MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 10-Aug-16 10:39:11

Guest post: "Sexual harassment at work isn't 'just a bit of banter'"

As a report by the TUC reveals 52% of women experience workplace sexual harassment, Frances O'Grady says employers and the government must take a stand

Frances O'Grady

General Secretary, TUC

Posted on: Wed 10-Aug-16 10:39:11


Lead photo

"Together, we need to make sure that sexual harassment becomes a thing of the past."

Most of us will have hoped that sexual harassment at work was a thing of the past – something that our mothers worried about in the 70s and 80s.

But sadly we were wrong. A new TUC study published today reveals that 52% of all women and 63% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed at work.

Our research, published in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project, is the largest of its kind in a generation and is one of the most extensive pieces of research on this issue in Europe.

For the first time in the UK, the study also includes a large enough sample to be representative of the experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic women – and rates of sexual harassment of BAME women were similarly high, with 52% being sexually harassed at work.

It seems sexual harassment is alive and well in the modern workplace – especially for younger women who are more likely to be in low-paid jobs, less aware of their rights and unsure of how to get help.

Nearly one in three women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature at work and more than one in four women have been on the receiving end of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work.

And it's not just verbal harassment taking place in offices and on shop floors around the UK. Physical harassment and even assault is horrifyingly common. Nearly a quarter of women have been touched when they didn't want to be (such as a hand on the knee or lower back) while at work, and 12% of women experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them while simply trying to do their jobs.

This isn't about women being able to take a joke or not. Sexual harassment is undermining, humiliating and can have a huge effect on mental health. Victims are often left feeling ashamed and frightened. It has no place in a modern workplace – or in wider society.

In the vast majority of cases (88%), the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was a man. And 17% of women reported that the harasser was their line manager or someone with direct authority over them.

Very few women who are sexually harassed at work take action. Four out of five (79%) women did not tell their employer about what was happening. Some felt it would impact negatively on their relationships at work or on their career prospects, while others were too embarrassed to talk about what was happening to them, or felt they would not be believed or taken seriously.

Time and time again we hear that sexual harassment is just a bit of banter. But the women who shared their stories with us show that's just not true.

Take Leah, who was just 19 when she was harassed:

"On a night out, I was stood in a crowd of male colleagues who were considerably older than me when one of them leaned through the circle and touched my boob while the rest laughed. Not one of them said anything or even seemed to think it was wrong."

Or Jasmine - on her last day at work a colleague told her that his biggest regret was that he didn't get the chance to have sex with her in the storeroom before she left. This was after months of comments such as "I'm coming to get you" and "don't go in there alone, I'll jump on you" whenever she had to go into the storeroom, which left her scared to be alone there.

This isn't about women being able to take a joke or not. Sexual harassment is undermining, humiliating and can have a huge effect on mental health. Victims are often left feeling ashamed and frightened. It has no place in a modern workplace – or in wider society.

So where do we go from here? First, employers need to get tough. The law says they have to protect their workforce from sexual harassment. Employers must take this issue seriously and ensure they have sufficient training and robust policies in place to protect staff – or they could end up at an employment tribunal. Bosses must take any report of sexual harassment seriously and show they have zero-tolerance policy for this behaviour – for everyone.

Second: the government must send a clear message that sexual harassment needs to stop. Ministers must cut tribunal fees that deter women from suing bosses who didn't protect them, and must make employers legally responsible for protecting their staff from harassment by customers and clients, as well as colleagues.

And finally: everyone should consider joining a union. If you are sexually harassed, they'll back you up. And it's the job of the union to get better policies on issues such as sexual harassment, and to make sure employers follow through on their promises to run training and get tough on sexual harassment.

Together, we need to make sure that sexual harassment becomes a thing of the past.

By Frances O'Grady

Twitter: @FrancesOGrady

loosechange Wed 10-Aug-16 18:30:59

I agree. We have to call it when we receive it and when we witness it. I find it easier to do so when I witness it rather than when I receive it though.

