It is often said that we have the best equality legislation in the world. But Fawcett’s Sex Discrimination Law Review has found that there are many gaps in our protections and much more that we should do to address the legal system’s failure to protect women.
Consider sexual harassment - when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke followed by Westminster there was a collective gasp of realisation – this was the #MeToo moment. A recognition that it had happened to all of us but we had overwhelmingly put up with it, probably said nothing about it, tolerated behaviour and situations we shouldn’t have to tolerate. That’s the way it was (and still is for many women). So it’s our fault right? Well, in practice sexual harassment at work, on the street or at school is both commonplace but also extremely difficult to challenge. TUC research has found that half of all women say they have been harassed at work but 80% said they would not report it to their line manager. Street harassment is a daily occurrence for many women but few would consider reporting it to the police. Harassment online has reached epidemic proportions yet there is little that individual women can do to challenge it and the platforms often fail to act. We are dealing with a normalised predatory culture in which men treat women as fair game. And a society which looks the other way.
Even in employment cases where women do bring claims the vast majority don’t reach a tribunal, the victim is quietly paid off and the perpetrator goes unchallenged. This is why our law review has recommended strengthening the law. Harassment at work from customers, patients or contractors working alongside you (‘third party harassment’) is not covered by the Equality Act. So you are unable to bring a claim against your employer in those circumstances. We think that should change. We also argue for a new duty on large organisations to prevent harassment and discrimination. We need to shift the responsibility onto the organisation and make them accountable for what they do rather than leave it to individual women to challenge. If we believe equality is good for business, then we must also believe that discrimination and harassment are bad for business.
New technology has brought new ways to abuse and harass women. We should follow Scotland’s lead and make up-skirting a criminal offence. We also need to strengthen the law on pornographic photo-shopping, not only just when there is an intention to cause distress but also for reasons of financial gain or amusement. And we must give victims of these offences the right to anonymity as we do with other sexual offences.
We have to start calling out misogyny for what it is. It should be recognised as a hate crime and police should record it as such. Some police forces are already doing so and it is helping them to tackle street harassment and assault as women are more likely to come forward. We also need to capture intersectional hate crimes. We know that Muslim women are disproportionately targeted, and that hate crime against lesbian women or trans women are not accurately recorded.
Women who have been sexually assaulted can still find their previous sexual history used against them in court, contrary to legal restrictions place on this practice. We call for the law to be reviewed here. Survivors of domestic violence often find that coercive control can continue beyond the end of the relationship yet the law doesn’t protect them, so we call for the law to be extended beyond the end of a relationship. Auto-on geolocation on mobile phones enables perpetrators to track victims. We say that auto-on should become auto-off.
We are living in a society in which violence against women and girls is endemic, normalised and only just beginning to be challenged. We must all play our part in that. A good place to start is to strengthen the law.