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Sexual harassment: not just a bit of fun

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sexual harassment at work, surveys, six in ten women sufferSix in ten women have experienced inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Employment law specialists Slater & Gordon’s recently commissioned research found sexual harassment to be commonplace at work, with six in ten working women in the UK experiencing inappropriate behaviour from a male colleague.

And after having polled 1,036 women, the research found that many clichés hold true.

More than two-thirds of the women surveyed said that the inappropriate behaviour came from a married man.

Nearly half of the women surveyed had endured comments about their breasts.

More than a third said that a senior male colleague had made inappropriate comments about their bum, clothes, sex life or breasts.

But of the 60 per cent of women who had experienced harassment, only 27 per cent had reported the incident or behaviour to someone senior.

Claire Dawson, employment lawyer at Slater & Gordon, said, “It’s frustrating to hear these stories.

‘Women shouldn’t feel like this behaviour is acceptable and that it is something that comes with the job.”

Such results are unfortunately too easily corroborated and replicated, with a different, ongoing survey into sexual harassment in the fund management industry finding much the same.

Run by the Financial Times, of the 100 asset management staff so far surveyed, 54 per cent of the women said they had experienced inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Harassment is about power, and although men may also be sexually harassed, the structure and dynamics of a workplace are more likely to reflect the current status quo of more men than women in positions of power.

Such inequity obviously works against the recipient of harassment, as the low percentage of reports of such behaviour indicates.

A disparity between incidences of harassment and rates of reporting shouldn’t exist; legal protection is in place, in the form of the 2010 Equalities Act.

The Act states that it is the reaction of the recipient that determines whether any behaviour has crossed the line from being a ‘bit of fun’ to becoming intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, offensive or a violation of dignity.

Writing in the Guardian recently, Laura Bates, from the Everyday Sexism Project, said that ‘almost every one of the thousands of incidents reported to us would fall under these categories.

‘Workplace harassment is one of the most common issues reported to the Project – in fact, we have collected nearly 10,000 entries on this topic alone.’

Compounding the problem of legal protection that apparently isn’t enough of a deterrent is the cultural problem of victim blaming, which even extends to cases of abuse and rape.

The consequences of victim blaming are broad and long ranging, from experiencing further harassment to losing out on promotion and losing jobs.

Of the many reports of harassment the Everyday Sexism Project receives, Bates said that ‘again and again victims say they feel unable to speak up for fear of not being taken seriously or of losing their jobs’.

Dawson agreed, saying, ‘We see clients who have been blamed for bringing the treatment on themselves because of what they wear or how they are perceived by others, and clients who have been bullied, denied promotion or even physically assaulted when they refuse a colleague’s advances or make it clear that the harassment is not welcome.’

The Slater & Gordon research shows that of the 24 per cent of women who experienced harassment from a superior, five per cent lost their job and more than one in ten were then turned down for promotion.

Economic studies consistently show that getting women into the workplace is key to global recovery and growth, yet behaviour that is swept under the carpet as just a bit of fun has created a silent problem of ‘endemic proportions’, said Bates.

Writing in the Guardian, Vanessa James, partner and head of employment at SA Law, disagreed with the idea that the solution lies in more discussion of and increased reporting of sexual harassment incidents.

Instead, she said that ‘the formal route should be seen by women seeking career progression as a last resort,’ since ‘a successful court case does not give you back the career you lost.’

She appeared to lay responsibility for harassment with the recipient of the behaviour by saying ‘If you do not define your boundaries then you cannot expect others to be able to either.’

That sounds like a differently-worded way of saying something like, ‘You shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt.’

To reiterate: sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that the recipient deems to be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, offensive or a violation of dignity.

Unwanted.

It should be the norm that women are treated respectfully, as equal human beings, in every arena of life, without having to navigate the burden of considering how every aspect of their appearance and behaviour may contribute to or encourage sexual harassment.

As one anonymous respondent to the Financial Times’s survey said: ‘I find it distressing if I am perceived sexually in the work environment. So for my own protection, I never wear make-up, always have my hair tied up, and wear glasses and a cardigan’.

As Bates concluded in her response to the research, ‘It’s time to start taking workplace harassment seriously, listening to victims, and, above all, placing blame firmly where it belongs: with the perpetrator’.

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