The Equality Act 2010 (Parliament, 2010) defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which creates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment and violates a person’s dignity.
There is currently little information about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace in the UK despite legislation outlawing this behaviour. Evidence from the Women and Equalities Select Committee (Women and Equalities Committee, 2018) suggests chronic under-reporting by employees and frequent dismissal of such incidents by employers. Research by ComRES suggests that around 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, ranging from unwelcome jokes or comments of a sexual nature to serious sexual assault.
#MeToo emerges as an important touch point for victims of sexual harassment. The narratives shared have also highlighted the experiences of nursing staff who report sexual harassment by patients, their families and friends. This includes sexual innuendo, inappropriate touching and propositioning staff. When reporting these incidents, some staff meet with responses that appear to normalise and trivialise both the behaviour and its potentially damaging impact on the health and wellbeing of victims.
Men can also experience sexual harassment and women can be perpetrators too. However it is recognised that women are more likely to be the target of sexual harassment in the workplace. There are also specific vulnerabilities for those who are younger, belong to sexual minority groups as well as those with insecure employment contracts.
The Equality and Human Right’s Commission report Turning the Tables: Ending sexual harassment at work, (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018) suggests that employers are failing to protect their staff from sexual harassment in the workplace and that many people are being ‘silenced by toxic workplace cultures and very real fears about victimisation, and employers’ responses are inconsistent and, in many cases, risk being ineffective.’
The report argues that few employers have specific actions to specifically address sexual harassment, despite the presence of generic anti-bullying and harassment policies.
In 2018, the RCN reaffirmed its approach to tackling sexual harassment with a statement about its zero-tolerance approach. During December 2018, the government announced a series of measures designed to tackle sexual harassment which includes consultations on legal protections and the use of non-disclosure agreements.
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Submitted by the RCN Outer North West London Branch
Page last updated - 21/10/2019