Last week, as I scrolled down my feed, I was horrified by the stories of sexual abuse that flooded on social media. Like many women, I wrote about my story. The campaign #MeToo, which started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, has exposed the magnitude of the problem. The hashtag has been used more than 21 million times on Facebook and has opened up a discussion on the worrying realities that many women face at work. So, what can we do to prevent harassment from happening in the workplace?
Sexual harassment at work
Sexual harassment at work can take many different forms: touching someone inappropriately, sending suggestive emails, making sexist comments and sexual remarks about appearance or body parts, telling lewd jokes, sharing sexual anecdotes or photographs of colleagues but also asking questions about someone’s sexual history or sexual orientation.
Last week a survey found that 20% of women and 7% of men had been sexually harassed at work. Our own research shows that women are most at risk, especially bisexual women, women under 28 and disabled women. Sexual harassment represents a high cost for both victims and business.
96% of organisations have bullying and harassment policies in place but four in five women do not report it to their employer. This shows that having policies in place is simply not good enough, we need men to stand up as allies and a more supportive workplace culture.
What we can do
If 90% of all sexual assaults and unwanted workplace advances are committed by men, not all men are perpetrators – or bystanders. The hashtag #HowIWillChange prompted by Australian journalist Benjamin Law to encourage male action shows that men can also be part of the solution and be positive agents of change in their workplace and communities.
Five years ago, as I was working in Fiji, a Pacific country with one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, I took part in a transformative workshop on “Positive Masculinity”. The goal was to empower street dwellers who were witnessing abuse on a daily basis to express their masculinity in a positive way through care and respect. The training contributed to a shift in attitudes and behaviours with the local “shoeshine boys” and “wheelbarrow boys” suddenly reporting abuse to the police.
Similar initiatives have since then been rolled out with success around the world, including in the UK and they give me hope. They point out to a simple solution: men can be our allies by listening – uncomfortably – to women’s stories, by reflecting on the unintended impact of their own actions, and by systematically calling out inappropriate behaviour.
What organisations can do
Research shows that the climate of an organisation and tolerance are the strongest predictor of sexual harassment. So, what steps can employers take to prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces and encourage employees to speak up about it? Our workplace sexual harassment toolkit for employers sets out that there must be a two-pronged approach which covers structural and cultural change. This includes the following steps:
Establishing a policy which covers all types of sexual harassment, with formal and informal confidential reporting procedures and which is inclusive to all employees (taking into account gender, sexuality, cultural norms and whether the person affected is in an insecure role);
Measuring and monitoring instances of sexual harassment year on year through anonymous staff surveys and independently facilitated focus groups;
Training all employees on what sexual harassment is and how to call it out, and regularly communicating policy and behaviour standards to employees through internal campaigns. In particular, line managers must be equipped to recognise and deal with sexual harassment within their teams, as they are often the first point of contact for reporting any incidents;
Take action against perpetrators, regardless of their position or level of seniority within the organisation. This sends a strong ‘zero tolerance’ message.
The #MeToo campaign has started the conversation; now it’s up to all of us, including business, to make sure it doesn’t fall silent.