Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a new survey that has asked fresh questions about why organisations’ commitments to gender equality do not appear to match the experience of front-line employees.
The research, Still just a bit of banter? from the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project, found that workplace sexual harassment can take many forms, from suggestive remarks or jokes about a colleague’s sex life to inappropriate touching and demands for sexual favours.
More than half (52 per cent) of the 1,533 women surveyed said that they had experienced sexual harassment, and in 88 per cent of cases the perpetrator was male. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) have been victims of unwanted touching and 20 per cent have been subject to uninvited verbal sexual advances.
Rachel Suff, CIPD employment relations adviser, said: “It's disappointing and worrying to see so many women saying they have experienced sexual harassment at work, and the findings show that regulation alone is not enough to stamp out discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.”
The research found that 79 per cent of respondents did not inform their employer. Of this group, 28 per cent thought reporting it would negatively impact on their relationships at work, 20 per cent were too embarrassed to talk about it or felt they would not be taken seriously, and 15 per cent said it could negatively affect their career prospects.
Suff added: “Employers need to be promoting the importance of respect between employees at every level of the organisation, encouraging a supportive and inclusive culture so that people's behaviour reflects the right values. Employees also need to feel they can turn to someone else in the business if they have been the victim of harassment, and HR has a vital role to play here to ensure all complaints are taken seriously and investigated in line with the law and the organisation's procedures.”
Many victims of workplace sexual harassment have a “lack of confidence and trust in their employer, especially HR” when it comes to dealing with such issues, said Kathryn Nawrockyi, gender equality director at Business in the Community: “Employers really need to start changing employees’ attitudes towards sexual harassment, and emphasise what is acceptable and what isn’t.
“The white noise of outdated attitudes towards gender and sexism never really went away, and it continues in part, because we’re not moving fast enough to equalise gender roles inside and outside the workplace. Employers cannot simply trust that, because they have a good anti-bullying and discrimination policy in place, there isn’t a problem with such matters within their workforce.”
Denise Keating, chief executive of the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, said progress needs to begin with making employees fully aware of what are deemed unacceptable behaviours, with clear examples of what might be considered sexual harassment. She added: “Employees must be encouraged to report anything that they feel is intrusive and unwanted.”
Some of the testimonies on the Everyday Sexism Project website highlight how undermining sexual harassment can be. One victim said: “On my last day at work, a colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get the chance to rape me in the store room before I left.”
Another explained that she was stood in a crowd of male colleagues on a night out when one interrupted her by “leaning through the circle and touching my boob while the rest laughed”. She added that not one of her colleagues “said anything or seemed to think it was wrong”.
Bertille Calinaud, senior inclusion and diversity consultant at Inclusive Employers, said it was important for victims to collect evidence of their negative experiences whenever possible. “Although it’s not easy, it’s so important to do so – but this will only happen if their employer has made it clear there is zero tolerance to sexual harassment, told employees how to report it and explained what will be done if someone reports it,” she said.
“All employees need to be empowered to challenge their colleagues if they notice inappropriate behaviours, to support colleagues who have experienced sexual harassment and to report sexual harassment, whether it is happening to themselves or a coworker.”
As People Management reported in its July issue, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace is still commonplace. Meanwhile, the Everyday Sexism Project is launching a new platform,shoutingback.org.uk, which will bring together in one place for the first time information about legal rights, reporting options and support available for women experiencing workplace sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination and abuse.
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