Sexual harassment in the workplace Contents


1.In October 2017, allegations about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry began to appear in the media in the US and the UK. Many of these allegations concerned celebrities and other high-profile figures, but the stories sparked a mass movement of women from all walks of life and in many different fields of work sharing their own experiences of being sexually harassed in the workplace or elsewhere. Allegations of sexual harassment at Westminster were among those that emerged. The #MeToo movement put sexual harassment at the top of the news agenda as it became impossible to ignore how widespread, even commonplace, these experiences are.

2.In the wake of #MeToo, a wide range of employers found themselves scrambling to respond to allegations of sexual harassment in their organisations or sectors. Our concern is to ensure that, as the news cycle inevitably moves on, the urgency of action by employers and by the Government to tackle workplace sexual harassment does not wane. This report is, therefore, a call to action. The recommendations we make are aimed at ensuring that employers and those who regulate them maintain a focus on this issue even when they are not in the spotlight.

3.Sexual harassment at work is far from a new problem, despite its current high profile apparently having caught employers flat-footed. The International Labour Organisation has been discussing adoption of a convention on violence and harassment at work since 2015, and a Universities UK Task Force looking at violence against women students and harassment was convened the same year. The Equal Opportunities Commission regularly reported on work to tackle workplace sexual harassment before its abolition in 2007. This inquiry is part of an ongoing programme of work for the Committee on sexual harassment. In our report on schools, published in September 2016, we found that sexual harassment of girls was being accepted as part of daily life in schools, and that schools and teachers needed better support and guidance to ensure that they were not failing their students in this way.1 In January 2018 we launched an inquiry on sexual harassment of women and girls in public places, that is, in the street, on public transport and in bars, clubs and venues; we expect to publish a report on that subject in Autumn 2018. In February 2018 we decided to launch this inquiry, on workplaces, as a way to harness the momentum of #MeToo to produce practical recommendations for change.

What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

4.The Equality Act 2010 is the most important law on sexual harassment in the workplace. The Act defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” which has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.2 A wide range of behaviour can come under this definition: sexual jokes or comments, remarks about someone’s body or appearance, displays of pornographic material, cat calls or wolf-whistling, flashing, sexual advances, groping, sexual assault, or rape. The common factors are the effect that the conduct has on the victim, and that it is unwanted. Some forms of workplace sexual harassment can constitute a criminal offence, for example under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (harassment and stalking), the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (sexual assault and voyeurism) or the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (‘revenge porn’). Whatever form it takes, sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful.

Box 1: An individual’s experience

“I have been asked directly for sex while at work by a superior. I have been shown a pornographic video and asked for oral sex while at work by a line manager. I have been stalked by a line manager. I have been verbally harassed by a pair of male colleagues whose comments were sexually explicit and concerning the rape of women and intended to cause intimidation and distress for their personal amusement while at work. These are some of the most serious experiences but casual chauvinism and comments about my appearance, sexual desirability, and conversations that are demeaning or intended to insult women alongside inappropriate physical contact and inappropriate gaze have been a commonplace throughout my working life.”

Individual’s story from submission by 38 Degrees3

5.Sexual harassment in the workplace is understood under multiple international agreements and laws as sex discrimination and a form of violence against women.4 The UK is committed to tackling sexual harassment—wherever it occurs—and the culture that enables it under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).5 Article 40 of the Istanbul Convention, which the UK plans to ratify, deals specifically with sexual harassment,6 and the UK has signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals which require the elimination of all forms of sexual and other violence against women by 2030.7

6.The Equality Act also places particular obligations on employers that are public bodies. Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, those organisations have a responsibility to have due regard to the need to eliminate sexual harassment. This applies not only to their employment functions, but also to how they carry out their functions whether as a service provider, policy-maker or in the use of their regulatory powers.8

How widespread is sexual harassment in the workplace?

7.The Government does not collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Data on employment tribunals does not allow cases involving allegations of sexual harassment to be easily identified, and would in any event only show the very tip of the iceberg as few cases get that far.9 The scale of the issue is masked within organisations by the fact that the majority of incidents are never reported to an employer.10

8.Surveys commissioned by media and other organisations, of which there was a spate following the emergence of #MeToo, therefore provide valuable insights into prevalence. The impression such surveys give of a widespread problem across many sectors is borne out by evidence we have received about, for example, the entertainment industry, teaching, journalism, hospitality, retail, healthcare, the music industry and the international charity sector. Throughout the world of work, in spite of the law, sexual harassment is an everyday, common occurrence.

9.Research by ComRes for the BBC in November 2017 (surveying 6,206 adults in Great Britain) found that 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men (29 per cent overall) had experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, including nine per cent in the preceding year. This ranged from displays of pornographic material and unwelcome jokes or comments of a sexual nature to serious sexual assaults.11 A ComRes poll for BBC Radio 5 Live in October 2017 (surveying 2,031 adults) found that 53 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men (37 per cent overall) said they had experienced sexual harassment at work or a place of study, and one in 10 of the women who had been harassed said they had been sexually assaulted.12 Surveys that ask about experience of ‘sexual harassment’, as opposed to specific unwanted behaviours, tend to show lower rates of incidence, perhaps because respondents may not categorise all those behaviours as harassment.13

10.Men can also be victims of sexual harassment (perpetrated by both women and men), and women can be perpetrators (against both men and women).14 We acknowledge a risk that portraying it as an issue that only affects women could discourage male victims from reporting complaints.15 However, women are significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment than men.16 Perpetrators are disproportionately men.17 Sexual harassment can be considered both a cause and consequence of sex inequality, and some of the evidence we received drew links between sexual harassment and other manifestations of gender inequality in the workplace such as the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.18

