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One in two women have been sexually harassed at work – Week 25

Warning: sensitive subjects will feature throughout this August’s theme, including harassment, assault, rape and murder. These are all subjects that affect many women and are therefore necessary to cover in Feminist Fact Friday. Please take care when reading on and use your own discretion – there’s nothing wrong with putting yourself first if you find any of these subjects difficult to read about.

“Girls learn from a young age that they have to do things to avoid drawing attention to themselves. We do work to try and make sure we’re safe, and we’re made to feel responsible when we’re vulnerable. This film shows the changes women are making to how they move about in public to try to avoid abuse, and the devastating impact on the freedom of women in the UK today.”

End Violence Against Women Coalition Sexist/racist street harassment – a hate crime?

In outlining the theme for August, VIOLENCE, I made clear that I would be focusing gradually on the escalation from threatening language and environments, through to threatening actions and then their grave consequences. This is one of the toughest topics I’ll be covering in Feminist Fact Friday and I believe it’s important to establish from the outset that this behaviour exists on a continuum that we all need to take very seriously. As I’ve written before ‘if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’ and it’s clear to me that it’s inappropriate to laugh off diminishing, sexist and threatening language, because it excuses and diminishes the acts that naturally follow.

Why is this important?

There’s a common interpretation around sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice that suggests that discrimination is only committed by those kinds of people. Only bad people discriminate. And because I’m/you’re/they’re not a bad person, my/your/their behaviour can’t be discriminatory. So threatening language is just words that exist in a vacuum and shouldn’t be taken seriously. This interpretation means that when women are twice as scared in public spaces (as I wrote about in week 24) and when half of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, we look to the victim and blame them for their fear or their reaction, rather than thinking about what the perpetrators should do to stop their behaviour.

That women are twice as scared in public spaces, and that more than half of women have been harassed in the workplace shows this is a far too common problem and one that cannot be dismissed. It’s on all of us to make it clear that public space/workplace/home and any space in between should be safe for all of us. Women and other affected groups shouldn’t have to adapt their behaviour – instead the casual perpetrator who has been confident up to now that their behaviour will go unpunished needs to face the consequences of their actions.

Here is a sprinkling of findings from the TUC, which goes to show the range of harassment perpetrated against women in the workplace:

  • More than half (fifty two per cent) of all women polled have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
  • Thirty-five per cent of women have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace.
  • Thirty-two per cent of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature.
  • Twenty-eight per cent of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.
  • Nearly one quarter of women have experienced unwanted touching (such as a hand on the knee or lower back).
  • One fifth of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances.
  • More than one in ten women reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them.
  • In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator was a male colleague, with nearly one in five reporting that their direct manager or someone else with direct authority over them was the perpetrator.
  • Four out of five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer.

One of the hardest parts in writing articles for this month’s theme hasn’t just been having to read the tough details on harassment and violence against women, it’s also been choosing the most appropriate statistics – the truth is that we’re deluged by statistics on how bad violence – from language through to murder – against women truly is. The only surprise is that it continues to receive so little recognition as the pervasive and interlinked issue that it truly is. At this stage I’d like to mention the following research:

  • England Athletics’ findings that “32 percent of British women in a poll of 2,000 say they have encountered catcalls, abuse or unwanted attention while training in public” *
  • “Over a third (37%) of female students at mixed-sex schools have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.” ^^
  • “Almost a quarter (23%) of females aged between 16 and 30 have been sexually harassed at work but only 8% have reported it, according to a poll for the Young Women’s Trust” (It’s (still) A Rich Man’s World) ***
  • 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places and 45% have experienced unwanted sexual touching (which can amount to sexual assault) according to a YouGov/End Violence Against Women Coalition survey ^

This is a demonstration of just some of the serious statistics around harassment of women and what I hope will give critics pause for thought before croaking out the usual (unwelcome) refrains of:

  • ‘yeah, but what about X-only-loosely-related-theme?’
  • ‘yeah, yeah, but that’s only one piece of research’
  • ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, but not all men’
  • ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, sexism/feminism/women are fake news’.

What can you do about it?

Women will not be safe until men change sexist, abusive behaviour

Jacky Jones in the Irish Times 3 October 2017

The fact that four out of five women who experienced harassment weren’t able to report to their employer shows that there are so many things wrong with our current systems.