DailyFailAteMyFish Wed 10-Aug-16 20:59:45

The poor behaviour of both men and women needs to be reported and the processes followed.
People need to speak up and feel empowered to challenge the behaviour.
I also think this process described in this Ted Talk would help:

AskBasil Thu 11-Aug-16 08:31:15

The one message missing is the most obvious. Men can stop sexual harassment. They just need to stop doing it and stop minimising or excusing it when other men do it.

Also, they could believe women when we tell them it happens to us, instead of constantly down-playing it, telling us maybe we're imagining it, over-reacting, maybe it's just banter, being friendly etc.

Most of all, they can stop focusing on how women should deal with it and focus instead, on why and how men do it and why and how they should be stopped.

QueenOfAllBiscuitsandMuffins Thu 11-Aug-16 09:26:39

I bet the real figure is higher, I read the title and thought I was one of the lucky ones who hadn't experienced it until I read this:

"on a night out, I was stood in a crowd of male colleagues who were considerably older than me when one of them leaned through the circle and touched my boob while the rest laughed. Not one of them said anything or even seemed to think it was wrong."

The exact same thing happened to me 18 years ago. It's not a memory I care to remember so if someone asked me in a survey if I had been sexually harrassed at work I would have probably said no. (I'd also had my bottom pinched on numerous occasions, I wouldn't have counted that as sexual harrassment at the time.)

Batteriesallgone Thu 11-Aug-16 10:04:46

Surely how a woman can report is the first hurdle?

The only time I've reported sexual harassment at work I had a clear log of unacceptable behaviour. However, personally I think I shouldn't have been making that log privately. I think there should be some kind of system where you can log incidents at work.

That way, incidents affecting more than one woman (but same perpetrator) can be collated, rather than waiting for one woman to be repeatedly harassed.

HelenaDove Thu 11-Aug-16 17:49:18


HelenaDove Thu 11-Aug-16 17:54:14

Cant get link to show right clip. Laura Bates was on Channel 4 news last night discussing the findings with the author of Erotic Capital.

The stuff that author was coming out with like saying it was the fault of lack of social skills on both sides and how "advances" should be rebuffed politely . It was total minimizing and Laura called her out on it.

BeenThereDoneThatForgotten Thu 11-Aug-16 20:13:41

I remember in my early 20s having a boss who was fixated with my long hair. He would come and stroke it. I would be frozen in my chair with embarrassment and shock. He was in his 60s. I was too worried about my job to actually report it back then.

AskBasil Thu 11-Aug-16 21:07:48

Might be this one (Laura Bates)

AskBasil Thu 11-Aug-16 21:15:26

No it isn't, it takes me to the same clip. But if you click down under the main bit, you can pick up the Laura Bates interview.

It's embarrassing watching women like the other one (not Laura) bending over backwards to excuse men's behaviour when they sexually harass women, blaming it on bad social skills "on both sides".

Women have bloody fantastic social skills, they have to have to survive. And these men's social skills are OK round their bosses, aren't they?

What a craven handmaiden.

user7755 Thu 11-Aug-16 21:15:50

So, so much in the 80s and 90s, less so now.

Groped (repeatedly), water thrown on shirt to make it see through, suggestive comments, lewd comments directly about my body, propositioned, job offer withdrawn once I got engaged.

Never reported any of it, largely because the earlier ones happened when I was in my teens / twenties and it was just accepted that this is how it was.

The job one would have been very difficult to prove (and it was my boss - who'd cornered my now DH, when he was drunk to give him a load of abuse about why is chosen him not the boss)

Xenophile Thu 11-Aug-16 21:35:35

Nope, still goes on now.

Less overt now, but still as bloody awful, and still for men to put an end to.

janethegirl2 Thu 11-Aug-16 22:12:06

Depends when it happened imo, it was very prevalent in the 1970s and I had a senior colleague try it on in a small office. I didn't report it as it was very much par for course in these days.

In the 1980s a similar scenario occurred, but I felt I dealt with it very well.