11.Specific groups are disproportionately affected or susceptible to sexual harassment at work, such as young women between the ages of 18 and 24, employees with a disability or long-term illness, and members of sexual minority groups.19 Workers with irregular, flexible or precarious employment contracts, common in the services sector, and freelancers are more likely to experience sexual harassment.20 Specific factors may affect different racial groups, and experience of sexual harassment can be bound up with racial harassment.21 TUC research found that no BME women who had reported an incident to their employer felt it had been dealt with satisfactorily, compared to seven per cent of white women.22

The impact of workplace sexual harassment

12.Sexual harassment can have a devastating impact on those who are subjected to it. Mental and physical health often suffer, leading to anxiety, poor sleep, depression, loss of appetite, headaches, exhaustion or nausea.23 Victims feel humiliation, mistrust, anger, fear and sadness.24 Women who have experienced harassment often take it on themselves to alter their own behaviour and habits or curtail their activities to avoid their harasser or similar situations, while observing that perpetrators suffer no negative consequences.

Box 2: The impact of workplace sexual harassment: individuals’ experiences

“I was absolutely humiliated, I felt deep shame and was treated horrifically by my own colleagues and employers. I was the only woman […] in my place of work and when it came to the crunch, the boys’ club rallied around for each other. Who was I supposed to go to for help? No-one cared and no-one listened. I was alone.”

“I am deeply traumatised by everything. I do not feel safe ever. […] I have to wear shoes I can run away in.”

Written evidence from members of the public25

“The impact isn’t mild: it makes women less inclined to speak up as it draws attention to themselves when they are already the unwilling recipient of attention. This denies their contribution to the organisation; it reduces the likelihood of performing well and so reducing their chance of career progression.”

“The impact is as with most forms of abuse of power: it can leave people feeling humiliated and scared, but also trapped.”

Individuals’ stories from submission by NGO Safe Space26

13.Although the legal and moral cases for preventing sexual harassment should be sufficiently compelling for employers, there is also a business case to be made: a poor organisational culture and failure to deal with sexual harassment allegations lead to employees being dissatisfied with work, having a low opinion of their managers, absenting themselves or wanting to leave.27 Unite the Union argues that sexual harassment “creates a work environment of fear and intimidation”.28 Allowing women to be treated in a demeaning way at work stifles their professional development and contribution.29

Our inquiry

14.We held seven oral evidence sessions specifically for this inquiry on the workplace. Our witnesses included employment lawyers, unions, researchers, employers and regulators. We were grateful throughout for the assistance of our specialist adviser, Clare Murray, a specialist employment and partnership lawyer.30 We received written evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals, including many submissions from members of the public who wanted to tell us about things that had happened to them at work, how their employers dealt with it, and how practices and systems could be improved. We are so grateful to all those who shared their views and experiences with us. We realise that in many cases it must have been distressing to re-live the events in question, and we appreciate that people have done so not only in the hope of being listened to at last, but out of a desire to see things change in the future.

15.The House of Commons is among the workplaces in which allegations of sexual harassment have been made, subject to renewed focus since the #MeToo movement began. Work is being done in other forums to investigate the scale of sexual harassment at Westminster, to put in place systems for handling reports and to look at how to address the underlying culture. We are not in a position to make comment on that work here, except to say that we all want to see our own workplace held to the highest of standards.

16.Our call to action is for the Government, regulators and employers. In this report we ask them to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, raise awareness, make enforcement and reporting processes work better, require regulators to take a more active role, clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment, and collect better data about the extent and nature of the problem.

1 Women and Equalities Committee, Third Report of Session 2016–17, Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, HC 91

2 Equality Act 2010, section 26

3 38 Degrees (SHW0025)

5 UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women

7 UN, Sustainable Development Goal 5, accessed 18 July 2018

8 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Technical Guidance on the Public Sector Equality Duty: England, accessed 12 July 2018

9 Letter from Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, relating to time limits for pregnancy and maternity discrimination claims, 6 July 2018

11 BBC – Sexual harassment in the work place 2017, survey by ComRes, November 2017

13 Q328. For example, Opinium research in August and September 2017 (2,000 online interviews with UK workers) found that 20 per cent of women and seven per cent of men (14 per cent overall) reported being a victim of sexual harassment.

14 Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol (SHW0089); NGO Safe Space (SHW0038); Q390; Paula McDonald, “Workplace Sexual Harassment 30 Years on: A Review of the Literature”, International Journal of Management Reviews 14(1) (2012), pp. 1–17

15 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (SHW0033)

17 TUC (SHW0031); Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol (SHW0089)

18 Rape Crisis England and Wales (SHW0045); Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol (SHW0089)

20 Rape Crisis England and Wales (SHW0045); Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) (SHW0016); BBC – Sexual harassment in the work place 2017, survey by ComRes, November 2017

21 Dr Sandra Fielden (SHW0068); TUC (SHW0031); Q331

22 TUC (SHW0031)

23 Victim Support (SHW0036); Dr Afroditi Pina (SHW0034)

24 Dr Afroditi Pina (SHW0034)

25 A member of the public (SHW0046); A member of the public (SHW0043)

26 NGO Safe Space (SHW0038)

27 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (SHW0033); Dr Afroditi Pina (SHW0034)

28 Unite the union (SHW0035)

29 A member of the public (SHW0015)

30 Clare Murray is Managing Partner at CM Murray LLP. She declared no interests.

Published: 25 July 2018