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Sexual harassment still rife in UK workplaces

?Institutional sexism, patterns of abuse and an imbalance of power are still rife in the UK’s workplaces leaving women at risk, according to a damning new report from charity Rights of Women.

Nearly half (44%) of callers to its Sexual Harassment at Work advice line reported sexual assault in the workplace, with 2% of callers reporting they had been raped by a colleague and 3% having been stalked by a colleague.

Rights of Women said its findings, based on hours of calls and in-depth interviews since the telephone was opened in August 2019, proved that the current protections within the Equality Act 2010 are not robust enough to challenge the culture of sexual harassment at work.

The free, confidential legal telephone advice line provides specialist support for sexual harassment in the workplace. It is partially funded by actor and activist Emma Watson as part of the TIME’S UP UK Justice and Equality Fund.

Many of the women the charity spoke to expressed fear of the professional repercussions of being harassed which often frightens them into silence and submission.

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Nearly two out of three callers (59%) said they had received ‘less favourable treatment’ after rejecting or submitting to sexual harassment or reporting the harassment to their employer.

This means employers and harassers are doing more damage to these women by retaliating and punishing them.

The most common forms of less favourable treatment and victimisation were failure by employer to properly investigate a report of sexual harassment (31%), subject to bullying (17%), threatened with or dismissed from workplace (10%) and denied a job promotion of employment benefit (9%).

Lina used the advice line to discuss the sexual harassment she’d received from her boss.

She 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.

“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.”

Lina, like 15% of women, was signed off sick from work by a GP due to stress, anxiety and other health complications.

One in five (22%) callers had been dismissed or resigned from their jobs as a direct result of the sexual harassment they experienced.

Nearly half (45%) had experienced multiple forms of harassment, with the most common additional form being racial harassment or discrimination, like Lina who received racist abuse from her boss. This, Rights of Women argued, confirmed a wider failure to address other forms of institutional oppression.

Speaking to HR magazine, Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at Rights of Women, urged HR departments to deal with all reports seriously. “Employers must not fall into the trap of victim-blaming or giving up because it is a ‘he said, she said’ situation. HR should conduct full and thorough investigations and remember that they need only establish on the balance of probabilities the veracity of allegations.

“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.”

Rights of Women is pushing for government to release its response to its consultation on measures to tackle sexual harassment at work which it had pledged to release by spring.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission published technical guidance for sexual harassment earlier this year, which Rights for Women is now demanding is made statutory for all employers immediately.

Rights of Women has now doubled the advice line opening times.

The statistics are based on data collected over 291 calls between 5 August 2019 to 29 July 2020.