Labour Research March 2014


Tackling sexual harassment

With the issue of sexual harassment scarcely out of the headlines in recent months, Labour Research asks unions whether it is still a significant problem for women workers and, if so, what employers are doing about it.

Over recent months, sexual harassment and sexual assault have commanded considerable media attention as a number of celebrities have appeared in court to face historic allegations of indecent and sexual assault in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

In addition, the suspension from the Liberal Democrat party of the party’s former chief executive, Chris Rennard, has also helped ensure that the issue of sexual harassment has been kept firmly in the spotlight.

An internal party investigation found that, while allegations against Rennard by four women party workers could not be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”, he had caused them distress and should apologise — which he refused to do.

Recent research shows extent of sexual harassment

Despite legislation outlawing sex discrimination at work being on the statute books for nearly 40 years, recent survey findings have confirmed that it is, as TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady put it, “still very much a fact of working life for millions of women in all kinds of workplaces — from the shop floor to the boardroom”.

She was commenting on survey findings published in October by employment law firm Slater & Gordon.

In its survey of over 1,000 working women, six in 10 reported that a male colleague had behaved “inappropriately” towards them and that women were still subjected to sexist attitudes, “with the old clichés of men slipping a hand up their skirt or patting them on the bum still a regular occurrence for some women”.

The survey found: 60% of women reporting that they’d been forced to fend off a colleague who had tried to kiss them; 30% said a senior male colleague had made inappropriate comments about their breasts, bottom, sex life or their clothes; nearly a quarter had experienced a senior colleague making a pass at them; and 12% had a colleague place his hand on her behind.

In December 2013, interim results from “the biggest ever survey of women and work in the UK” by the Business in the Community gender equality campaign Opportunity Now, Project 28-40, found that more than one in 10 women had experienced sexual harassment over the last three years.

And in January 2014, the FEU Federation of Entertainment Unions’ (BECTU, Equity, the Musicians’ Union, the NUJ and the Writers’ Guild) published Creating without conflict, which examined bullying, harassment and discrimination in the entertainment and media industries.

The FEU unions say that while harassment and bullying blight many workplaces, they believe they are particularly rife in the creative industries. On average, 56% of respondents had been bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work and it said that women were more vulnerable than men, with 64% compared to 49% of men experiencing ill-treatment.

More than a third (34%) of women who identified gender or sexuality as a factor in their ill-treatment and disclosed the details, reported experiences of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment took a variety of forms. Among these were pressure to enter a sexual relationship by a person in a position of power; physical molestation; and lewd gestures, comments and unwanted advances.

“Often the intimate working environments of the entertainment and media industries provided opportunities for abuse to take place,” the survey found.

Labour Research survey

According to a Labour Research “snapshot” survey of the 20 largest TUC-affiliated unions, the creative industries are not the only ones with a problem. Several unions reported that employers were often failing to tackle the issue and that, in some cases, women who were sexually harassed by male colleagues were treated as the problem and even forced out of their jobs.


A number of unions, including the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the rail union RMT reported that sexual harassment was a problem for women working in male-dominated areas of the workforce. Women make up only around 3% of UK firefighters, and a 2008 Department for Communities and Local Government survey painted what FBU equality officer John McGhee describes as a “really pretty damning picture of the fire service in terms of what women were experiencing” in relation to sexual harassment.

Following the research, the then Labour government drew up an equality and diversity strategy, aiming to put in place measures to not only recruit, but also retain women firefighters. This was, however, scrapped by the incoming coalition government.

As a result, fire services are no longer required to carry out any monitoring. But McGhee says there is anecdotal evidence that the problem is on the increase.

“It appears to be on the rise in the fire service over the last 12 months, but the problem has been kicked into the long grass and, apart from the union, no one is monitoring the problem anymore,” FBU national women’s committee secretary Kerry Baigent told Labour Research. In addition, she said, the employer’s response has often been totally inadequate, even in cases involving sexual assault.

“I recently represented a woman who was sexually assaulted at work and the employer’s response was to pay her off instead of dealing with the perpetrator. Even though he admitted that he had assaulted her and the service knew about it, she was made to feel that it was her fault,” she said.

“She was in such a bad place that she just wanted to leave and accept a pay-off rather than taking the case to an employment tribunal, which she would have won.” Baigent thinks that the problem is the same in many other male-dominated industries. She said that when she heard a woman union rep from the UCATT construction workers’ union talk about the problem in construction at a TUC women’s conference, “she was describing an almost identical situation. You are on your own with no other women working alongside you.”


The RMT is carrying out a survey of sexual assault at work in the male-dominated rail industry, prompted by the experience of a delegate on its women’s committee who reported that a member of the public had tried to kiss and hug her at work. When she reported it to her employer and the police (as the EHRC advises — see box) her complaint was totally dismissed.

“Anecdotally, there is no doubt that sexual harassment takes place, but women are afraid to come forward, they want to fit in, they fear they will lose their job or they think that they have to take banter in a man’s industry,” RMT equal opportunities officer Jessica Webb told Labour Research.


