2017: are we really still talking about sexual harassment?

When Donald Trump dismissed his boasts about groping and kissing women without their consent, as “locker room banter”, he unwittingly exposed a problem that’s still rife in today’s workplace. The question is why? And why is it a problem for health and safety?

Today, sexual harassment affects over half of all women at work in Britain, according to two major recent polls.

In the TUC report, Just a Bit of Banter, published in August 2016, it highlighted that 52% of women said they have been verbally or physically sexually harassed in the workplace. It followed the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights 2014 study, which estimated that nearly 102 million women (around 55 per cent) in the EU-28 had experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15. A third of that number occurred in the workplace.

Past and present concerns

Sexual harassment laws have been in place since the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that’s not to say that society’s interpretation of those laws have been on a par. The Sun newspaper in 1982, observed that, “while serious minded union officials…are getting their knickers in a twist about sexual harassment at work, the workers themselves say ‘carry on groping’…’it makes the day more pleasant’”.

Nowadays, the Equality Act of 2010 legally protect women. Here it defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” However, there still remains discrepancy between how this law is being interpreted according to the women the TUC questioned, and how far women feel protected by the law and by their employers.

Scarlet Harris, equality officer at the TUC who wrote the study, says she aimed to be “very specific” about what sexual harassment is and to set out what the law says about it: “Because I think lots of people don’t realise that actually some of the things that they think are just a joke or a bit of banter could be construed as sexual harassment.”

She did this by showing not just the extent of sexual harassment, but the impact it had on women experiencing it. A range of behaviours were reported: from having pornographic photos displayed at work (nearly 10%) to overhearing comments of a sexual nature about women in general or female colleagues (over a third) to actual assault and rape. But shame, humiliation, and a sense of being undermined professionally were all cited by respondents, regardless of whether the sexual harassment was verbal or physical – all the behaviours of sexual harassment in other words.

Photograph iStock / MachineHeadz

Male environments

Typically, the problems exist in any workplace, according to Harris. But she and other expert studies and practitioners still point to sexual harassment as a feature of male- dominated environments.

Mark Gale, at the Young Women’s Trust says there were trends in a survey they did this year, No Country for Young Women. “Anecdotally young women said wider forms of discrimination and harassment were an issue – particularly the sectors that were male dominated, construction and engineering,” he said. It’s a problem, he thinks, is pushing young women out of careers they wanted to pursue in these sectors – a factor considered in the YWT’s second study of this year on the drop in women taking on apprenticeships in traditionally male environments.

In one case study in it, a young woman, Glyn, describes how she gave up on her bricklayer apprenticeship because of comments from her male colleagues on site about her appearance.  “It was irritating and emotionally draining so I decided it would be more beneficial to terminate my apprenticeship and go straight into the labour market,” she says.

Culture of respect

It’s a problem that at Crossrail – where diversity in the workplace has been a priority, beginning with the recognition of the links between respect for differences and higher safety performance – are determined to address. Pam McInroy, diversity and inclusion specialist within the health and safety team, was appointed to oversee a three-year strategy. She says they began by promoting a culture founded on the value of respect. Work began after surveying attitudes of male workers working with women as well as other minority groups such as LGBT and BAME (black, asian & minority ethnic) workers, on more than 40 sites at Crossrail.

The findings showed some pockets of cases where some individuals from different cultures said they “strongly disagreed” that they felt comfortable working with women.

To address this, Pam said, Crossrail opened up a conversation with the principal contractors paving the way towards measuring culture change as part of their health and safety performance matrix. “Communication, leadership and behaviour, designing for health and safety – they’re measured on that”.

By adding diversity into the mix, including for example, initiatives that specifically addressed sexual harassment risks, it naturally formed part of principal contractors’ general effort towards excellence in health and safety. “They don’t actually have to do it but you put something in front of them to say – there is a reason for you to do this because it’s going to benefit your health and safety performance index. When we were able to put this in their health and safety performance index, all of a sudden they had to do it,” she says.

Minding language

In practical terms it meant changing aspects of behaviour like the language used on site. Similar to the TUC findings, Pam says the problem she’s witnessed on construction sites generally is: “‘Oh it’s banter’ it’s how you are, it’s accepted and almost used as camaraderie on site. I’ve never seen that in any other industry as inherent as it is in construction.”

