‘Just take it as a compliment’ – Seriously?

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Equality Act 2010 (Sexual Harassment): “Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose of, or effect of violating someones dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”

Again and again women are thrown into difficult, uncomfortable and compromising situations at work, and in their everyday lives.

After being groped and told “Oh, the things I would do to you” by a customer at my retail job, apparently, the most appropriate resolution was to “just take it as a compliment”, a moment that will always disappoint me deeply, knowing that this is a common response to these repulsive and unacceptable situations.

Enduring moments like this happen too often, and it was clear to me that the system was broken and needed attention desperately.

The definition of sexual harassment is not always clear to many, or perhaps it is very clear, but instead, they refuse to recognise their personal wrong actions, or employers and colleagues just refuse to identify it as anything other than “banter”.

Or, perhaps they choose to regard verbal abuse as less serious therefore it does not require serious consequences.

Wrong.

I believe we are all aware that this is where the issue lies.

A major problem surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace is that employers may be tempted to ignore or, in other words, “brush under the carpet” any issues involving staff, as it is often hard to produce evidence for many of these incidents.

When starting a new job we are required to read through pages and pages of paperwork, explaining our rights and regulations that we need to be made aware of before starting work. Naturally, there is a section explaining sexual harassment, and ironically it is explained just as we have done above.

So, this begs the question: ‘Where does it all go wrong?’ If everybody is aware of the rules and regulations, then why are so many of these incidents going un-resolved and the situation is getting worse? The only way in which we can prevent these incidents is by making the consequences severe and concrete.

Studies have also shown that victims tend to refrain from reporting any forms of harassment, with the fear of it getting worse, losing their job, or attracting more unwanted attention – especially when the incident itself involves a senior manager or staff member with a higher authority position.

According to TUC & the Everyday Sexism Project, 52 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, while only one in five reported these incidents.

At least 32 per cent of those women received unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature, 23 per cent experienced unwanted touching on their knees or back, and 28 per cent experienced comments about their body or clothes at work.

Unfortunately, positions of power are too often abused, and while the legal requirements for these particular types of situations are clearly displayed and outlined in workplace policies, the outcome is rarely ever positive.

Some of these disturbing incidents are often at the hands of senior members of the company, which causes fear of reporting, and causes women to feel like they must endure this behaviour.

If you experience any forms of harassment from colleagues, managers and even senior managers, you are entitled to report and confide in your human resources mentor, or speak to trade unionists, who can support you and try to resolve your issues.

Survey carried out by TUC & The Everyday Sexism Project

Although these options are open to staff, something is clearly failing in our systems, as these incidents continue to go unsolved.

According to the survey, 80 per cent of the women reporting these incidents feel like nothing ever changes, and 16 per cent said that it ends up getting worse, which clearly illustrates the shocking reaction to sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it is not dealt with effectively.

So where do we go? Who can we speak to for definite results? How can this end?

The issue for many is that they are made to feel like “small incidents” are not as serious and do not deserve the time and effort of an investigation. They are seen as “just banter”.

We also can’t deny that there are situations where these issues are dealt with appropriately and respectfully. But, too often this is not the case as studies like the TUC’s have shown us this repeatedly.

Although there are many ways in which staff members are able to report incidents, this is not happening enough. Allowing the abusers to feel like they have won, and that they can get away with this tragic behaviour again and again.

The CIPD, a professional association for human resource management professionals states: “If a manager is the alleged source of the problem, employees need to feel they can turn to someone else in the business if they have been the victim of harassment or discrimination.

“HR has a vital role to play here, ensuring that all complaints are taken seriously and investigated in line with the law and the organisation’s procedures. Fairness should underpin the process, and the organisation’s procedures should protect both the individual raising the issue and the individual against whom an allegation has been made.”

This can be problematic for those working zero-hour contracts, as the authority within their jobs is limited. Zero-hour contract workers are much more likely to be sexually harassed whilst at work than those with an agreed hourly rate contract.

Fizzy Noor, 21-year-old politics student told Artefact of her experience with sexual harassment at her catering job, and she began by defining sexual harassment for us in her own terms as “unwanted sexual attention that makes you feel intimidated or humiliated, violates your dignity and creates a sour environment.”

Fizzy explains that during her time working zero-hour contract events she has received unwanted attention from her colleagues, members of the public, and even managers and team-leaders.

