Sexual harassment– not in your workplace? 

The allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein started a series of high profile exposures of sexual harassment that appear to affect many workplaces and industries across the world. The revelations and the subsequent #Me Too campaign, are seeing women and organisations speaking up about sexual harassment in alarming numbers.


There is nothing new to allegations of sexual harassment linked to power and work, from Donald Trump to Michael Fallon the accusations go back many years and the prevailing view seems to be that it was so much worse in previous decades.  What has changed is the appetite for speaking out, powerfully, about this type of behaviour.  If you accept starting with the extraordinary revelations at Miramax, it wasn’t long before worldwide organisations such as Oxfam and, of course, our own seat of democracy in the House of Commons saw equally disturbing scandals.  For each sector that sees a high-profile organisation facing accusations about its culture, it doesn’t appear long before we get to #us too.  Harvey Weinstein and Miramax was swiftly followed by a spike in accusations at the BBC; hard on the heels of Oxfam in the charity sector came Save the Children and Brendan Cox and in politics the House of Commons scandal has been swiftly followed by the same apparent circumstances in the Labour Party.

But these are very high profile national and international organisations and in many cases household or newsworthy names.   Not only have the Harvey Weinstein/Westminster allegations put a deeply unpleasant and uncomfortable issue onto the front pages and into the spotlight, but these revelations have also highlighted widespread concern and confusion around the issue.

A report conducted jointly by the TUC and Everyday Sexism in 2016 found that of 1,553 women polled, 52% had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work including groping and inappropriate jokes.  Nearly a quarter had been touched without invitation and a fifth of those polled had experienced a sexual advance.  In the 16-24 age bracket, this proportion rose to 63% of women and girls reporting sexual harassment.

YouGov conducted research on this issue in late September 2017 before the Weinstein story broke  and reported similar findings; there is a very worrying  consistency to all this..

Equally troubling is that most women do not speak out about sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour.  Only 1 in 5 report it and, according to the TUC, their outcomes are poor. Of those who did report it, 80% found that nothing changed and 16% said their situation worsened afterwards.  Does this indicate working cultures where such behaviour is not recognised, is the norm, or ingrained and never challenged.   The lesson from Oxfam seems to be that leaders did spot something was not right, did deal with some staff but failed to grasp just how damaging and wrong the behaviour they unearthed was.

So, are things set to change with the #Me Too and subsequent “Time’s Up” campaigns?

According to the Guardian (28 Oct 2017), a global community of female solidarity took place on-line in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Twitter reported that the hashtag was shared nearly a million times in 48 hours and on Facebook, comments and reactions totalled more than 12 million in 24 hours. The Guardian reported that this campaign took off because it was “real”, drawing attention to sexual harassment at every level.  And of course we would expect female solidarity in the face of overwhelming evidence of their victimisation at the hands of what we still hope is a minority of men.  But where is the male solidarity we need to call out, deal with and expose the behaviour that is having a devastating effect in so many organisations

The fundamental question now is, so what?   How does this issue move from speaking out  to action that will fundamentally change the culture and prevent it from continuing to happen and what are the actions needed to ensure our workplaces are inclusive and devoid of  unacceptable behaviour.

Back to  Westminster where a cross party report established that one in five people working there had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the past year. The Leader of the House of Commons has initiated urgent reform to crack down on sexual harassment and bullying.  There is a new code of conduct and a new complaints process. It remains to be seen whether this will be the “game-changer” for parliament that it has been billed to be, or a well-meaning but ultimately bureaucratic-based approach to a people-based issue.  We do know that codes of conduct will be knowingly and wilfully ignored by people who want to behave badly and the more the codes are enacted the greater the efforts of individuals to cover up their non-compliant behaviour.

The Equality Act 2010 is clear on “unwanted conduct, including that 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 for them.”

This definition includes but is not limited to indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted sexual comments, unwanted touching, hugging or kissing, innuendos and offensive gestures, wolf whistling, catcalling, and in the electronic domain, the circulation of offensive material, for example.  Of course the reality is that how people behave towards each other is driven more by social norms, culture and personality than a desire to abide by a government act.

With plenty more to come on this and with many organisations and leadership teams likely to have to deal with issues that they genuinely did not know about in their culture, workplace or workforce, now is a good time for serious reflection and independent analysis of actions that should be taken.   Time will tell too, if, with the scale and magnitude of all the allegations, a cultural shift can really be brought about.  What is clear at this point is that important first steps have been made to open this topic up to debate and to hear the voices of those affected, marking a decisive turning point in the way individuals and companies think about sexual harassment- and other forms. There is also recognition that responsibility for creating and maintaining an inclusive work-place that is positive, supportive and safe is a shared responsibility, and not the task of one individual or organisation.

For more information on how you can make your work-place an inclusive environment please contact us.

The Garnett Foundation 2018