How should you deal with sexism in the workplace?

It covers a whole range of issues, so employers need to make sure they're clued up and that employees know what action they can take.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

‘I was sexually harassed twice in the workplace,’ a female manager at a consultancy firm tells MT. ‘I never told anyone and felt I wouldn’t be taken seriously because it’s a serious charge. You tend to doubt yourself and wonder if you misread something; misheard something. It’s a bit surreal.’

She's not alone. Some 1,786 people complained to ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) about sexual discrimination in the last year. Now that may be down 50% on the year before, but that doesn't mean things are rapidly improving.  ACAS also noted a rise in calls from workers (predominantly women, though not all) seeking advice over sexual discrimination. Workers might be both confused about what actions they can take, and afraid to do so. The introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2014 has meant there’s not only the emotional toll of bringing a discrimination claim to tribunal, but a financial cost too.

And not all forms of sexism seem obvious. Under the Equality Act 2010, it’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against staff because of their sex. Harassment, which would include poorer treatment of an employee because they spurned sexual advances, would come into that bracket. But to what extent are people expected to tolerate sexist jokes and pet names like ‘sweetheart’? Not to mention being given a disproportionate amount of what Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter dubbed ‘office housework’; admin such as note-taking. And how should you handle it?

What to do as an employer

Paul Reeves, employment partner at Stephenson Harwood says, ‘It’s always better to avoid giving rise to a claim in the first place than to manage a crisis after a claim has been made.’ Robust policies should be in place to make sure staff know what is and isn’t considered acceptable conduct. Reeves notes this is also important, ‘so the employer can prove to a tribunal it took all steps necessary to bring the organisation’s expectations to their employees’ attention.’

You need to keep employees in the loop about what options are available to them, such as how to raise a grievance. It’s also important to make clear that any discussions will be confidential. 'Leaders who are good at tackling sexual harassment in the workplace don't hide behind company policy,' says Nic Hammarling, head of diversity at Pearn Kandola. 'They talk about why they personally think it is unacceptable. If the problem stems from the top, then it has to be addressed with some frank feedback. It's culturally contaminating to have someone senior saying one thing and then doing something completely different.'

Tim Allsop, founder of Turn of Phrase, an organisation which works with companies to improve gender equality in the workplace, says it’s often not the overt discrimination which persists among businesses 'but unconscious bias and gender stereotyping'. An example of a workshop he runs with companies involves making people aware of the assumptions we make about people by getting them to voice opinions on actors who enter the room, having taken on a certain role. Revealing people’s unconscious bias can prompt them to recognise the need to work on this. ‘We also encourage gender committees to be formed which meet regularly with HR to discuss specific issues,’ Allsop adds.

Remember, not all sexism will be glaringly apparent. The manager who spoke to MT about her experiences working in many male-dominated environments, said she repeatedly felt female bosses were harder on women direct reports in terms of assignments and promotion opportunities. ‘I’ve experienced being viewed as a threat and there is sometimes the thought we need to compete against each other as positions are limited, but I don’t think that’s true,’ she says. ‘How women treat other women is largely ignored by management.’ She feels if this was focused on more, ‘We would then have to own the fact we may be causing some of our own barriers to a level playing field.’

What to do as an employee

It can be difficult feeling you’re fighting a battle by yourself, but Minal Backhouse, MD of Backhouse Solicitors, says, ‘Don’t suffer in silence – it’s unlikely to go away by itself.’

The manager of the consulting firm mentioned above left a job because of sexual harassment and didn’t say anything at the time. ‘I found out later that the manager who did this to me was let go because other people had brought complaints against him and he was thoroughly investigated,’ she says. ‘It made me realise if I had said something, I would have been taken seriously. I regret not saying something when I had the chance, but at the time I was young.’

Billie Gianfrancesco, now a PR manager at YOPA, says an insidious issue she's dealt with in the past, has been colleagues and clients referring to her as a ‘PR girl’. ‘You never hear PR boy or accountant boy,’ she argues. ‘It’s so belittling to be referred to in this way and undermines your credibility.’ At a previous company, Gianfrancesco was part of a junior team of women and a senior male PR manager repeatedly referred to them as ‘the girls’, including in front of in clients. ‘I started calling him the "PR boy" as much as I could to get the point across,’ she says. ‘It did highlight the issue and eventually it stopped. It’s not really a laughing matter, but I’ve found that people are much more likely to get behind you when you use humour to address an issue, because it’s less accusatory.’ 

Deana Bates, employment law solicitor at Simpson Millar Solicitors, suggests approaching either your line manager or HR to express concerns about the behaviour you’re being subjected to. ‘Where a business has failed to deal with a complaint of discrimination raised by an employee, they can seek advice from legal advisers or helplines like ACAS or the Equality Advisory Support Service,’ she explains. ‘As a last resort, an employee could ultimately make a claim in the employment tribunal.’

'If things are happening that make you feel uncomfortable, make a note of them and be specific,' says Hammarling. 'If lots of people around you are behaving inappropriately, this is more of a question of culture change.' It can be tricky when the person involved is your line manager or another senior member of staff. ‘By having some form of record in writing and sent to someone else in the company, you will be in a better position to defend your corner subsequently if matters deteriorate further,’ advises employment solicitor James Carmody.

Feeling isolated and targeted can be a challenging matter to deal with and not everyone will feel comfortable speaking out at work. But there are both services and organisations that can help if you’re uncertain on how to proceed. ‘I think I tended to do the wrong thing in my career when it came to sexism,’ the manager reflects. ‘It’s okay to say this behaviour is not acceptable. Talk to someone; let management know that something is not quite right. I stayed quiet because I was afraid.’

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