Third of women’s careers affected by sexual harassment, study finds

Poll also reveals majority of female workers have encountered or witnessed inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues

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A third (32 per cent) of women say their careers have been affected by sexual harassment, new research has found.

The 2022 Gender Equality in the Workplace report by Randstad, which surveyed 6,000 working adults in May this year, also found that the majority (72 per cent) of women had either encountered or witnessed inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues at work, and that two-thirds (67 per cent) of women had experienced gender discrimination in some form. 

Harassment was most likely to be reported in the construction and tech industries, with almost half (45 per cent) of women in construction and two in five (42 per cent) women in tech saying that sexual harassment had either a lot or some impact on their career.

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Less than one in 10 (7 per cent) of women in tech and just a quarter (23 per cent) of women in construction said they had not experienced any gender discrimination at work.

The research also found that women working in education and facilities management were the least likely to say that sexual harassment affected their careers (29 and 26 per cent respectively). 

The education field came out on top for its number of female managers: on average, workers in this sector have had 3.0 female managers since they started working in their particular industry, compared to the UK average of 2.1. 

The lowest number was in construction (1.5), with two in five (38 per cent) women in this sector saying they had never had a female manager, while half (52 per cent) said there was an absence of training for women. A similar proportion (48 per cent) said there was a lack of female role models.

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Almost all (96 per cent) male and female survey respondents said that having a female manager would either improve their working day, or maintain it at the same level. 

Further findings revealed that two-thirds (68 per cent) said they did not believe it was possible to return to work after having a baby to a part-time senior role. This percentage was higher in the tech industry, where three-quarters (73 per cent) of women did not believe it was possible.

The study also found that two in five (40 per cent) women in tech planned to change jobs in the next three months.

Victoria Short, chief executive of Randstad UK, commented on the positive aspect that boardrooms have become more equal over recent years: “Parity of board seats is now a realistic prospect in the UK”.

Short highlighted the fact that 40 per cent of directors on top boards in the UK were now women, compared to just 12 per cent in 2010, saying there was now “less organisational bias” when it came to gender equality, but that outside non-executive boards, lower down the organisational or in small businesses, the story may be different.

“Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” she said.

The research, which also surveyed 190 non-binary people, found that a third (32 per cent) in this group said sexual harassment had either a lot, some, or a small impact on their careers.

Neha Thethi, head of employment at Lime Solicitors, said the effects of gender discrimination were still prevalent in the workplace, and commented on the fact that the number of tribunals citing the menopause had doubled last year.

She said employers could start to deal with the issue at the hiring stage, using skills-based assessments and structured interviews, and then by having a “clear, unbiased policy” which “ensures employees have a proper way to comment or report inappropriate treatment and behaviour”. 

She called for employers to “create and strengthen penalties” for sexual harassment and discrimination, and to support and encourage women to take up senior roles, as well as providing flexible working policies to encourage mothers to return to work.

“Providing equal opportunities for employees is not just a legal necessity, but will boost organisational performance and productivity, as well as employee wellbeing,” she added.

Gemma McCall, chief executive of Culture Shift, said that a toxic workplace culture and reputation for gender discrimination can impact employees’ mental health, leading to absenteeism, presenteeism,and a negative employer reputation. Employers should encourage employees to speak up and remove barriers to reporting harassment via an anonymous route, she advised.

“The evidence has been consistently clear for a long time now that a happy and supported workforce is a productive and profitable one,” she said. “Leaders should be investing in ways to listen to their employees, while ensuring a safe working environment is created and maintained for all – no matter their gender.”