Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

WORK NEWS

52% of women are sexually harassed at work. We have to act

Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism examines the results of a sobering new survey that shows sexual harassment in the workplace is rife

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By Laura Bates on

In Summer 2014, at a friend’s wedding reception, I sat next to a kind, friendly lawyer in his early sixties. After making the usual small talk about how we knew the bride and groom, the conversation moved on and he asked me about my work. I talked a little bit about gender inequality in society; from political representation, to sexual harassment in the workplace – and at that point he stopped me with a broad smile. “Well”, he boomed confidently, “you’ll be very pleased to know that none of that goes on at all in my profession.”

While he was completely well-meaning, he couldn’t have been more wrong. That very morning, I’d read a toe-curling Everyday Sexism Project entry from a lawyer who had heard senior partners at her firm openly and graphically assessing the sexual attractiveness of their female colleagues. In fact, over the past four years, around 550 female lawyers have reported workplace sexual harassment to Everyday Sexism. Altogether around 20,000 project entries have come from women in the workplace.

The truth is, workplace sexual harassment is absolutely rampant. But an astonishing number of people think it is a thing of the past. Over the last few years, I’ve argued myself blue in the face while people told me this phenomenon, of which I had read thousands of women’s personal testimonies, wasn’t a problem in today’s society. But I didn’t have the figures to prove how bad the problem was. Until now. 

Today the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project reveal the results of brand new research showing that more than half (52 per cent) of women, and nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of women aged 18-24 years old have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The YouGov survey is the largest of its kind in a generation and reveals the shocking reality of what women are still facing at work today. One in three women (32 per cent) have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work and more than a quarter (28 per cent) have experienced sexual comments about their body or clothes. A fifth have experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, and a shocking one in eight (12 per cent) have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.

Of those who reported the harassment to their employer, almost three quarters reported no change and 16 per cent were treated worse as a result 

These figures are a wake-up call, and one we badly need. For years, media discussions of workplace sexual harassment have been structured as “debates” about whether women are just making a fuss, or ought to simply get on with it, or enjoy the attention. Those who object to sexual harassment in workplace settings are ridiculed and called “feminazis”. Those who dare to speak out  are accused of “running to teacher to tell tales”. But instead of reprimanding victims and telling women how to “cope”, we should be demanding that workplaces take urgent action to tackle the issue. There are things individuals can do to help them cope with such situations – joining a union can provide help and support, for example – but we badly need action from employers, who are best placed to prevent harassment from happening in the first place.

The results clearly demonstrate the problem with those (like Donald and Eric Trump), who seem to think that women should simply move workplaces, or toughen up and “deal” with harassment themselves. While these are common attitudes, of the women who experienced sexual harassment in our survey, an enormous four in five didn’t feel able to report it to their employer, and it’s easy to see why - in one fifth of cases the perpetrator was the victim’s line-manager, or someone with authority over them. Furthermore, the results suggest that women who are not on permanent contracts, particularly those doing agency work or on zero-hours contracts are more likely to experience certain types of harassment and less likely to report it. (However, the sample size of women on specific types of contract was too small to draw any conclusions from these findings.) Younger women were also significantly more likely to experience workplace sexual harassment, suggesting that relatively new, inexperienced or vulnerable employees are likely targets.

Job insecurity and fear of being disbelieved may prevent women from speaking out – and no wonder: of those who reported the harassment to their employer, almost three quarters reported no change and 16 per cent were treated worse as a result. 

With the problem chronically under-reported, it is understandable that people like my wedding companion, who might never dream of perpetrating such behaviour themselves and haven’t witnessed it, don’t realise the scale of the problem. But denial is dangerous, and makes it even harder for victims to speak out. 

There is so much we can do that would make a difference. From government action to scrap tribunal fees and reintroduce employers’ third-party harassment duty, to workplaces instituting training and clearer policies, our report makes a wide range of urgent recommendations.

Now we know the scale of the problem, there is no excuse not to act.

@EverydaySexism

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