A quarter of young women fear they could be fired for reporting sexual harassment

Charity calls on decision-makers to ‘decide that respect and equality for women is important’

One in four young women are reluctant to report sexual harassment at work for fear of losing their job, a survey has found, prompting campaigners to call for better protections for women in the workplace.

In the poll of women under the age of 30, conducted by the Young Women’s Trust, 25 per cent said they were concerned they would lose their job if they made a report. This increased to 30 per cent of women of colour, and 37 per cent of those affected by a disability or health condition.

Nearly a fifth (19 per cent) of the women surveyed said they would fear being given fewer hours as a result of reporting sexual harassment, and 31 per cent said they were not aware of how to make a report.

The poll also found nearly a third (31 per cent) felt that since the #MeToo movement gathered momentum two years ago, there had been “talk but no action to tackle sexual harassment”.

Sophie Walker, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, said employers needed to make it easier to report abuse by customers, clients and colleagues, and put in place unbiased processes that did not penalise victims.

Walker said: “No woman should feel unsafe at work or put up with sexual harassment as something that's part of the day job – we've heard so many testimonies, read so many reports, and yet it's still not mandatory to stop this from happening.

“When will the men who make political decisions, run workplaces and lead businesses decide that respect and equality for women is important?” 

The survey, which polled 1,998 women in England and Wales aged 18-30, also showed that sexual harassment was still a pervasive problem for young women, even if they were reluctant to offically report it.

Around one in six (16 per cent) said they knew of cases of sexual harassment at work that had been reported and not dealt with properly, while 8 per cent said they had been treated less well at work after rejecting sexual advances. Another 5 per cent said they had to change jobs because of sexual harassment, assault or abuse.

Just 6 per cent of women who had experienced sexual harassment at work had reported it.

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said HR had a “crucial role to play” in ensuring employees were free from discrimination.

McCartney said employers needed a policy on preventing sexual harassment that covered recruitment, training and promotion; that there should be a clear process communicated to all staff about how to raise a complaint; and that line managers should be trained and confident in implementing the organisation’s policies and dealing with any concerns or complaints.

“It is also important that leaders and managers act as role models and help make their organisations as inclusive and respectful as possible,” McCartney added.

David Harris, managing partner at DPH Legal, said the government needed to think about “more proactive policies” for employers to put into place. “The current state of play is that employers do have certain requirements but they're relatively minimal. [Employers] are required to consider equal opportunities policies and consider, rather than be required to implement, equality and diversity training,” he said.

Harris welcomed calls from the Young Women’s Trust to extend the three-month time limit for employees to bring tribunal cases under the Equality Act to at least six months. “It sounds like that’s quite a long time, but actually we quite often find ourselves speaking to people who've got historic situations that for various reasons they've felt they haven't been able to raise at the time. Sometimes that can be problematic for them in terms of limitations,” he said. 

Thalis Vlachos, employment partner at Gunnercooke, said that to change the culture around sexual harassment, employers needed to start with education. “Particularly if they’ve had some issues in the past, what [employers] should do is train their managers and also their staff on what is and what is not inappropriate behaviour,” he said.

Vlachos added that, despite the negative sentiment in the survey, the #MeToo movement had a positive impact on the outcome of sexual harassment cases: “I've undertaken cases where we have negotiated on a deal, but the employer still wants to investigate further as to what happened. That's pretty exceptional. You never used to get that before.”