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Call it out! Towards an end to sexual harassment

More proactive and robust action is needed from employers to shift workplace cultures, writes Usdaw general secretary PADDY LILLIS

SEXUAL harassment in the workplace is not acceptable or inevitable. It is entirely preventable and we must always call it out. 

Sexual harassment is not a new problem, but it is an ongoing one. It can happen to anyone, but we know that overwhelmingly it is women who are harassed and this can be compounded by other forms of discrimination. 

Usdaw’s own research found that nearly three-quarters of women members aged under 25 had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last 12 months alone. 

Sexual harassment of LGBT+ people is very often linked to a perception that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans is an invitation to make sexualised comments or ask inappropriate questions about an LGBT person’s sex life, particularly if an individual is “out.”

We need a change in culture so that society and organisations don’t tolerate sexual harassment. 

Existing government and employer responses to workplace sexual harassment are inadequate and fail to protect workers. 

So we are calling on the government to stand by its 2021 commitment to introduce a new preventative duty on employers and reinstate the protections from third party harassment removed in 2013 to the Equality Act.

These changes are necessary to tackle the structural drivers of workplace sexual harassment. This legislative change is currently in Parliament in the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill. 

Recent media reports suggest that government ministers may drop their support for the Bill, which is unacceptable. 

While employers currently have a duty of care towards employees, it is clear from the scale of sexual harassment, that current legal protections are inadequate. Usdaw is continuing to press government to take the necessary action.

Sexual harassment can relate to a range of different behaviours. It may be verbal or physical. It may take place in the workplace, online, by telephone or text, or at a work event such as a training course or a party. 

While the actual nature of the incident may vary, the common factor is that the incident involves unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment.

In response to our survey we received many disturbing accounts of the day-to-day experiences our members have had at work, including: “If I am going to be working with that man, I won’t wear certain clothes or shoes and will feel like I have to cover myself up as much as I can”; “I transitioned and got constant questions from colleagues about my body, I felt embarrassed and upset”; “His excuse was that it was just banter, that’s always the excuse, but it was offensive and shocking and no-one found it funny.”

Sexual harassment is not a joke or a “bit of banter.” It is a serious form of abuse that often leaves victim-survivors feeling distressed and embarrassed. 

Workplaces where a culture of sexual harassment is allowed to flourish are intimidating for women workers. This can create a significant barrier to women entering male-dominated sectors or working environments. Sexual harassment may drive those experiencing it to leave their job altogether.

The current approach to tackling sexual harassment is fundamentally flawed in that it relies on victim-survivors coming forward after an incident has occurred to report it. 

This can be incredibly traumatic and make them even more vulnerable. Relying on an individual response to an institutional problem isn’t good enough. 

It cannot result in the culture shift that is necessary to prevent harassment from arising in the workplace or ensuring that it is effectively addressed.

More proactive and robust action is needed from employers to shift workplace cultures and support workplaces to be free from sexual harassment. 

Organisational culture flows from the top — leaders in organisations should demonstrate they take sexual harassment seriously by unequivocally stating their commitment to eliminating it in the workplace and holding their peers, and themselves, to account.

Unions have a vital role to play in ending sexual harassment in the workplace. We have members’ trust and as such we are best placed to listen and respond to members’ concerns. 

In recent years Usdaw has made significant progress in raising awareness of rights and establishing workplace policies as well as equipping reps and members with the tools they need to help put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. However, there is always more to do.

Usdaw does not accept that sexual harassment or the cultures that enable it are acceptable or inevitable. In far too many workplaces there is still a perception that sexual harassment is a normal part of workplace culture that women should put up with. 

Changing workplace culture is often the first step in preventing sexual harassment. By running Usdaw’s Call it Out campaign, reps have been able to have a positive impact on how workers and management think about the issue.

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