Sexual harassment at work moves online during lockdown

Sexual harassment has not stopped during lockdown, it has simply moved online and into workers’ homes, according to a report published this week by the Fawcett Society. It says that at least 40% of women experience sexual harassment during the course of their career.

Some 45% of women reported experiencing harassment online through sexual messages, cyber harassment and calls, according the research. Around 23% of women who had been sexually harassed said the harassment increased or escalated since the start of the pandemic while they were working from home. The report also found that almost seven in ten (68%) disabled women reported being sexually harassed at work, compared with 52% of women in general.

Felicia Willow, Fawcett Society chief executive said: “Sexual harassment at work is endemic, and it’s clear why; employers are ill-equipped and ill-prepared to handle reports, this creates a culture where the focus is on managing liability rather than stopping perpetrators and supporting women. The current approach puts women in an unacceptably vulnerable position. It’s time for change – as the government has agreed - employers need to take their responsibilities seriously and create safe working environments. They need to take a look at their workplace culture and put in place the effective strategies to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace once and for all.

“Currently there is not enough focus on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, instead there is a reliance on women reporting experiences that can be incredibly sensitive and traumatic. This puts them in a vulnerable position personally and within their workplaces. In July the government announced it will strengthen existing obligations and place a duty on employers to effectively prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces. These regulatory changes will recognise that sexual harassment is not just about the unacceptable behaviour of a few individuals, instead it is about a culture within workplaces where every day behaviour which violates the dignity of, predominantly, women, is too often treated as acceptable banter."

This new report identifies five key elements that help to create a workplace that does not tolerate sexual harassment: culture; policy; training; reporting mechanisms; and the way employers respond to reports.

It highlights specific actions that employers can take to stamp out sexual harassment in their workplace – not only to protect staff but also to safeguard against damaging and time-consuming legal claims. Employers should also put in place a clear and detailed sexual harassment policy that is separate to a general harassment and bullying policy. They must also improve their reporting mechanisms to ensure staff feel able to report harassment, including offering anonymous reporting. It also essential that any reports of sexual harassment are taken seriously and dealt with fairly and sensitively.

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