So, you can begin by acknowledging that this is a problem – and that something can be done about it. Start by reading the TUC’s Still Just a Bit of Banter? report because getting familiar with the evidence and arguments is key to breaking through denials and answering those people who are always seeking to distract from this issue or make out that it’s less serious than it is. The report makes clear a number of things that government and employers can do to combat sexual harassment in the workplace and these are all worth a read, but I’d like to argue that fighting against the prevalence of harassment isn’t just about the workplace (though this article began with that fact) but rather about how we view sexism, discrimination and abuse in all its forms across all of society.

If you need inspiration on how solutions can be found, have a read of this piece in the Guardian What would a city that is safe for women look like? because at the heart of the solutions to issues such as the prevalence of sexual harassment of women is firstly recognising that the issue exists, and secondly framing the issue in a way that considers how we would behave if we didn’t assume that the behaviour was normal and therefore insurmountable. Just a few of the methods that have improved women’s lives dramatically have been: the launch of SafetiPin which has seen 90% of the lighting deficit in Delhi fixed; the the redevelopment of Plaça de la Llibertat near Barcelona which saw women actually consulted on their needs ahead of work; and the work of No Means No in Nairobi, where three-quarters of boys trained by the organisation have successfully intervened in a violent or sexual assault on a woman.

We need to internalise the fact that women should not feel twice as scared in public spaces; nor should half of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace; a third of women shouldn’t have been harassed while out jogging. We all have a role to play in fighting this behaviour, and as the YouGov/EVAW survey showed, “only 11% of women reported that someone else intervened when they experienced unwanted sexual touching in a public place, while 81% said they would have liked someone to do so.”

As Morela Hernandez writes “men, by virtue of their majority position, have a unique opportunity to directly combat gender discrimination” but I believe that statement is true for anyone of privilege or in a position of power. ** Educate yourself. Hernandez’s piece Gender Discrimination Still Exists — Now What? offers helpful examples of how to confront discriminatory behaviour and if it’s something you struggle with (particularly if you’re standing up to someone in a position of power, after all the TUC’s research showed that one in five women have been harassed by their direct manager or someone else with direct authority over them was the perpetrator), then begin with small actions that will help you build up to truly intervening.

Question your own beliefs. How often have you felt that adaptive behaviours are only natural and that it’s common sense that a woman should have to tell someone where she’s going; walk with her keys in hand (to defend herself from attack); not go out at night alone; park her car in a well-lit area. Ask yourself: why do men feel comfortable attacking women? Why do men feel comfortable harassing women in the workplace? Why do men feel comfortable doing any number of the horrific things regularly covered by The Everyday Sexism Project?

And if you’re struggling to see just how absurd it is to constantly lay the blame at women’s feet, have a read of this excellent piece from Harriet Hall in the Independent Instead of telling women to avoid being harassed, maybe we should just tell men to never leave the house. Every time we tell women to adopt safety measures, rather than telling men to stop their harassment we reinforce the idea that the victim is responsible and to blame for the actions of the perpetrator. For example, telling women to be careful in public will do nothing to stop the 90% of rapists who are known to their victims.

Finally, I’m writing this just a week after Emma Watson launched the UK’s only sexual harassment helpline for women in the UK. Spread awareness of the helpline, use it yourself if you need to, and support its work if you can:

Rights of Women offers free and confidential employment legal advice to women in England and Wales experiencing sexual harassment at work. The helpline offers advice on issues such as identifying sexual harassment, bringing a claim against an employer, the Employment Tribunal procedure, and NDAs. Telephone: 020 7490 0152 Mondays (6pm – 8pm) Tuesdays (5pm – 7pm)

I’m also going to repeat my suggestions from last week’s post (naturally I think it’s all good advice!):


Trades Union Congress and Everyday Sexism Still Just a Bit of Banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016 2016



** Morela Hernandez in Sloan Review Gender Discrimination Still Exists — Now What? 20 July 2018

*** Haroon Siddique in the Guardian Workplace gender discrimination remains rife, survey finds 13 September 2018

^ End Violence Against Women Coalition Sexist/racist street harassment – a hate crime?

^^ National Education Union It’s just everywhere – sexism in schools 7 January 2019