Do you have a problem with raising the profile of anti-harassment work in your organisation? Well, you’re probably not alone. The prevalence of sexual harassment is hugely underestimated by both men and women, despite UN Women UK reporting that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed.
Given the overwhelming evidence and prominence of campaigns such as #MeToo, why is it that so many people seem to think harassment is no longer an issue in our workplaces?
In an eye-opening discussion, we sat down with Professor Louise Mullany, Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Nottingham, to discuss this topic and more. Louise is an award-winning researcher and specialist in gender and workplace equality issues. As a linguist, she looks at how people communicate in the workplace and what happens when things go wrong.
As always, Louise helps to break down some of the most complex and challenging topics affecting our societies today, into sage and practical advice for those looking to effect positive change.
Why don’t we take sexual harassment seriously?
In 2020 the Government Equalities Office published the largest investigation of its kind in recent times, revealing that close to 30% of employees have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Given that nearly one in three of us experience harassment at work, why is there such a problem with raising awareness of the pervasiveness of the problem? Louise explains that one of the reasons is due to a lack of understanding about what constitutes sexual harassment. Many people simply don’t realise that behaviours such as comments about someone's appearance can be considered sexual harassment.
Louise also highlights that harassment is often underreported by victims, in part due to a fear of repercussions for speaking out against it. Victims may worry that reporting harassment will lead to negative consequences, such as losing their job, being passed over for promotions, or experiencing further harassment from the perpetrator or their colleagues. In some cases, perpetrators may hold a position of power or influence within the company, which can make it even more difficult for the victim to come forward.
Louise: There’s a problem with awareness, but there's also an issue with reporting levels. Businesses need to ensure all employees have a mechanism to report harassment and also know that they’re going to be taken seriously if something happens. It’s all about creating the right workplace culture.
Do wider societal attitudes give rise to harassment in the workplace?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to such a multifaceted and complex question, but one of the main contributing factors is our tendency to downplay or normalise lower-level forms of harassment.
Louise outlines a helpful way to understand harassment through the concept of a pyramid of behaviours. At the base of the pyramid are the seemingly harmless behaviours that often go unchecked, such as making sexist jokes, commenting on someone's appearance, or engaging in unwanted flirting. These behaviours may seem minor in comparison to more serious cases of sexual assault, but they can create a toxic environment that makes it easier for more severe forms of harassment to occur.
Louise: A lot of the reasons why harassment isn't being called out is because, in many workplace cultures, employees still think that these kinds of behaviours are acceptable.
As the pyramid rises, the behaviours become increasingly harmful and more difficult to ignore. For example, touching someone without their consent, making sexual advances despite repeated rejections, and using explicit language to describe someone's body are all forms of harassment that can have serious consequences for the victim's mental and physical well-being.
At the top of the pyramid are the most extreme forms of harassment, including sexual assault and rape. While these behaviours are the most obviously egregious, they are often preceded and facilitated by a long history of lower-level harassment that goes unaddressed.
What can leaders do to prevent sexual harassment at work?
Unwanted advances, inappropriate comments, and assault affect employees at all levels within organisations. The severe human cost is easy for most people to comprehend, but the impact of toxic workplaces also means businesses are less productive and suffer higher levels of employee attrition too. Here are three things all businesses can do to prevent sexual harassment at work.
- Create and enforce a clear anti-harassment policy: Establish clear definitions of what constitutes harassment and make sure all employees are aware of the policy and understand the consequences of violating it. It's not uncommon for individuals to push back against efforts to curb inappropriate behaviour, claiming that it's just harmless banter or joking around.
- Provide training: Conduct regular training sessions to educate employees on what constitutes sexual harassment, how to identify it, and what to do when they witness it. To really move the dial on harassment, it is crucial to establish a workplace culture that prioritises inclusion and respect. Encourage and support employees to speak up if they witness any inappropriate behaviour and take appropriate action if necessary.
- Enable and encourage reporting: Create a culture where employees feel comfortable reporting incidents of sexual harassment. Ensure that employees are aware of the various reporting channels available to them and that they will not face retaliation for reporting harassment. It’s just as important to ensure all complaints of sexual harassment are investigated promptly and thoroughly too.
- Speak out: Educate and encourage employees to become active bystanders and call out harassment when they witness it. Build a culture in which all employees understand harassment, which doesn’t allow inappropriate behaviour to get dismissed as ‘banter’.
- Work together: Encourage employees to have open conversations about what's happening in the workplace. Having male champions and allies can also significantly create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and safe.
- Remember the pyramid: Inappropriate jokes, verbalising stereotypes or microaggressions may seem small, but they can act as a gateway to more severe forms of harassment. Ensure employees understand the impact of such smaller incidents by calling them out to help prevent more significant problems in the future.
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