Women’s rights charity reveals data collected on advice line which exposes the severity of sexual harassment in the workplace faced by women, and how survivors are treated with ‘systemic sexism and discrimination’, and calls on the Government to act
Nearly 1 in 2 callers reported being sexually assaulted in the workplace. The recent reports of an MP being accused of and raping a staff member reflects reports to the advice line of what happens to women in the wider workforce too
Almost 2 in 3 callers experienced additional discrimination and retaliation from their employer after experiencing and/or reporting sexual harassment
Since announcing a package of commitments to tackle sexual harassment at work last year, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has yet to respond to their consultation on sexual harassment. Rights of Women are calling on the Government to urgently prioritise making guidance on sexual harassment for employers statutory
Rights of Women is responding by doubling the advice line opening times
In August 2019, leading women’s legal rights charity, Rights of Women, launched the ‘Sexual Harassment at Work’ free, confidential, legal telephone advice line for women. The advice line was partially funded by actor and activist Emma Watson, as part of the TIME’S UP UK Justice and Equality Fund, managed by ROSA, the UK’s fund for women and girls.
As the only service of its kind in England and Wales, Rights of Women’s women employment lawyers have given free legal advice to hundreds of women, who previously had nowhere else to access free specialist support for sexual harassment in the workplace. In the words of one caller, “you made me feel strong again.”
One year on, Rights of Women have taken hundreds of hours of calls and conducted in-depth interviews with survivors who have benefited from the service, which was set up in direct response to the #MeToo movement with support from TIME’S UP.
With the release of its inaugural data, Rights of Women can now reveal the scale of institutional sexism, patterns of abuse, and imbalance of power which impede women’s safety in the workplace and undermine their access to justice.
In the absence of any statistical data of this nature by the Government, these findings offer a unique insight into the realities of sexual harassment in the workplace faced by women.
These findings confirm that the current protections within the Equality Act 2010 are not robust enough to challenge the culture of sexual harassment at work, and a mandatory preventative duty for employers is needed to tackle the issue.
Rights of Women is calling on the Government to act by strengthening the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) ‘Sexual harassment at work technical guidance’ and making it statutory for all employers.
Rights of Women also urges the Government to publish its response to its ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ September 2019 consultation, which was due in spring of this year.
Data reveals Abuse of Power at Work
- Nearly half (44%) of callers reported sexual assault* in the workplace, this amounts to nearly 1 in 2 callers whose sexual harassment involved unwanted sexual touching amounting to criminal behaviour.
- 2% of callers reported they had been raped and 3% reported they had experienced stalking by colleagues.
- Nearly 2 out of 3 (59%) callers reported they had received less favourable treatment for rejecting or submitting to sexual harassment and/or victimisation for reporting sexual harassment to their employer. This means employers and harassers are inflicting further discrimination against women who have already been sexually harassed, by retaliating and punishing them. Women are right to fear the professional repercussions of being harassed, which so many of our callers tell us frightens them into silence and submission.
- The most common forms of less favourable treatment and/or victimisation reported by callers as a result of the sexual harassment were:
- 31% faced a failure by their employer to properly investigate a report of sexual harassment;
- 17% were subjected to bullying;
- 10% were threatened with or dismissed from the workplace; and
- 9% were denieda job promotion or employment benefit.
- 1 in 5 callers (22%) had been dismissed or resigned from their jobs as a direct result of the sexual harassment they experienced, showing how sexual harassment forces women out the workforce.
- 45% had experienced multiple forms of harassment and discrimination. The most common additional form was racial harassment or discrimination (37%), which confirms a wider failure to address other and multiple forms of institutionalised intersectional oppression.
- 67% had experienced multiple incidents of sexual harassment, confirming that most women experience sexual harassment on a continuous and sustained basis.
- 15% had been signed of sick from work by a GP due to the stress, anxiety and other physical and mental health complications resulting from the harassment and discrimination. This shows sexual harassment has serious clinical and medical repercussions for the women affected that lead to exclusion from the workplace.
- 9 weeks was the average length of time women had been signed off sick from work, which indicates a significant impact on their long-term health and wellbeing.
Rights of Women is responding to the crisis by doubling its advice line opening times from August 2020.
Lina, ‘Sexual Harassment at Work’ advice line service user, said:
“I felt I had no choice, he’s my boss, I didn’t want to lose my job. He didn’t ask if he could touch my breasts, he just did it. He didn’t like when I said no, he was hostile and became really aggressive. He spread malicious rumours about me at work, trying to ruin my reputation. I felt I was being punished for saying no and had to find a way to rescue the working relationship.
I’m a foreigner, as well, so I feel I have to work extra hard just to be included. He let people say racist things to me, without any consequence. I was called a criminal for the way I look; told I wasn’t British even though I have a passport.
He denied everything, and when confronted with the texts he’d sent me he said we’d had a consensual relationship. There was no consensual relationship; he had tried to have sex with me and then punished me for saying no. He’s trying to sweep it under the rug.
I’ve developed social anxiety because of it and have been signed off sick from work. I don’t want to be asked for sex, and I don’t want to be racially discriminated against. I want, just like everybody else to come to work and be free of fear.”
Deeba Syed, Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women, said:
“One year on since the launch of our advice line, the statistics have confirmed our worst fears since the #MeToo revelations. We finally have a clearer picture of how women are experiencing systematic sexual abuse and discrimination in the workplace.
Our data exposes the extent of the harm women are experiencing. We can no longer minimise the truth: victims of sexual harassment are systematically discriminated against. Women are disbelieved, discredited, and treated with hostility and suspicion. This is not just happening to women working in the Houses of Parliament, this is happening to women across the workforce.
Sexism is so deeply entrenched in our workplaces that women who do report sexual harassment and abuse are frequently labelled as emotional and over-sensitive by their employers. Worse still, our callers tell us they are treated as the problem. They are routinely dismissed, bullied, and blamed for the harassment. They are pushed out of their jobs, not the perpetrators.
Employers are neglecting their legal responsibility to prevent and protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace. It is clear the current legal framework for sexual harassment complaints is not fit-for-purpose and disadvantages women.
Next month marks one year since the GEO closed their ‘Consultation on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ and we are still waiting on the Government’s response and next steps which they pledged to release by spring. Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published technical guidance for sexual harassment, and we demand that this guidance is made statutory for all employers as an urgent priority.
If the promise of change after the #MeToo movement is to be more than just lip service, we need urgent legislative progress. Calls to our advice line show systemic discrimination with devastating impacts on women’s lives, yet basic legal protections have not been implemented.”
Dame Heather Rabbatts, Chair, TIME’S UP UK, said:
“We are living through a moment of collective realisation, where the stories of women who experience multiple oppressions are finally being heard, but the structural inequalities that allow discrimination to persist are still deeply embedded. One survivor, who called Rights of Women, spoke of the racial discrimination she experienced from colleagues which was overlooked by her manager after she refused to sleep with him.
The Rights of Women ‘Sexual Harassment at Work’ advice line has shown to be vital in supporting women who would otherwise be abandoned, giving women the confidence to call it out, assert their legal rights and seek justice. Women will never achieve gender equality if we cannot work without having to fear harassment and discrimination, and for us at TIME’S UP UK, we are dedicated to achieving just that.”