Donald Trump added sexual harassment to the list of things he clearly doesn’t understand the significance of last week, when he said his daughter Ivanka would simply ‘find another career’ if it happened to her. His son Eric followed that up by helpfully suggesting that a ‘strong, powerful woman’ wouldn’t ‘allow herself’ to be harassed. Of course such archaic attitudes are not confined to the puppet show that has been unfolding across the pond.
A report out this morning from the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project makes for pretty grim reading. More than half (52%) of women have been victims of sexual harassment at work, it found, rising to a pretty astonishing 63% of those aged 18-24. That included unwelcome sexual jokes (32%), inappropriate comments about their body or clothes (23%) and unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work (12%).
‘Many people would like to think that workplace sexual harassment is a thing of the past,’ said the Everyday Sexism Project’s founder Laura Bates. ‘In reality, it is alive and well, and having a huge impact on tens of thousands of women’s lives.’
For all the talk of improvements in the gender pay gap and representation in boardrooms, there are clearly still plenty of Neanderthals happy to go around making life a misery for women. As a man I found these statistics remarkable, but I’m painfully aware that for many women they will come as no surprise at all. The testimonies collected by Everyday Sexism and the report’s authors highlight some particularly grotesque examples.
‘Sexual comments about me or others, either to me or overheard in my presence, were a fact of daily working life,’ said one woman. ‘Some of those comments were violent in nature, with the speaker expressing a desire to rape the woman he was talking about.’
‘On my last day at work, a colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get the chance to rape me in the store room before I left,’ said another. ‘For months I had been scared to go into that room on my own because he always said things like, "I’m coming to get you" and "Don’t go in there alone, I’ll jump on you."’
Harassment is doubly damaging in that it can make it harder for women to progress at work. ‘The disempowering impact of sexual harassment was a recurrent theme in union members’ responses to a TUC survey on sexual harassment,’ the report said. ‘Shame, humiliation, and a sense of being undermined professionally were all cited by respondents.’
The TUC suggests some legal changes that could help deal with the problem, such as scrapping the £1,200 fee that victims of sexual harassment have to stump up in order to bring about a tribunal (after the fee was introduced in 2013, the number of sex discrimination claims fell by 76%). But it’s bosses that can make the biggest difference.
It’s striking to note that four fifths of victims did not report their harassment to their employer citing fears that it would damage their relationships at work or future career, and some said they were simply too embarrassed to speak up. A quarter said they didn’t think their employer would believe them or take their complaint seriously enough, and little wonder - of those who that said they did report it, more than half said the response they got was not satisfactory. Almost one in five said they felt they were treated worse by their employer as a result.
This can’t be allowed to continue. The shameful incidents catalogued by Everyday Sexism will not be stamped out unless women feel they can come forward. Employers and middle managers have a responsibility to create an environment where they are comfortable to do so, and to treat any reports of harassment with the necessary respect.