“While working in pairs, a co-worker seven years my senior spent our entire eight hour shift telling me how his parents were pressuring him to find a wife, and how I’d make the perfect wife.”

Often, the “level” of the offence can determine whether employers take the situation seriously or not, which of course is causing this downward spiral of constant abuse. This incident did not result in any physical contact, although it did make Fizzy feel uncomfortable, which comes under the official definition of sexual harassment.

Women's march in Washington

Women’s march on Washington [Flickr:Molly Adams]

“At the end of that same shift, a different co-worker got on the same train as me, tried to convince me to give him my number, and when I firmly refused, he got up, forcefully kissed me on the mouth, and then ran off the train before I could do anything.”

The unfortunate reality is that the miseducation around this topical issue and the reaction that victims receive from others is what leads individuals to question whether it has ever actually happened to them.

Only after fully grasping the idea of sexual harassment and its extents Fizzy understood how many situations she has actually encountered in her life. Not only recalling her own incidents, but those of others she grew up with.

“I’ve looked back on so many instances of harassment in my past. I’ve only just realised, years later, how awful it truly was. The worst being harassment at school. I remember one particular girl used to be terrorised by the boys, who would chase her into corners and hump her while she half laughed along and half tried to fight them off. At 14 years-old everyone thought it was just banter and I’m sure this is why she felt she had to laugh.”

Sadly, these situations happen far too often. As a result of the stigma around sexual harassment, individuals may not even realise it is happening to them, as it may be portrayed as a “joke”, although it is clearly far from it.

This particular incident illustrates a humiliating environment for a young girl, and sadly this type of behaviour continues into every aspect of a woman’s life, where we are forced to play along with a “bit of banter.”

Fizzy explains that when she was younger she felt even more vulnerable in situations of abuse at work, as she did not want to lose her job and answer back to her managers.

“When I was still in sixth-form, around 17 years-old, I was working at Notting Hill Carnival. My 34 year-old manager began chatting to me throughout the day, his comments progressed from seemingly harmless compliments, to gradually being more sexual in nature. Finally, he told me he would cheat on his wife with me. I laughed the comments off as I was young and scared of losing my job.”

In too many cases, individuals are made to feel uncomfortable through seemingly harmless comments. Something that may seem like a simple compliment to another colleague, may seem inappropriate and unnecessary to others.

In many instances, we are forced to question and consider whether we are over-reacting and whether our feelings of discomfort and humiliation are in fact valid. Your feelings are valid. That moment where you want to be swallowed up by the world, or you just want to fast-forward and exit the situation is valid.

The Guardian recently reported “MPs launch inquiry to consider tougher laws on sexual harassment” as statistics and case studies continuously prove that the current system is broken and investigations into sexual harassment cases are not carried out effectively with an appropriate outcome.

Protest for International Women's Day

Protest for International Women’s Day [Flickr:Molly Adams]

More recently, the #MeToo movement has also illustrated the desperate need for reform in the laws regarding sexual harassment and harassment of any form. After the Harvey Weinstein allegations shone a light on the state of abuse in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, gained massive attention on social media and has been tweeted over 12 million times so far.

As the hashtag grew, people became aware of its origins and the work that was behind this movement. Using the hashtag, users shared their stories of sexual harassment in an attempt to prove how common and on-going this problem still is.

Thousands of women spill onto our streets every year protesting for their rights and equality. International women’s day, the women’s march in 2017, and again in January 2018, have sparked conversation over and over again

Companies, businesses and organisations are required to take immediate action when sexual harassment claims are made, although many of the statistics have shown that this does not happen often enough.

The CIPD states: “Organisations should treat any form of alleged harassment seriously, not just because of the legal implications and because it can lead to under-performance, but also because people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work.

“Any evidence of discriminatory behaviour or harassment among staff, whatever their gender, needs to be investigated and acted on swiftly and a clear message sent out that it will not be tolerated. Harassment can come in many different forms and is not necessarily overt – but even banter, jokes or unwanted attention based on gender difference can be harassment.”

Although the current law on sexual harassment is under scrutiny, action needs to be taken when any incident is reported in any work environment in order to appropriately deal with abusers, and support those who are victims to this behaviour.

All offences should be dealt with efficiency and seriousness, in order to make people feel comfortable enough to report incidents in the future, rather than feeling like they have to “put up with it” because “nothing will change”.

 

 


Featured Image by Devon Buchanan via Flickr CC

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