Two-Thirds of Young Women Are Sexually Harassed at Work

A study of 1,500 women found that two-thirds of women aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed in the workplace. The authors of the report explain what needs to be done.

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Aug 10 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Aila Images via Stocksy

"One story that really stands out to me," says feminist campaigner Laura Bates, "is that of a 19-year-old woman, Sophie*, who was at her work Christmas party. She was standing in a circle of colleagues and a senior manager reached out and grabbed her breasts. Everyone burst out laughing and treated it as a kind of festive joke."

Bates is the 29-year-old founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a website which catalogues instances of sexism experienced on a day-to-day basis using anonymous submissions from women. Since its launch, tens of thousands of women have reported the sleazes and douchebags of this world, whether it's the woman "shaking with adrenaline" as she confronts a catcalling creep on a train platform or the cleaner on a construction site literally hiding in a storage cupboard to escape workplace harassment.

Now the scale of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination in the UK has been laid bare for the first time. A new report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in association with the Everyday Sexism Project, finds that sexual harassment is endemic for women in workplaces across the country.

The survey of 1500 women found that 52 percent had experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment. Disturbingly, young women were overwhelmingly more likely to experience sexual harassment. Nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed aged between 18 and 24 said they'd experienced sexual harassment at work.

"Often younger women might be on zero hours contracts, or new in the workplace and not have the confidence to ask for help," explains TUC spokesperson Huma Munshi. "Younger workers are really at risk, so we'd encourage them to join a trade union so we can fight sexual harassment on their behalf."

Read more: Would On-The-Spot Fines Stop Catcalling for Good?

"The thing about the younger women issue," says Bates, "is that it really displays the power imbalance inherent in these situations. Often people dismiss it as office romances or harmless flirting, but that's not what it is. These are vulnerable people, often in their first jobs, being taken advantage of by men who are often much older than them, and in a position of power and control over their career."

The report emphasizes that workplace sexual harassment doesn't have to involve your boss slapping your ass in the copy room or making a pass at you by the water cooler. Young women were more likely to be sexually harassed online by their coworkers, by email, or even over the phone en route to and from work—something to consider when the creeper in IT accidentally sends you a link to a porn site as a joke.

Young women were more likely to be sexually harassed online by their colleagues. Photo by Lior + Lone via Stocksy

"One of the things we hear a lot is that people think they have license to behave in a completely different way outside of the office or workplace context," Bates emphasizes. "if you're an office party and someone's inappropriate to you, that's just as unacceptable as if someone said that to you at your desk."

While British law is relatively strong when it comes to sexual harassment, increasing employment tribunal fees(it now costs over $1,300 to bring a claim against your employers, well beyond many women's resources) means that many are being priced out of justice.

Read more: Sexual Harassment in Waitressing Is Much Uglier Than You Think

And with trade union membership rates down more than half since the 1980s, fewer women are part of an organization that fight harassment on their behalf. "It's important for people to be aware that unions can provide support in these situations," Mushi says, explaining why unions can be vital. "There can be a real strength in speaking out together."

The solution to Britain's endemic problem of workplace sexual harassment? "We're calling on employers to introduce better training and reporting procedures and policies for workplace harassment, so that victims don't have to report to the perpetrators if they happen to be their line manager," says Bates.

"We want to ensure there are no negative repercussions if women report sexual harassment, particularly if it's harassment from their clients or customers," she adds. The report also emphasizes that while the overall amount of black and ethnic minority women reporting harassment is the same as the average (52 percent), they are more likely to experience harassment that relates to their ethnicity.

Without more victim-centered reporting processes, more women will have to experience Sophie's humiliation and distress after being groped by her work colleague. "It was the reaction that hurt her more than the original assault," Bates says, "because it made her feel like there was no point in reporting it. No-one would take it seriously."

* Name has been changed