But it’s not only male-dominated areas of the workforce where incidents of sexual harassment are going unchecked or are dealt with poorly by employers, unions say. Based on reports from reps, civil service union PCS provided details of several cases where women were sexually harassed but little was done to deal with the perpetrator.

In one example, a member of staff was stalked by a male colleague. This only came to light when he emailed another colleague telling of his plans to rape her. Incredibly, she was moved to another office while he continued at work.

In another case, a female worker was separated from her harasser who was moved to another floor. However, she then went off work with severe stress and was eventually awarded ill-health retirement after the aggressor was moved back on to her floor — where he continued to harass her — to accommodate a more senior officer’s request for a desk near to a window.

In a third case, a number of senior male members of staff attended an annual male-only Christmas lunch where they “rated” their female colleagues, picking three who they found most attractive or would most like to have sex with. When a woman worker complained, several women were interviewed and “veiled threats” made to them about making “spurious” comments. None of the men involved were interviewed and no further action was taken.

The PCS told Labour Research: “This shows how complex sexual harassment can be, how inextricably linked it is to bullying and how difficult that can make it to speak out.”


Shopworkers’ union Usdaw equality officer Ruth Cross said that her union has found it difficult to turn anecdotal information into hard evidence. “It’s rarely mentioned in formal networks, but when women get together and it’s raised, nearly everyone has a story to tell, most often about comments from customers and colleagues”, she said.

“We think there is an issue in workplaces where women are in the minority and where there may well be a level of unacceptable banter which is tolerated by management and so women don’t feel empowered to complain.”

And Cross said that there may also be a particular issue on night shifts, and that age-restricted sales such as alcohol can be a flashpoint, with women experiencing sexist, gender-specific harassment.


Just over a quarter of police officers (27%) are women and the UNISON public services union is planning research on sexual harassment in the union’s police service group following a recent report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the abuse of police powers to perpetrate sexual violence.

The report focused on the issue in relation to the police and public, but the union wants to investigate the extent of harassment within the force.

Third party harassment

A number of unions pointed to the issue of third party harassment by, for example, customers or students and parents (including online abuse). They also condemn the government’s recent scrapping of protection against third party harassment contained in the Equality Act 2010.

The NUJ has been very active in this area, particularly in relation to online harassment such as that levelled against the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and journalist and NUJ member Angela Haggerty.

Criado-Perez received a torrent of abuse on Twitter after her campaign to have a woman represented on a bank note led to Jane Austen being chosen for the £10 note. And Haggerty received online threats from a sectarian Rangers FC podcaster and his followers. The NUJ says that both these cases show that the criminal justice system can be used to confront those who use Twitter and online comment pages to target women journalists with vile sexual threats — in both cases the perpetrators received prison sentences.

It has also produced a set of guidelines on how to deal with online harassment and is pressing newspapers and other media organisations to make sure their online content is properly monitored and any offensive abuse taken down immediately.

The college and university lecturers’ UCU union says that its women members have received comments relating to their anatomy and requests for “sexier lecturers” in student surveys and evaluations, with similar comments appearing on the website.

Last year, the school teachers’ NASUWT union undertook an online survey on the abuse of social media and the internet.

Over 65% of responses came from female teachers with responses showing that a majority of teachers have experienced abuse, harassment and even death threats from pupils and parents — largely sexist and racist abuse.

The union is campaigning against cyberbullying and has produced guidelines for its members, including advice for newly-qualified teachers on the uses and abuses of technology.

Labour Research asked unions for examples of good employer practice on zero tolerance to sexual harassment, but these appear to be few and far between.

And they reported that even where zero tolerance policies on sexual harassment may be in place, this does not translate into practice on the shop floor. “The policy is just a policy and not the practice,” said PCS national equality co-ordinator Mary Doolin.

Finally, GMB equality and diversity officer Kamaljeet Jandu made an important point about the union response to the issue. “Men also have an important role in challenging sexual harassment and supporting their women colleagues in order to bring about change,” he emphasised. It is not just an issue for women.”

The law and sexual harassment

Sex discrimination at work was outlawed as long ago as 1975 by the Sex Discrimination Act.

The Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005 extended the sex discrimination rules to cover sexual harassment. It is currently prohibited under the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that there are two types of sexual harassment. The first is unwanted conduct on the grounds of gender, where the treatment is because you are a woman (or a man).

The conduct does not have to be of a sexual nature for this form of harassment.

But it must be done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

The second form is unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature and could include comments about the way you look which you find demeaning; indecent remarks; questions about your sex life; and sexual demands by a member of your own or the opposite sex.

The EHRC advises that incidents involving touching and other physical threats are criminal offences and should also be reported to the police. Again, the conduct must be done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

The equality watchdog further advises that you will also have a claim for harassment “if your employer treats you less favourably because you have rejected, or submitted to, either form of harassment described above”.