Sexism at work still rife

Alice Arkwright on a new report exposing widespread sexual harassment in the workplace

It will be two years in October since hundreds of thousands of people tweeted about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, sparking the MeToo movement which placed sexual harassment high on the public agenda. Whilst sexual harassment can happen anywhere, all too frequently it happens at work and, worryingly, many see it as an inevitable part of working life. The most recent development is a new phone line for women who have experienced sexual harassment at work to get specialist legal advice. Launched with the help of actor Emma Watson, it is the first service of its kind in the UK.

TUC research since 2016 has helped to highlight the prevalence of harassment. The report Still just a bit of banter? showed that half of women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment at work. This is mirrored in a BBC poll, which showed that 50% of women compared to 20% of men had experienced sexual harassment at work. This can include sexual comments and questions, unwanted touching, seeing pornography at work, sexual assault and rape. The experiences of women at work reflects the violence against women that occurs across society because of imbalances of power, structural inequalities and sexism.

A report by the TUC this year also demonstrated shockingly high levels of sexual harassment amongst LGBT workers. The first research of its kind, it showed that 70% of LGBT workers had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, one in eight LGBT women had been seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work and over 40% of LGBT workers surveyed said that colleagues had made inappropriate comments about their sex life.

The frequency with which LGBT workers received verbal sexual harassment appears to be linked to societal sexualization of LGBT identities, leading people to think that it is acceptable to ask questions that they wouldn’t of their heterosexual counterparts. I write this just after Toni Morrison died, who powerfully stated: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence”, reminding everyone that the way we speak, the words we choose and the ‘banter’ we partake in are part of the fabric of discrimination faced by women, LGBT people and other groups.

Research into third party harassment also shows that sexual harassment is not just by colleagues, but clients, patients and customers that people come across every day at work.

Despite the prevalence, current laws put the onus on individuals to report incidents to their employer, but currently four out of five people who experience sexual harassment do not. There are multiple barriers to reporting including the fear that doing so would have a negative impact on relationships at work and be detrimental to career progression. Additionally, many victims assume they would not be believed, are too embarrassed, think the perpetrator would go unpunished or simply don’t know they are able to report this to their employer. For LGBT workers, there is the added fear that reporting will result in them being outed at work.

The TUC has been pushing for the government to introduce a statutory duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment at work and serious repercussions for those who don’t. Under the duty, employers who fail to take reasonable steps to protect people would be in violation of the Equality Act, meaning the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) could take action.

Additionally, under the duty anyone who feels an employer is not doing enough to protect workers could report them to the EHRC, regardless of whether sexual harassment has taken place.

Employers can take clear actions including adopting a zero-tolerance approach to any form of harassment at work, mandatory training so people are aware of what sexual harassment is and what their rights are and introducing protections to keep lone workers or night workers safe.

As well as a new duty, any government, including a potential future Labour government, must reinstate funding for specialist services that support victims of harassment and violence and allow victims to report incidents to a regulator, removing many of the barriers that prevent people from speaking out. Time limits on issuing a tribunal claim should also be reviewed. Currently a claim needs to be started within three months of the incident of sexual harassment, a very small timeframe for people to act.

These are just some changes that would shift responsibility from individual to employer. The shocking reality is that sexual harassment at work is common and one example of the structural violence and inequalities that women and LGBT people face every day. A structural and legal change must be part of the solution.

Alice Arkwright

Alice Arkwright works at the TUC. She writes in a personal capacity.