More than half of British women have experienced sexual harassment while at work – and the vast majority never report it, according to a major new study.
After surveying over 1,500 woman, researchers found that 52% had experienced “unwanted behaviour” at work, including inappropriate jokes, sexual advances, and groping.
Around an eighth of women said they had had their “breasts, buttocks or genitals” touched sexually against their wishes in the workplace. The same proportion said they had experienced someone attempting to kiss them at work. All of these acts, as the Guardian reports, are legally considered sexual assaults.
In 90% of cases the perpetrator of the sexual assaults was male – and nearly one in five women said it was their boss or another authority figure at work. Four in five women said they did not report sexual harassment to their employers.
Their reasons for deciding against reporting harassment were dispiriting. Nearly a quarter of women worried that their complaints would not be taken seriously, while 20% said they felt “too embarrassed”. Others were concerned that reporting sexual harassment could damage their relationships at work (28%) or their career prospects (15%).
One woman told researchers how a colleague, on her last day in the office, said that “his biggest regret was that he didn’t get the chance to rape me in the store room before I left”.
Another said: “The most senior person in the organisation made a series of ‘jokes’… about how I might want to give my boss a ‘rub down’ or a ‘massage’. Another director gestured to grab my breasts at a social gathering.”
“People say [sexual harassment] doesn’t go on in the workplace any more. There’s a perception that because of equality laws it’s something people aren’t putting up with,” said Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism.
“This research shows there’s a huge gap between that perception and the reality of what women are facing,” she added.
Women and girls aged 16-24 had to contend with more sexual harassment in the workplace than any other demographic, with 63% of women in that age bracket saying they had experienced it.
Bates said that this could reflect “power dynamics at play” – but observes that it could also be a sign that young women today are quicker to recognise what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable in the office. “Perhaps for some older women, there’s a sense of normalisation,” she said.
Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated and the behaviour is of a sexual nature”. It can involve sexual comments or jokes; physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and sexual assault; displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature; or sending emails with a sexual content.
Any of these are classed as forms of discrimination, meaning that people are entitled to take a case to the civil courts if they believe they have been victimised. Crucially, people may also have a claim under the Equality Act if they are treated badly – or less favourably – for reporting sexual harassment.
A government spokesman said: “No one should experience harassment or abuse of any kind in the workplace – the law on this is very clear and employers must take swift action to tackle this issue.”
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Images: iStock, Rex Features