It is just one of these things that happened more than 30 years ago. Just move on and get over it as in these days it was very much what happened if you worked in a predominately male cultured environment.

Batteriesallgone Thu 11-Aug-16 22:16:13

People who are saying it was more prevalent in 70s/80s - are you sure? Or is it just that younger women are more of a target so as you age you experience less of it. I could say it was worse in the 90s than it is now but I don't believe that to be true. It was just worse for me personally a couple of decades ago because I was young, nubile and pre-rings and kids.

janethegirl2 Thu 11-Aug-16 22:26:20

Much much more prevalent in the 1970s and 80s imo as discussed with my dd. She is working in a predominantly male field and has had no such issues whilst I had loads, not that any of them really bothered me.

FreezerBird Thu 11-Aug-16 22:53:06

I wonder if in some cases society has done such a number on women that they/we don't always recognise it for what it is.

A friend came to dh and I a while ago to talk to us about her workplace. She was very uncomfortable with some of the 'banter' and so on that happened there but because everybody else including the other women accepted and laughed along, she wasn't sure if she was being over sensitive.

What sort of thing? We asked. She went on to describe being grabbed from behind, forced to bend over her desk while a male colleague simulated having sex with her from behind.

All just the bantz though, innit?

HelenaDove Thu 11-Aug-16 22:59:53

The thing that never seems to get discussed though is what can be done when it happens in a job lower down the socio economic scale To someone on minimum wage who cant afford the tribunal fees.

Or to someone on workfare who faces being sanctioned if she dares to speak up!

HelenaDove Thu 11-Aug-16 23:02:36

Batteries with me its in reverse. I was obese when i was younger so didnt get sexually harassed.
i just got nasty comments about my weight.
i actually do get the odd sexual comment now in my early forties after weight loss.

This is in the street in both cases.

janethegirl2 Thu 11-Aug-16 23:06:21

Never had real bad comments in the street, but at work, hell yes!

DilberryPancake Fri 12-Aug-16 06:50:24

Of course things were worse back in the late 20th Century. We can admit that, can't we?

Personally, the only experience I have had of it in the last ten years was actually from a man who was somewhat socially awkward. My female manager marched him straight off into a room and gave him the scolding of his life. I don't think he'll ever behave like that again.

Of course, no harassment is the only amount we should accept. But we can be proud that we are making progress, right?

AskBasil Sat 13-Aug-16 21:40:06

"Of course things were worse back in the late 20th Century. We can admit that, can't we?"


How do we know that? What do you mean, admit it? As if young women are making it up?

I'm not entirely sure you're right. It depends on which part of the c20 you're talking about. Obviously, the 1950's, 60's, 70's were shit, but I was young and beautiful and working in the late 80's and 90's and there was very little sexual harassment in the environment in which I was working, though that was not the same for other women.

I get the impression that young men now are far more sexist than my contemporaries. We came of age when anti-racism and anti-sexism were both as important as each other; where sexual harassment was recognised as naff; and where although children hadn't happened for our generation yet, the assumption was that if you were sexist, you were as disgusting as if you were a racist.

That is not the same for the porn-sick backlash generation. I really don't think we should be making assumptions about it being better now than it was. Street harassment is less prevalent for me because I'm older now and instead of being informed twice a week, that I've got lovely tits, I'm instead only occasionally informed that I'm a munter or a cunt (although funnily enough, I'm still invited to suck cocks; I look forward to the lifestage where I'm no longer considered qualified for that particular task); but workplace harassment for young women who are not in positions of power? I really don't know if it is better for them than it was for me, and the research doesn't give me much reassurance that that is the case.

Batteriesallgone Sun 14-Aug-16 08:54:46

There seems to be this assumption that feminism is going forward / sexism is reducing year on year.

That's not what I see. My parents are much more feminist than most of my contempories.

Every female friend I have has been sexually harassed in the workplace. I no longer work but those that do - especially the childless ones - still experience it. I have a friend who is a team manager who has team members regularly asking to see her tits. They are bold enough to ask that of their boss and it's so common among young men she expects it from new male recruits.

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