Sexual harassment affects huge numbers of women workers, including on LU. We must organise to stop it.
What is sexual harassment?
In law it is “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.
This ranges from jokes about a person’s body to inappropriate touching to propositions for sex. Some people are unaware that their behaviour could be classed as sexual harassment; you might think, “it was only a joke” or, “I was just paying a compliment”. But just because you didn’t intend to sexually harass someone doesn’t mean that you didn’t. The “effect” on the recipient matters. It’s about how it feels on the receiving end (see image).
Is it just women who experience sexual harassment?
Harassment in the Workplace” report states that in Europe women are three times more likely than men to experience sexual harassment and that perpetrators are overwhelmingly male.
Sexual harassment is a product and a part of this sexist society in which women have not yet won equality at work, at home, in popular culture and almost every strand of life.
Is it just about men vs. women?
No, it’s also about power. Sexual harassment happens when power hierarchies in the workplace mix with the power imbalance between men men and women in society.
Men often have power over women at work. MPs and celebrities have recently been exposed for using their power and influence to act inappropriately to subordinates.
In our industry, managers and supervisors are often male. We also work in a male-dominated environment, which gives men a kind of “strength in numbers” and a power to use sexual harassment to make women feel very unwelcome in our workplaces.
If no-one’s talking about it, then we’ve not got a problem in our workplace, right?
Wrong! Sexual harassment is widespread but rarely reported and talked about.
According to the 2016 TUC report, 4 out of 5 women polled did not report sexual harassment to their employer and only 1% reported it to their union rep.
As you see from the picture, there are so many reasons not to talk about it. Sexual harassment is confusing, intimidating, isolating.
You feel you’re making a big deal out of nothing. If we look at where we work, how many of us can honestly say that they’ve never been witness to sexual banter?
Just because no one objected publicly doesn’t mean it was OK.
What do we do about it?
DON’T DO IT! You might think you know someone really well and that you have a relationship where “banter” is acceptable. But how can you know what that person is really feeling? If the person on the receiving end doesn’t object, they might be unwilling to be confrontational while feeling very uncomfortable at the same time.
Even if the individual you’re talking to feels OK, what kind of message does it send to other women who work with you if these kinds of comments are commonplace?
CAMPAIGN! Our unions need to campaign. Every workplace needs a poster with a clear message: sexual harassment is not welcome here! Serious campaigns from our unions could encourage us to challenge our ideas and shift workplace cultures in which sexual banter is seen as acceptable.
BELIEVE WOMEN! There is a stereotype of women making false allegations of sexual harassment to ruin men's reputations. This stereotype clouds judgement.
For every false allegation there are countless women suffering in silence for fear of not being believed. When an allegation is made, management and unions should proceed on the basis that the allegation is genuine.
Sexual harassment often occurs in a one-on-one setting, so it’s often “his word against hers”. A woman may not have witnesses or hard evidence but that doesn’t mean that she is lying!
SUPPORT WOMEN! Our unions need to support women who want to make complaints of sexual harassment.
This includes: providing a trained, impartial person to talk to in confidence; listening to the outcome that the complainant wants; arranging legal support. Tubeworker supporters are working on getting RMT to draw up best practice guidelines for supporting sexual harassment cases.
Sexual harassment is intimidating and isolating: unions need to be clear that you do not have to suffer it on your own.
Sexual harassment is rife amongst the cleaning grade.
The TUC survey found that women without permanent contracts were more likely to experience sexual harassment and that there was a correlation between harassment and casualisation with women on irregular or precarious contracts more susceptible.
Contracted-out, often agency cleaners are very vulnerable to sexual harassment from supervisors and managers who are often men. With insecure employment, women fear speaking up in case they lose their jobs.