Half of women sexually harassed at work during lockdown were targeted online, poll finds

Experts say line managers need clear communication and training to handle allegations if zero-tolerance policies are to work

Nearly half of women who experienced in-work harassment did so online, a report has found, warning that employers are putting too much emphasis on women reporting harassment and not enough on preventative measures.

A report from the Fawcett Society found 45 per cent of women who had experienced harassment encountered it online through sexual messages, cyber harassment and sexual calls.

Almost a quarter of women who had been sexually harassed said the harassment had increased or escalated since the start of the pandemic while they were working from home.

The report, which combined a review of existing literature with a poll of 290 workers who had experienced sexual harassment and a survey of 236 managers, found that more than half of women (52 per cent) have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, increasing to 68 per cent among disabled women.

Additionally, a third of all ethnic minority workers (32 per cent), including both men and women, reported experiencing sexual harassment over the last 12 months, compared to 28 per cent of white workers, while 68 per cent of LGBT workers experienced some form of harassment at work.

Felicia Willow, interim chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said sexual harassment at work was “endemic” because employers were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to handle reports.

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“This creates a culture where the focus is on managing liability rather than stopping perpetrators and supporting women,” she said. “The current approach puts women in an unacceptably vulnerable position.”

The report, produced in partnership with Chwarae Teg, Women’s Resource and Development Agency and Close the Gap, welcomed government plans to introduce a duty on employers to effectively prevent sexual harassment, and outlined best practice on how organisations could create working cultures that don’t tolerate sexual harassment.

It called on businesses to conduct ‘climate surveys’ to measure their organisational attitudes towards sexual harassment and urged employers to treat employees who make a report with respect and empathy, to increase gender equality, and demonstrate leadership commitment to tackling harassment.

“Employers need to take their responsibilities seriously and create safe working environments. They need to take a look at their workplace culture and put in place the effective strategies to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace once and for all,” said Willow.

Employers should also put in place a sexual harassment policy and improve reporting mechanisms, including offering anonymous reporting, the report said.

Commenting on the report, Josie Irwin, national women's officer at Unison, said the findings were likely to be “the tip of the iceberg”.

"Abuse and inappropriate comments are often so commonplace that women have simply learned to ignore the problem,” she said, adding that most women don’t bother reporting perpetrators, either because they know no action will be taken by the employer or because they fear reporting could make things worse for themselves.

"Employers need to get much better at this. Zero-tolerance policies with no hiding place for the dinosaur sexual harassers is what's needed,” said Irwin.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said the findings showed businesses still had a “long way to go” in ending sexual harassment at the workplace.

"This has to start with leaders and managers acting as role models to help make their organisations as inclusive and respectful as possible and being quick to pick up on any inappropriate behaviour to address any issues as soon as they arise,” he said.

Any zero-tolerance policy needed to be underpinned by clear communication and training for line managers to ensure they have the confidence to respond to any complaints, said Willmott, while those reporting harassment need to feel confident any allegations will be investigated “rigorously and consistently regardless of who is involved".