Sexual harassment at work is getting worse. We need to stamp it out
A study shows half of all women have faced abuse – and for younger workers the figure’s even higher. We have to ensure those who report it are not victimised…
On my last day at work a colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get the chance to have sex with me in the store room before I left. For months I had been scared to go into that room on my own because he always said things like, ‘I’m coming to get you’, and ‘Don’t go in there alone, I’ll jump on you’.”
“The most senior person in the organisation made a series of jokes over the course of six months about how I might want to give my boss a ‘rub down’ or a ‘massage’. Another director tried to grab my breasts at a social gathering.”
These are just two of the many stories from women who’d been subjected to sexual harassment at work that have been shared with the Everyday Sexism Project and the TUC. Other women told us about having to put up with comments about their looks, their breast size or their supposed sexual behaviour. Many told us about being “groped” at work social events or being sent pornography. One woman was told she must be sleeping with her clients to get ahead.
Often dismissed as just a bit of banter, sexual harassment is an ugly reality for too many women at work. And for the first time in decades, new research from both our organisations has shown the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace.
More than half of all women and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18 to 24 said they have experienced sexual harassment at work. This includes being subject to unwelcome sexual jokes (32%) or sexual comments about their body or clothes (28%). Nearly one in five women have experienced unwanted sexual advances – with one in eight being touched intimately or kissed against their will.
And far from being a problem that is diminishing, something that used to happen in the shops and offices of the 1980s and 90s, younger women are now more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment. Often this is because younger women are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work. Previous TUC research has shown that women without job security feel less able to take action against a colleague or employer because they fear retaliation such as having their hours drastically cut.
The survey also shows that, unsurprisingly, most workplace harassers are men. In a frightening 17% of cases, the harasser was someone with line management responsibility for the victim. Far too often, in nearly eight in 10 cases, the woman did not feel able to tell her employer about the harassment or ask for help – and nearly a quarter felt they would not be believed or taken seriously.
Sexual harassment can be embarrassing, humiliating and undermining. Often women told us they were worried about the impact on their relationships in the workplace or their prospects for promotion. One in five said they avoided certain work situations as a result, and 15% said they felt less confident at work.
The impact of harassment is devastating for victims – and clearly bad for productivity and workforce morale, too.
The law says that employers have to protect their staff from sexual harassment, or they could end up at a tribunal. General anti-bullying codes that don’t mention sexual harassment are not enough. Employers need to have strong and specific policies – and to train all their managers how to spot it and stamp it out. Plus, they must set up ways to report sexual harassment that prevent repercussions on the victim.
The government has to step up, too. Bringing in fees for employment tribunals has made it harder for women to gain justice when their employer hasn’t stopped sexual harassment: since fees were introduced in July 2013 the number of employment tribunal cases brought has dropped by a staggering 70% (with no improvement in successful outcomes), so it’s time to bin this failed experiment.
And the government should make employers responsible for protecting staff against sexual harassment from customers, not just from workmates. That’s particularly important for women working on buses and trains, in health and social care and in shops, bars and restaurants.
Experiences shared with the Everyday Sexism Project include: “Taking a customer’s call and having them describe in gruesome detail their sex life with their ex who shares your name”; or “Got groped at work by a customer on Saturday. Still feel disgusted and sad. I was [the] only female bartender.”
Finally, all workers need the full range of statutory employment rights, regardless of status or type of contract – so women can report sexual harassment without fear of losing hours or pay.
Everyone can be part of creating the workplaces we want, where no woman ever faces sexual harassment. As it always has been, the best way to improve life at work is to get together with your co-workers and join a union. Together, working people can demand their employers adopt strong sexual harassment policies, build safer workplaces and get more help for victims – and the employer has to listen and act.
Getting tough on sexual harassment needs stronger unions and proactive employers, and government to step up to the challenge, too. Together we can make Britain’s offices, shop floors, factories and warehouses safe for every working woman.