Sexual Harassment in The Workplace? – MPs Launch Inquiry

The Women and Equalities Committee have launched a full inquiry on sexual harassment in the workplace and are now inviting submissions of written evidence. The inquiry follows a string of allegations of harassment and intimidation against leading figures in the US film and media industries, as well as claims of inappropriate behaviour in Parliament and other high-profile British institutions.

In the wake of these allegations, former Charmed actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to speak out by tweeting a screenshot which read: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. Since then, social media has been inundated with #metoo, highlighting the frequency and complexity of sexual assault.

These revelations have led to action – both big and small. Twitter emboldened the hashtag by attaching an image of raised hands, whilst actresses and actors wore black gowns or suits at the Golden Globes 2018 to stand in solidarity with victims of sexual assault and harassment. The launch of an inquiry into workplace harassment is another great step at tackling the issue at hand. The committee’s chair, Mrs Miller – a former Conservative cabinet minister – says that they aim to identify who the perpetrators are and why sexual harassment happens in the workplace. They will also look at issues surrounding ‘action the Government and employers can take to change workplace culture’ and how misconduct can be tackled more effectively.

 Mrs Miller revealed that many women have already come forward to speak about their “appalling experiences” and that the recent evidence “painted a stark picture”. Under proposals published last week, members of parliament who have bullied or harassed their staff will have to write a letter of apology and undergo training, while in more serious cases they could be suspended or forced to face a public vote on their future. The Women and Equalities Committee believe that these penalties will change workplace culture, keep women safe and provide effective legal remedies. The committee’s  steps to enforce change in workplace culture is much needed, and journalist Varaidzo explained why –

“When it comes to business, there are often no gains for the victim to speak out. There are likely two outcomes. The first being the positive, that their bosses will understand the seriousness of the implication and take action against the abuser. But when such claims are handled within a workforce, without involving the law, there is little protection for the victim outside of work. This is bad news for the victim if the abuser then blames the victim for any punishment their employers dole out to them. Such a position is understandably stress-inducing for someone recovering from any form of abuse, and may exacerbate their discomfort rather than making them feel that justice has been served.

On the other side of the coin is the unfortunate reality that abuse claims can be seen as awkward to deal with. If a perfectly good employee is outed as an abuser, their boss must make the decision to discipline and potentially let somebody go who has, by any measurable means of job performance, done no wrong. And if the abuse can’t be proved, then that employee is likely to fight for their job back. Many employers may not find it worth their while to take such claims seriously without evidence. Testimonies reveal that reporting workplace harassment can be the beginning of a victims ordeal, not the end.”

Varaidzo makes striking points; the complexity of workplace harassment is a very difficult conversation to have, especially when it comes to punishment or simply having the confidence to say ‘#metoo’. Karin Bosman, founder of ‘About Workplace Harrassment’ (AWH), shared her views on the subject.

Karin ended our discussion with convincing words: “The most important thing to do now, is to make sure people are not afraid to speak up… we have a shared responsibility.”

If you have been affected by sexual harassment in the workplace you can send a written submission to The Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry here.

Monique Boreland.

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