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Four out of five people who experience sexual harassment at work don't report it

The Christmas party has long been identified as the most common off-site location of workplace sexual harassment, the survey said.

Image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster

FOUR OUT OF five workers experiencing sexual harassment at work do not report the incident to their employer, according to a new survey from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

81% of respondents did not report the unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer, while only one in four of the minority who did report such incidents felt it was taken seriously and dealt with satisfactorily.

Around one-third of respondents who did not report the incident to their employer feared that doing so would have a negative impact on their working relationships, while 27% feared it would have a negative impact on their career.

Two in five reported that they avoid certain work situations as a result of the unwanted sexual behaviour. Around 30% reported that they felt less confident at work, while 26% reported that the harassment had a negative impact on their mental health.

Christmas parties was the most common “off-site location” of workplace sexual harassment, the survey also found.

Commenting on the survey Congress General Secretary, Patricia King said “of all the alarming statistics thrown up by the polling, the fact that jumps out for me is the unacceptably high levels of under-reporting and dissatisfaction with their employer’s action among those who do report sexual harassment”.

The national opinion poll of 1,347 union members with experience of sexual harassment at work was conducted online between 1 and 14 November 2019. Around 72% of the responses were from women (971).

Sexual harassment is defined in the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 as any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

Christmas parties and online behaviour

Among the key findings are:

  • 2% of respondents reported being seriously sexually assaulted or rape at work
  • 23% reported receiving unwanted messages with material of a sexual nature by email, text or over social media from colleagues.
  • 17% have been exposed to pornographic images or drawings in the workplace
  • 15% reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them
  • 41% reported receiving unwelcome verbal sexual advances in the workplace
  • 37% have been subject to unwelcome comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.

The Congress survey found that in one in three workers (31%) reported that their direct manager or another manager was the perpetrator.

“We wanted a deeper understanding of workers’ experience of sexual harassment at work – the types of incidents experienced, the perpetrators and location, the barriers to reporting, and the impact sexual harassment has on the lives of those affected,” said Congress Social Policy Officer and lead researcher, Dr Laura Bambrick.

“For instance, the Christmas party has long been identified as the most common off-site location of workplace sexual harassment, and this is borne out in our survey,” she said.

Over half (55%) of sexual harassment incidents reported had taken place on work premises, while 20% took place at a work related social event such as a Christmas party.

However, the extent of unwanted sexual behaviour from colleagues taking place online also reported, points to a growing problem in the modern workplace.

One in five sexual harassment incidents reported had taken place at a work-related social event. One in seven had taken place on the phone, by email or online.

Not reporting complaints

Around 28% did not think they would be believed or taken seriously if they reported the incident, while a further 12% thought they would be blamed if they reported unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer.

10% did not report the incident because the perpetrator was part of the reporting process, and 20% didn’t know they could report or know how to report harassment.

“While the #MeToo movement has shed light on the hidden problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault at work and empowered women to speak out, the fear of a negative impact on their career or of not being believed or taken seriously were the most common reported reasons for not pursuing a complaint,” Dr Bambrick added.

“Trade unions and employers play an important role in preventing violence and harassment against women at work. Congress together with trade unions across Europe are calling for the ratification by member states of the ILO Convention 190 to address violence against women, including in the world of work” said Congress Equality Officer David Joyce.

King said: “The Employment Equality Acts places an onus on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers must act urgently and proactively to tackle this problem – raise awareness that such behaviour is unacceptable and may be subject to discipline, implement a comprehensive policy, set up proper, timely procedures for reporting, support the victims and deal with the perpetrators.

“There needs to be real consequences for those employers who don’t comply with their obligations. Everyone has the right to respect and wellbeing at work.”

Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November, Congress surveyed more than 1,300 union members with experience of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. The survey focuses exclusively on people’s experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, rather than measuring the scale of the problem.

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