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New Stats Reveal Sexual Harassment At Work In The UK Is Rampant

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Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Lucy* was just trying to do her job at the advertising company she worked for when her MD told her, in front of their client, that "Good client servicing, Lucy, would be holding his penis while he takes a piss." The client then spent the rest of the day trying to touch her and telling her what he’d like to do to her in bed.

Chloe* faced similar harassment when she was asked by the local area manager of the high street restaurant chain she worked at: “What’s your blowjob technique like?”
And one summer, while working in a bar where the owner’s son “thought it was his right to sleep with all the waitresses,” Ellie* was faced with him “keeping on at me [about having sex], despite me saying ‘f*** off’." One day he accosted her on the stairs indecently exposing himself.

What these women told me – as anonymous case studies – is a worrying indicator of how women can be and are still treated in the workplace. While the gender pay gap is slowly closing to the point it’s reversed amongst those aged 22-29, the price some young women have to pay in return for their time and effort at work comes in myriad forms of sexual harassment.

According to new research released today, two-thirds of young women face sexual harassment – ranging from jokes to unwanted sexual touching or advances – at their place of work. In the first ever study of its kind, the “Still just a bit of banter?” investigation conducted by the workers’ union, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in association with feminist activist Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project, found that 63% of young women between the ages of 18 and 24 had experienced sexual harassment compared to 52% of women of all ages.

The study, conducted across 1500 participants from the UK, also found that BME women are more likely to face a combination of racial and sexual harassment and that those on zero-hours contracts, doing precarious work or agency or hospitality work, are far more likely to be the object of sexual harassment in the workplace than those in steadier work.

These results are quite something when you consider that sexual harassment law in the workplace, introduced in 1975 via the Sex Discrimination Act, was meant to make things better for younger generations of women entering the world of work.

The problem is clear, as many of the Tweets received on Everyday Sexism’s #standingup hashtag for documenting experiences of workplace harassment could attest. “A senior manager that has no female staff because he ‘has just never found a woman that is good enough’” is the statement one woman shared. Another woman “was called a prude for objecting to Porn Fridays where female colleagues' faces were photoshopped onto porn pics.”

It’s not just that the incidents happen, it’s that they continue to happen and help contribute to a culture where women and their work are not taken as seriously as men and their work. One woman explained in the report that she complained to HR “about a sexist and flirty CEO" and was "told to put up with it as [she is] ‘young and pretty and they’re men, what do you expect?’”

Something has to change, and it cannot be that women have to “toughen up” in order to deflect their male colleagues’ (it is, 9 out of 10 times, according to the data, a male perpetrator of workplace harassment) jokes, pokes or advances.

So how do we put a stop to it? Laura Bates tells Refinery29 she wants this “rampant problem” to be tackled at all levels. First, “The government must scrap tribunal fees, which have proved a clear barrier to justice for thousands of women, and reinstitute measures that would make it an employer's duty to protect workers from sexual harassment perpetrated by clients and customers. We also want all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract, to be given rights and protection at work.”

What can employers do? “They must institute comprehensive training and implement clear, victim-centred reporting procedures that don't require a victim to report directly to the perpetrator and protect those who come forward from negative treatment as a result.” And as for us, the cogs in the working world’s machinery? “Many of the women who share their stories with us make it clear that they feel trapped by a culture of complicity,” says Laura. “They don't feel able to speak out because of a sense of normalisation.”

Normalisation is an important word because, shockingly, 47% of those who reported experiencing sexual harassment said they did nothing after the incident(s) – this includes confiding in a family member or a friend outside of work. But it doesn’t have to be like this: “Everybody can play a part in challenging the social acceptability of this kind of behaviour by reacting when it happens, reporting it, and supporting victims in the workplace. Nobody should shrug this off as 'just a bit of banter’”, says Laura.

Feminism is a belief in the social, economic and sexual equality of the sexes, but as long as workplace sexual harassment continues to be meted out, all three of those goals will fail.

Young women have the capacity to do better than ever before at work, and some people can’t handle that. If we use the routes we have on offer to call out sexism, and continue to engage our male friends in meaningful conversations about the negative affects of unnecessary jokes, prodding and unwanted touching, the bastards won’t grind us down for much longer.

*Names have been changed
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