One in five women harassed at work

20% of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace, Opinium Research has found

The Office Culture found that more than 2.5 million women report being a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. One in four (27%) women have been victims of sexism at work.

However, a third (33%) of female sexual harassment cases reported to someone in the business were not followed up, while a fifth (18%) were not even acknowledged, according to the report. It also found that two-thirds (67%) of women who have experienced harassment don’t report it to their company.

The survey comes as high-profile allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry dominate headlines.

Sue Evans, former head of HR and OD at Warwickshire County Council and director of Sevans Refreshing People, said HR professionals in all sectors have a crucial responsibility to stamp out sexism and harassment.

“It is not enough to provide empathy and support; HR must make sure that negative behaviours are noticed and individuals made aware of the impact of them on others,” she told HR magazine. “Much of it starts as casual sexism – sometimes people don’t even notice but it undermines and corrodes as surely as overt racism and sexism and bullying. You will have heard the excuses: ‘it’s just banter’, ‘where’s your sense of humour?’ ‘it’s his way’... Well it’s not just banter, it is not funny and if that’s ‘his way’ he needs to change it.

“Letting this go allows for it to become accepted and devalues the whole diversity of the workforce – it is an insidious form of harassment, made all the more potent through lack of action,” Evans added.

Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, group director of HR at Charles Stanley, said that in her experience harassment in all walks of life is still all too common. “When I was 17 a driving instructor suddenly asked me, mid-lesson, whether I wanted to feature in a porn movie,” she said. “I nearly crashed the car – I had done nothing to encourage him or such a topic. However, despite knowing that his comments and subsequent suggestions were inappropriate I was too embarrassed to raise the matter with my parents or his employer.

“I have experienced sexual harassment at various stages in my career,” she added, citing “ongoing predatory behaviour of a manager towards his secretary” that she witnessed and tried to stop as a student interning at a company, and an attack on a junior colleague by a company director that the junior colleague refused to report to the police.

“It is no good just having the policies in place; a successful business that attracts, motivates and retains the finest needs a culture where individuals feel comfortable in speaking out both for themselves and for others,” she said. “It is HR’s role to support and encourage people to be the best they can be in every way and that includes eliminating immoral complicity. HR needs to be alert, speak out and support those who do.”

Opinium Research's survey also found that appetite to report racist, ageist or homophobic abuse is similarly low. Only half (55%) of those subjected to racial discrimination have reported such incidents to somebody in their company.

Ageism is the least discussed, with almost three-quarters (72%) of incidents going unreported. Additionally, a quarter (25%) of reports of ageism were not acknowledged. Similarly, with reports of homophobia, more than a third (43%) of cases were not dealt with.

The research coincides with a Radio 5 live survey of 2,031 British adults, which found that 37% of those asked –53% of women and 20% of men – said they had experienced sexual harassment at work or a place of study.