public prosecution team on labour issues related to anti-discrimination, says it’s clear more women are reporting harassment, but the situation breaks down precisely where Ms. Rodrigues ran into trouble – in a commensurate response that punishes victims, not harassers. And it’s critical that employers stop treating harassers as if they’ve simply overstepped a cultural line, she said.

“You don’t have to stop being Brazilian. You don’t have to start being rude or cold,” she said. “But you can’t abuse power.”

Video: Brazil’s Labour Ministry on stopping sexual harassment (in Portuguese)

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