The government must stop dodging its responsibility to tackle “traumatic and devastating” workplace sexual harassment, MPs have demanded.
In a major new report published on Wednesday, the Commons’ women and equalities committee said it was “utterly shameful” that unwanted comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an “everyday occurrence” in some workplaces.
A 2017 BBC poll found that 40% of women and almost a fifth of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour while trying to do their jobs, with one victim telling the committee: “I have been asked directly for sex while at work by a superior. I have been shown a pornographic video and asked for oral sex while at work by a line manager.”
But committee chair Maria Miller said there was currently “little incentive” for employers to take robust action against harassment - despite the fact there are already strict requirements for businesses to prevent money laundering and protect people’s personal data.
“It’s time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment,” the Tory MP said following a six month inquiry by the committee.
MPs have now called on the government to implement a series of rules for employers and regulators, starting with the introduction of a new requirement for employers to prevent harassment.
Bosses must also collect “robust” data on the extent of abuse in the workplace, the committee said, while it must become easier for workers to take incidents of sexual harassment to tribunal.
One woman told MPs how she felt “absolutely humiliated” after being sexually harassed at work, describing how “no-one cared and no-one listened”.
“I am deeply traumatised by everything,” she said. “I do not feel safe ever… I have to wear shoes I can run away in.”
Condemning the current lack of support for victims of workplace harassment, Miller said the burden “falls unacceptably on the individual to hold harassers and employers to account”.
“The current system is inadequate: the tribunal system must provide an effective remedy for employees,” she continued, calling for longer time frames to submit a claim and smaller cost risks for workers.
Finally, non-disclosure agreements – which have been used to some employers to silence victims of sexual abuse – must become more transparent, MPs said.
The recommendations have been welcomed by unions and campaigners.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of women’s rights organisation the Fawcett Society, said: “The only way we can change workplace culture is to make it a proactive requirement. We have to move from treating this issue as a problem for the individual woman to deal with, to one that the organisation owns.
“We have to go from a culture of secrecy, to one of transparency. Women need confidence to report and employers need to own what happens in their own organisation.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said unions had been “leading the way” on campaigning for more robust action.
“More than half of women in the UK have been sexually harassed at work. Sexual harassment has a huge impact on women’s lives and careers, so it’s good to see the select committee recommending tough action,” she added.
“The TUC supports making employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment. And it’s good to see the committee recommend long-overdue reforms to the tribunal system so that it works for victims of sexual harassment, and a new code of practice for employers too.”
A government Equalities Office spokesperson said: “Workplace sexual harassment is against the law. Any behaviour that causes people to feel intimidated or humiliated in the workplace is unacceptable, and failure to comply with the law must not be tolerated.
“We will be considering the findings of this report very carefully as we work to stamp out harassment, protect victims and ensure everybody can feel respected and safe at work.”