Work & Wellbeing

Workplace Sexual Harassment: An Epidemic We Must Join Together To Stop

Capri Cafaro | 5 August 2021 | 3 years ago

It has been a few years since the #MeToo movement took our collective consciousness by storm as prominent women came forward to disclose their personal experiences with workplace sexual harassment.  At the time, the social media campaign led to other women, both well-known and not so well known, to speak up about sexual harassment they endured while just trying to do their job.

Sadly, workplace sexual harassment continues to plague women all across the globe in almost every industry sector.  According to a study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), 52% of women, and 63% of women aged 18-24, reported being sexually harassed at work.    Harassment continues to be pervasive even though there is a law on the books in the UK aimed at curtailing such behaviours.  The Equality Act was passed back in 2010.  It defines sexual harassment as behaviour that “is either meant to, or has the effect of: violating your dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.   The law states that both the individual who is engaging in harassing behaviour as well as the employer can be liable for allowing such conduct.  Furthermore, the Equality Act stresses that employers must do everything they reasonably can to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace.

Still, it is clear that the system is failing women.  The TUC study stated that, of those women surveyed:

  • 32% said they had been subjected to unwelcome sexual jokes
  • 28% had experienced sexual comments regarding their body or attire
  • 23% had been touched against their consent
  • 20% had experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances
  • 12% had been sexually assaulted
These are staggering statistics that frankly paint a pretty abysmal picture of the 21st Century workplace that should be well beyond Mad Men style old boys club behaviour.

While harassment continues to adversely impact women, there is an equally disturbing trend that exists in tandem: a woman’s reluctance to disclose their experience of workplace sexual harassment.  According to Psychology Today,  women have valid reasons they choose not to come forward, or at least do not come forward immediately.  These reasons include shame, minimisation and fear of retribution.

Our society has embraced a “blame the victim” culture for so long that women sometimes blame themselves for being on the receiving end of sexual harassment.  This self-blame can turn into shame that causes women to pause before coming forward about a co-worker’s behaviour.  As an extension of this self-blame culture, some women minimise the conduct they are experiencing as “no big deal” or “not as bad as someone else had it.” This cycle can be very detrimental to a woman’s mental health as well.  Finally, women are afraid to come forward about sexual harassment because of a fear of retribution.  And, abusers, especially where there is an unequal power dynamic, play on this fear.   Advances are paired with threats such as “you will lose your job” or “you won’t get that promotion” prompting women to suffer in silence in order to protect themselves and their careers.

There are numerous anecdotal accounts of women who have shared their stories of staying silent out of fear of retribution. For example, television writer Kater Gordon, who won an Emmy for her work on the series Mad Men, described how she felt like she was in a “lose-lose” situation after being harassed by show creator Michael Weiner, a claim Weiner denies.  Gordon stated that she “eventually walked away instead of fighting back.”

While most of the stories reported on in the press focus on prominent or famous women, it is women working in low wage jobs and domestic services that tend to be harassed the most while also having the most to lose.  According to a study conducted by the Centre For American Progress in the United States, over 1/4 of sexual harassment charges were filed in the service industry sector where many of the jobs are held by women earning a low wage. Another study by Hart Research Associates examined sexual harassment of fast food workers and concluded

40% of women surveyed “experienced unwanted sexual behaviours on the job, including 28% who have experienced multiple forms of harassment.”   Fear of losing pay, or even being deported are contributing factors to the intense vulnerability of low wage earning women.  So, we must acknowledge the multitude of factors that go in to why some women do not come forward.

Frustratingly, the research bares out that when women do come forward and report sexual harassment, they do suffer adverse consequences.  According to a study of callers to the Rights of Women hotline:

  • “59% of callers said they had received ‘less favourable treatment’ after rejecting, submitting to, or reporting sexual harassment
  • 44% reported sexual assault in the workplace
  • 31% said their report was not investigated
  • 17% were subjected to bullying after reporting an incident
  • 10% were threatened with dismissal or dismissed
  • 9% lost out on a promotion or employment benefit
  • 22% of callers were dismissed or resigned due to being sexually harassed
As you can see, this is a complex problem that needs attention far beyond #MeToo.  Harassers and the employers who turn a blind eye to this disgusting behaviour need to be held accountable.  However, it is clear that women are indeed put in a precarious position by just rejecting unwanted advances.

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