The importance of tackling sexual harassment

Jenny Lincoln, Business in the Community Gender Research and Policy Officer, reflects on the issue of workplace sexual harassment.


Image of Jenny Lincoln Opportunity Now campaign officer The new report by The Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Everyday Sexism Project confirms that sexual harassment is still common in UK workplaces. A staggering 52% of women polled have experienced sexual harassment at work. In Project 28-40, our survey of 23,000 women, we asked whether they’d experienced it in the past three years, and found that 12% of women had. I suspect this would have been much higher without a time limit.

TUC and Everyday Sexism Projects’ findings back up our own Project 28-40 data as well as numerous other pieces of research. Not everyone is at the same risk of experiencing sexual harassment at work; women are more at risk than men (though men may still experience it), and amongst women, younger women, women in insecure work and bisexual women are much more likely to experience it.

So, why are some people more at risk?
Contrary to popular belief, power, not passion, is central to sexual harassment. While we can all picture the stereotype of a male boss sexually harassing his female assistant, it is a major misconception that only women with less power at work than their perpetrator experience it. Women in positions of power and authority are more likely than average to experience sexual harassment too. This is because women with workplace power threaten male status, and sexual harassment can be used as an ‘equaliser’ for men to put them back in their place - their subordinate, subservient role in patriarchal society. This is backed up by our and others research. Project 28-40 found that female directors and board members were more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the past three years than all women on average (17% and 12%, respectively).

How can employers tackle sexual harassment?
It’s important to define what is and isn’t sexual harassment, but doing so is not always easy; what’s perfectly fine between two friendly colleagues might be completely inappropriate and offensive to others. Using a comprehensive definition in the policy and regularly communicating it to staff is crucial, but what helps with securing unequivocal understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours is opening up the discussion about the ambiguity of some behaviour and language with employees.

We will soon publish an in-depth toolkit to help employers prevent and tackle sexual harassment in their organisation. It will outline the business case for addressing sexual harassment, why it occurs at work, why particular groups of people are more at risk and, crucially, what you need to do to tackle it once and for all.

It might not be easy, but creating an environment in which all employees feel safe and confident is worth it.