Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

We all know what sexual harassment is… don’t we?

The #MeToo movement got a lot of us thinking. One of the hair-raising topics is the uncertainty around sexual harassment: what exactly counts as sexual harassment?

Society at large suggests a clear divide between sexual violence and wanted, sexual interactions.

In reality, there’s a lot in between those two poles, sometimes referred to the ‘grey area’.

Sexual harassment is not always physical or forceful. It may lie in this ‘grey area’.

This does not mean it’s less harmful. It is still entirely unacceptable and should be stopped.

So, technically, what is it?

Sexual harassment is sexual behaviour that is unwanted, inappropriate, offensive or intimidating.

It can make you feel small, afraid or humiliated.

This can consist of:

  • comments or jokes of a sexual nature
  • emails or messages containing sexual content
  • sexual assault: physical behaviour such as unwanted touching
  • showing photos or pictures with sexual content
  • comments on your body or your clothes
  • questions about your sex life
Why does it sound simple, yet feel so complicated?

It should be simple to know when someone is sexually harassing you.

Yet, it can feel more complicated when there are so many gendered norms.

We typically talk about men harassing women, because statistics show it’s more common.

We tell women to “calm down” or “take the compliment”. This normalises experiences of sexual harassment and makes it seem okay.

It also signals that it’s okay for (typically but not only) men to continue harassing.

This can make it difficult to speak out after experiencing sexual harassment.

It’s important to note that it isn’t always gendered in this way. Experiencing sexual harassment outside of this gendered norm can make it even harder to ask for help.

Regardless of who the perpetrator is, any form of sexual harassment is unacceptable and there is support available for every victim.

I’ve experienced sexual harassment at work. Now what do I do?

Being in this position is horrible. It’s easy to doubt yourself in this position. Did I do something to deserve it? Am I overreacting? Should I just put up with it?

No, no and no.

If someone is making you feel intimidated and uncomfortable, you are entitled to say something against it.

Here are some steps to help you out:

  • if you feel comfortable with it, try talking to the harasser. Perhaps they didn’t realise how they were making you feel and they will stop once they know
  • inform your manager – even if you do this face-to-face, you should also put it in a letter or email, give a copy to them and keep a copy for yourself
  • contact your HR team or trade union – they will be able to advise you. They have experience helping people in your position
  • gather evidence – keep a journal documenting when and how you’ve been harassed
  • inform the police if you think the harassment is criminal eg. if it is physical assault

You can raise a formal grievance (complaint) if the sexual harassment doesn’t stop. If you’re unsure how to do this, ask your manager or the HR team for information on the grievance process.

If the grievance process does not solve the issue, you can make a claim at an employment tribunal.

Remember that you’re not alone with this. The #MeToo movement spotlighted that many women and men experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

Most importantly, you’re not at fault.

Those ‘grey areas’ can be tricky to navigate, but trust your gut and seek support if you feel sexually harassed.

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