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More than half of UK women are sexually harassed at work. What happens now?

A new survey shows the true prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace here in the UK. But after #metoo, what comes next?

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By Zoë Beaty on

It’s difficult to recall a time when sexual harassment was more firmly on the agenda. And, since Harvey Weinstein’s epic fall from power first began weeks ago, now along with fellow prolifically accused Terry Richardson, there’s scarce been a time when these accounts have been so well heard. The female experience, intersecting unequivocally with male abuse of power, feels as though it is finally being legitimised. Famous voices – strong voices – have largely unified to make a long-overdue stand.

But what does sexual harassment in the workplace look like when it’s not illuminated by the glare of the showbiz spotlight? New research released today says it looks just as prevalent, just as far-reaching and, of course, just as damaging.

BBC Radio 5 Live, along with research consultancy ComRes, surveyed more than 2000 people about their experience of harassment at work or in a place of study. The results were staggering and simultaneously unsurprising: more than half of all women (53 per cent) said they had experienced sexual harassment (defined as “anything from inappropriate jokes to actual assault”); both men and women aged 18-34 were found to be the most likely to say they have experienced sexual harassment (45 per cent of both men and women). Twenty-seven per cent of those surveyed said their harassment took the form of inappropriate jokes or “banter”, while 15 per cent had suffered inappropriate touching and a further 13 per cent had been verbally harassed.

The findings went on to suggest that more women than men had been targeted by a boss or senior manager (30 per cent), and ten per cent had felt forced to leave their job or study as a direct result of harassment. It shouldn’t be overlooked that harassment also affects 20 per cent of men – and, while 67 per cent of participants said that they never reported their experience, men were significantly less likely to do so.

Yes, it is imperative that we hold abusers in the public eye to account – but can that translate that into the everyday lives of more than half of women (and plenty of men) working up and down this country?

No doubt the accounts of harassment contributed to this survey will have been a part of the now 1.7m-strong army of voices shouting #metoo. And, along with those voices, this survey underlines in bold an incredibly important fact to those now suddenly listening: that, far away from the headlines that rage on from Hollywood, sexual harassment isn’t contained within Weinstein’s circles, or Richardson’s. It is an issue which infiltrates every echelon of society indiscriminately. The reality of sexual harassment is far-reaching – it affects the CEO and the intern alike, it’s rife in the arts, in the corporate sector, in retail, in labour, in public service. It appears to show in absolute terms that sexual harassment is in no way isolated. It’s an active, thriving product of society.

So what now? We have the statistics, we have the stories, we have the hashtag and, it seems, the ears of a public previously reluctant to listen. What we need now is action. There is responsibility to be taken. Questions must be asked and answered, about the role of the government in tackling this issue, along with the role of the individual – who, or what, is faciliating, accepting and perpetuating this behavious? Employers, for example, consciously or unconsciously protecting those abusing their power over others, should also be subject to criticism and reprimanded to ensure that everyone, no matter who they are or where they are, is afforded a safe and fair working environment. Yes, it is imperative that we hold abusers in the public eye to account to set a precedent – but can that translate that into the everyday lives of more than half of women (and plenty of men, too) working up and down this country? As the weeks roll on and the stories continue to emerge, that will be the real challenge.


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Photo: Getty Images
Tagged in:
Sexual assault
women at work

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