She said that by focusing on the safety aspect of poor language, it brought real results, as opposed to making it an HR issue which tended to lose ‘the message a bit’. “When you say, this is a health and safety issue, and you really focus on that, people – especially on our sites–  they get it and they get the language around health and safety because it’s such a priority. And when you say those words – ‘you feel unsafe’ [because of a comment or gesture], that gets their complete attention and it’s easier for them to understand.”

Crossrail will be assessing the impact of the work and the change in attitudes with a forthcoming survey, but Pam has seen positive results so far. On one site, they changed their risk assessments to include women: “the conversation is changing , they go ‘every time we talk about health and safety, [we] have to talk about it from the perspective of a woman, an LGBT, there’s a culture change.”

Mental health

It is of course, not just about physical safety, but poor mental health. Shame and fear – the effects the TUC noted – are all part of the dangerous cocktail of negative emotions and mental states that are the effects of sexual harassment. And it is likely that our vulnerable workers are most at risk. This year, a major NHS study came out noting that young women’s mental health was at the worst it has ever been. It reported a threefold increase in 16 to 24 year old women screening positive for PTSD – one in eight – as well as of self-harm. Overall 28.2% reported a mental health condition. Yet it is this same group who are featuring most in the studies on sexual harassment. The TUC found 63%, or nearly two thirds, of women aged between 16 and 24 said they’d been sexually harassed.

Young women are less likely to speak out on sexual harassment. Photograph: iStock

The danger can be that they lack the confidence to deal with it, says Mark Gale, because their confidence is already at a low. “The impact’s not necessarily in one direction, so the impact of [sexual harassment] on people’s confidence and mental health is the natural and understandable effect of that. But equally, that lack of confidence and ability to speak out could lead to leaving people even more vulnerable to further discrimination”. This could include missing out on training opportunities, or promotion, or being able to thrive at work.

Many of the women in the TUC report said they avoided certain workplace situations because of their experience. Others said they wanted to leave work because of it, even if they didn’t do so. “If you won’t attend a meeting because there’s someone there who sexually harasses you or you won’t share and office with that person, that’s going to curtail your career in some way possibly. So there are very real mental health impacts but also physical impacts,” says Harris.

Power

“Sexual harassment is inextricably linked with power”, says the TUC, with one in five women (17%) reporting the aggressor was their line manager, or someone with direct authority over them. But sexual harassment is as much a factor of powerlessness of victims today as it is with the cliché of the CEO taking advantage over his status, although that does exist. Harris says that many of the young women reporting harassment were also on zero-hour contracts. “If you’re the younger more junior person in the workplace you’re probably in your first job, you may be temping, you have much less power in the workplace,” she says.

Her view is echoed by Mark who says the young women he speaks to feel weighed down by insecure employment. He says it’s a “real issue”, when considering any sort of unfair treatment they’ve experienced, including sexual harassment. “Young women feel not able to speak out about some of those issues. They feel their position is so insecure that if they kicked up a fuss they would be pushed out, or the job would be at risk,” he says.

Young at risk

Whereas cultures and power dynamics are age-old concerns however, there are new areas of risk too, such as social media which presents a new ‘place’ for sexual harassment to occur. Harris says: “there’s an idea that social media is something that’s happening in the personal sphere outside of the workplace, but in fact there’s been a massive blurring of boundaries between public and private and between work and personal life.” She says the problems arise, when for example, a relationship strikes up between colleagues outside of work and then may turn nasty. In recent cases, she says aggressors have taken to arenas such as work Whatsapp groups or Facebook, where accounts may be linked for people representing their company, to defame or harass.

Looked at under this scrutiny, sexual harassment becomes a more complex issue that requires careful attuning to, to understand the risks. Sexual harassment is far more than just the groper The Sun celebrated in 1982, or even Trump’s widely- denounced lewd comments. It can also be psychological undermining and comments of a sexual nature can breed an atmosphere of distrust and fear.

There are a range of things employers and health and safety professionals can do. The YWT is encouraging employers to consider supportive mentoring and role models, particularly in male-dominated workplaces. “Women are quite isolated, alone, feel less able to speak out [in these sectors],” says Mark.

Also, simply, employers need to be open about it and open about not tolerating any form of it. Harris says: “It’s about letting everybody know what the procedures are; that they are protected. I think, making sure it’s part of the induction, making sure that there are posters if there are staff noticeboards, for instance. It’s about saying this is a zero-tolerance workplace and we don’t accept harassment.”

TUC Just a bit of banter? Report here 

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Safety Management