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26 February 2014

Sexual harassment - the problem that continues to blight the lives of working women

UK unions report that sexual harassment continues to afflict the lives of women workers, according to a "snapshot" survey of the 20 largest TUC-affiliated trade unions by Labour Research magazine. And the problem endures despite legislation outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace.*

The issue of sexual harassment and abuse has hit the headlines in recent months, with celebrities appearing in court charged with historic allegations of indecent and sexual assault in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

And an internal party investigation into the conduct of former Lib Dem chief executive Chris Rennard - who has denied claims of sexual harassment by four women activists - has also ensured the issue has remained firmly in the spotlight.

Away from the headlines, Labour Research found unions reporting that sexual harassment remains a significant burden for many working women. This included examples of women who were sexually harassed by male colleagues being treated as the problem, and, in some cases, even forced out of their jobs.

A number of unions, including the FBU firefighters' union and the RMT rail union reported that sexual harassment was a problem for women working in male-dominated areas of the workforce.

National secretary of the FBU women's committee, Kerry Baigent, told Labour Research that sexual harassment "appears to be on the rise in the fire service" but that "the problem has been kicked into the long grass and, apart from the union, no one is monitoring the problem anymore".

She gave one example of a woman she had represented "who was sexually assaulted at work and the employer's response was to pay her off instead of dealing with the perpetrator".

She added that even though the perpetrator "admitted that he had assaulted her and the service knew about it, she was made to feel that it was her fault".

RMT equal opportunities officer Jessica Webb said: "Anecdotally, there is no doubt that sexual harassment takes place, but women are afraid to come forward, they want to fit in, they fear they will lose their job or they think they have to take banter in a man's industry."

But it is not only male-dominated areas of the workforce where incidents that come to light are not being dealt with appropriately by employers.

The PCS civil service union reported several examples, including one where a woman was stalked by a male colleague.

This emerged when the man emailed another colleague telling of his plans to rape the woman. Incredibly, the woman was moved to another office while the man continued at work.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady has pointed out that sexual harassment is "still very much a fact of working life for millions of women in all kinds of workplaces - from the shop floor to the boardroom"

O'Grady was commenting on a survey released in October 2013 of over 1,000 working women by employment law firm Slater & Gordon. The survey found six in 10 women reporting that a male colleague had behaved "inappropriately" towards them and that women were still subjected to sexist attitudes, "with the old clichés of men slipping a hand up their skirt or patting them on the bum still a regular occurrence for some women".

And it found: 60% of women reporting that they'd been forced to fend off a colleague who had tried to kiss them; 30% said a senior male colleague had made inappropriate comments about their breasts, bottom, sex life or their clothes; nearly a quarter had experienced a senior colleague making a pass at them; and 12% had a colleague place his hand on her behind.

Despite evidence of this kind, Labour Research found unions reporting little evidence of zero tolerance policies towards sexual harassment. And even where such policies exist, they appear not to translate into practice on the shop floor.

As PCS national equality co-ordinator Mary Doolin pointed out: "The policy is just a policy and not the practice."

*Sex discrimination at work was outlawed as long ago as 1975 by the Sex Discrimination Act. The Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005 extended the sex discrimination rules to cover sexual harassment. It is currently prohibited under the Equality Act 2010.

Labour Research feature on sexual harassment


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