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A shocking report, ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’, revealed that over half of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment while at work.

The study, carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC), surveyed over 1,500 women and discovered that 52% have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work, from groping to inappropriate jokes. For women aged 16-24 this percentage rose to 63%, with almost 20% of women reporting that the person harassing them was their manager or someone in a position of authority.

While the report investigated ‘sexual harassment’, many of the incidents of unwanted touching or kissing that woman reported would be considered sexual assault by law. This highlights the seriousness of a situation that is so often excused with the phrase ‘harmless banter’.

So, what counts as sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any sexual behaviour that is unwanted, offensive, and that makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated, humiliated, or scared. It is a prohibited conduct under the Equality Act 2010 (s.26 (2)), for which redress lies in the civil courts.  It can cover a huge range of behaviours including:

Verbal harassment: e.g., sexual comments, emails, jokes or photos

Physical harassment: e.g., unwanted sexual advances touching (from a hand on the small of your back to groping your breasts), kissing and sexual assault.  Sexual assault, a criminal offence, is when a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent. (CPS).  Thus patting someone on the bottom may be both sexual harassment and also sexual assault. 

Sexual harassment can overlap with other criminal offences in addition to sexual assault including harassment, stalking and revenge porn etc.

The huge range of possible behaviours can make it difficult to pin down, but the most important thing is how it makes you feel. If the behaviour is sexual in nature, unwelcome and makes you feel offended or intimidated, it is wrong. If you confront or report sexual harassment and are then treated badly, this is also classed as a form of unlawful harassment. Everyone has the right to feel safe and comfortable while they are at work.

Why is sexual harassment still an issue?

Worryingly, around 80% of the women affected by sexual harassment did not report it, with only 1% reporting it to a union rep which begs the question, why?

The women surveyed in the report cited various reasons for not wanting to report sexual harassment. Many feared that it would have a negative impact on their career and working relationships, others were worried they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously, and feelings of shame, anxiety and embarrassment also stood in the way of women seeking justice.

But how is sexual harassment being allowed to continue to such a staggering extent in our workplaces when there are laws in place to protect against it? The Equality Act of 2010 deems sexual harassment as a form of unlawful discrimination which can be reported and taken to court.

What are the effects of sexual harassment?

While some people treat sexual harassment at work as a joke, the effects of sexual harassment certainly can’t be laughed away, with women reporting negative effects on their mental health, their confidence at work, and their physical health. That’s the very point of sexual harassment, it aims to undermine and humiliate the victim. There may be equality laws in place, but the workplace is still far from equal, and there are calls for the government and employers to do more to protect employees.

What can I do if I experience sexual harassment at work?

It can be daunting to stand up to sexual harassment, but the law is there to back you up. It’s worth keeping a written record of any sexual harassment you are a victim of, including dates, times, and locations. You can think about pursuing various options including (where appropriate) speaking to the person who is carrying out the sexual harassment, lodging a formal grievance or complaint with your employer, or taking your employer to an employment tribunal.

Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has some clear advice about how to make a complaint at work and who to talk to. 

Witnessing sexual harassment at work

If you have witnessed someone being sexually harassed you can support the complaint, report what has happened or be at witness at a hearing.  However, you are also able to make a sexual harassment claim on your own behalf under the terms of the Equality Act 2010

What can you do as an employer to protect your staff from sexual harassment?

Providing support for your employees is essential. As detailed above, the effects of sexual harassment can be detrimental to an employee’s wellbeing, not to mention the legal consequences if that person files a report. An HR department should be an integral department within your business but sometimes these people are not equipped to deal with some issues that can arise.

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