Stirling Smith blogs about the latest trade union research on sexual harassment in the workplace, how strong unions combat all forms of worker abuse and on the business case for stopping unwanted sexual advances, whether in the UK or globally.
Perhaps the first question to dispose of is: "why is a bloke writing about sexual harassment at work?"
Well, according to new TUC research conducted with the Everyday Sexism project, perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. Victims are overwhelmingly female.
So sexual harassment at work is, in a very important way, a problem about men. That’s why I’m writing about it.
The TUC findings are:
- 52% of all women polled have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
- 35% Thirty-five per cent of women have heard comments of a sexual nature being made about other women in the workplace.
- 32% Thirty-two per cent of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature.
- 28% of women have been subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.
- 25% of women have experienced unwanted touching
- 20% of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances.
Maths isn’t my strong point, but I reckon about 7.5 million women workers in the UK have experienced sexual harassment at work.
As the TUC points out, sexual harassment is closely linked to other problem in the workplace.
Women workers are more likely to be in precarious employment - short-term contracts for example.
They are more likely to be in junior positions and so vulnerable to harassment from their bosses.
They are also more likely to be on probation.
All these situations make women workers more likely to be harassed.
What can companies do?
In the UK, the single most effective thing that employers can do is to recognise a trade union and let them appoint equality representatives or reps.
You've probably heard of shop stewards - most likely uninformed garbage in the newspapers. They help union members with problems at work, and save employers a huge amount of money in doing so.
You might have heard of trade union safety representatives. It's obvious what they do. But what you might not know is that they save the economy at least £181 million a year.
But trade union equality reps? Union representatives concentrating on improving equality in the workplace? Aren't trade unions old-fashioned male-dominated relics of the Victorian age?
Studies (by independent academics, not trade unions) have shown that equal opportunities (EO) practices are more likely to have been adopted in unionised than non-union workplaces. Additionally, outcomes such as pay rates have been found to be more equitable in unionised workplaces than elsewhere.
Equality reps were an experiment launched eight years ago and unfortunately they do not have statutory backing. But many companies have agreed with their trade unions to set up the equality rep system in the workplace.
Sex abuse is a global problem
As my previous blogs pointed out, sexual abuse is a global issue.
And of course the ETI base code is very clear about this:
Physical abuse or discipline, the threat of physical abuse, sexual or other harassment and verbal abuse or other forms of intimidation shall be prohibited.
So what can ETI member companies and others do?
Our usual diagnostic tool - a social audit - is not much help here.
80% of women workers in the UK who are sexually harassed do not report the harassment. If women in the UK are too embarrassed to raise concerns, imagine a women garment worker in Bangladesh?
Suggestion boxes, hotlines and so on, just won't hack it.
Leadership means raising the issue, asking what your suppliers are doing about it, especially if there is a law, as there is in many countries. And it means not being put off by answers like "we can't discuss that, it's not possible in our culture."
The business case for tackling sexual harassment
If nothing else convinces you, or your business partners, think about this: not dealing with sexual harassment costs money.
I don’t mean the headline grabbing, six-figure compensation settlements for a city highflyer who has been harassed.
If workers feel demeaned at work, if they feel they can’t speak out, if they avoid certain areas in the workplace – there is a cost to that.
They are less effective, less productive workers.
A workplace where sexual harassment is tolerated, is a workplace where you will likely find a higher HIV infection rate. And that costs plenty.
So even if you think, as the TUC report puts it, that sexual harassment is “just a bit of banter”, or just a problem for women, then follow the money.
There’s a clear business case for demanding "zero tolerance" of sexual harassment.