Sexual harassment is no laughing matter
For anyone who thinks that sexual harassment has been consigned to the past – a relic of the days of Benny Hill and Carry On films – new research from the TUC on sexual harassment in the workplace will come as a nasty surprise. TUC polling carried out earlier this year found that over half of women in work had experienced some form of sexual harassment. For young women (age 18-24) the proportion shot up to 63 per cent.
Earlier this year, the TUC commissioned polling to provide a snapshot of women’s experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace. The results probably won’t come as a surprise those who have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or to shop stewards who have dealt with cases of sexual harassment.
The polling showed us that sexual harassment of varying degrees severity is alive and well in the modern workplace.
Thirty-five per cent of women have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace. A third of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature. Twenty-eight per cent of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.
And it’s not just verbal harassment. Physical sexual harassment and assault is far from being eradicated. Nearly one quarter of women have experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back). One fifth of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances and more than one in ten women reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them.
In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator was a male colleague, with nearly one in five reporting that their direct manager or someone else with direct authority over them was the perpetrator. The polling also showed that third party harassment – that is where the harasser is, for example, a client, customer, patient or a student, rather than a fellow employee – is a common problem and we know from experience that it’s a problem many employers are reluctant to tackle (after all, “the customer is always right”).
Worryingly, our polling also told us that very few women are taking action. Four out of five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer and, crucially for us as a trade union movement, only one per cent of those who experienced sexual harassment reported it to a union rep.
Sexual harassment is sometimes dismissed as being “banter” or just a joke, and those who complain about it are written off as humorless. But, as those who responded to a TUC online survey attested, it really isn’t “just a joke”. In fact, sexual harassment often has the effect of making the recipient feel ashamed, humiliated, undermined and frightened and can have a lasting impact on mental health. Workplaces where a culture of sexual harassment is allowed to flourish are unattractive and intimidating for women workers and can create a significant barrier to women entering male dominated sectors such as construction and engineering. Sexual harassment may drive those experiencing it to leave their job altogether.
A 2014 study Violence Against Women by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency found that one in three women who has experienced sexual harassment felt fearful as a result, while one in five felt ashamed of what had taken place. Subsequently, feelings of vulnerability were experienced by 20 per cent of women, anxiety by 14 per cent and loss of self-confidence by 13 per cent.
These findings are corroborated by our polling which pointed to the serious professional, financial, and psychological impact of sexual harassment.
- Two fifths of those polled reported that they felt embarrassed by the harassment.
- One fifth of those polled reported that they avoided certain work situations as a result.
- Fifteen per cent reported that they felt less confident at work.
- One in ten reported that the harassment had a negative impact on their mental health.
- Three per cent reported that there was a negative impact on their physical health.
All of this should be core union business. While many unions are doing sterling work to tackle sexual harassment, there is clearly more that we need to be doing if over half of women workers have experience sexual harassment and so few are seeking the support of a union or lodging a grievance with the employer. This new research represents a challenge to the trade union movement – a movement built on the values of solidarity. In order to meet this challenge we need to show women – particularly young women who are more likely to experience sexual harassment and less likely to be in a union – that unions will not allow sexual harassment to be dismissed as “just a bit of banter”. We need to take a proactive and collective approach to challenging workplace sexism, discrimination and harassment. The onus to challenge harassment cannot all be on individual women to take grievances or tribunal cases. If we are to continue to be relevant to young women entering the labour market, we must show that we are at the forefront of preventing and combatting all forms of discrimination, harassment and violence in the workplace and that we understand that sexual harassment is no laughing matter.