Sexual harassment: don't suffer in silence
With the scale of sexual harassment in the workplace becoming apparent, this article offers some advice as to how victims should handle it
“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.” (Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror)
In the wake of the New York Times exposé detailing sexual abuse and harassment claims against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, a group of female UK politicians spoke about their untold experiences of sexual assault and harassment at their workplace.
Weinstein, a major Hollywood producer, has been accused of numerous assaults against multiple women over many years. More than a dozen women detailed his behaviour that ranged from harassment to rape. Dozens of actresses, including Hollywood A-listers Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, have also made accusations of sexual abuse against the 65-year-old movie mogul.
Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Mary Creagh, Conservative MP Theresa Villiers and Tory Baroness Anne Jenkin spoke out how they became victims of sexual harassment, with a view to encouraging other victims to open up about their experiences.
Immediately afterwards, Hollywood actor George Clooney spoke out about the sexual harassment of his wife Amal Clooney, the prominent human rights lawyer. A barrister at Doughty Street Chambers in London, she specialises in public international law, international criminal law and human rights; her clients include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in his fight against extradition and she has appeared before national and international courts.
These accounts reveal the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment everywhere in the UK. This article attempts to spotlight the issue in the workplace, as it needs to be addressed as a problem for all of us.
Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which violates the victim’s dignity, makes her feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated and creates a hostile or offensive environment for her to survive at the workplace.
However, the victim of this harassment should not suffer in silence. The law makes it clear that sexual harassment is definitely not acceptable. Whilst there is no strict definition as to what constitutes sexual harassment, the Sex Discrimination Act gives the legal right not to be sexually harassed at work and it is also unlawful to treat women (or men) less favourably because of their sex.
It is estimated that 50% of women in employment are, or have been, subject to sexual harassment of some form or other.
The stories that have now emerged reveal that sexual harassment does not just happen to women who work in large offices or within a predominantly male working environment; it can happen to people in any occupation, to any age group and from every community.
Not just physical
They also demonstrate the fact that sexual harassment can take place in many forms, which can broadly be categorised in three groups: verbal, non-verbal and physical.
Verbal sexual harassment includes comments about appearance, body or clothes, indecent remarks, questions or comments about your sex life, requests for sexual favours, sexual demands made by someone of the opposite sex or even your own sex, and promises or threats concerning a person's employment conditions in return for sexual favour.
Non-verbal sexual harassment includes looking or staring at a person's body, and display of sexually explicit material such as calendars, pin-ups or magazines.
The most dangerous form of sexual harassment is physical, which includes physically touching, pinching, hugging, caressing, kissing, sexual assault and rape.
How to respond
In any of the above scenarios, whether in the domestic, political, legal or non-legal world, the victims should not remain silent. They must speak out for the protection of their own dignity and legal rights.
They should first try to confront the harasser. In doing so, victims should speak clearly and slowly, maintaining direct eye contact, describe the behaviour, its effects on them and that they want it to stop. It is also important that the victims should not smile or apologise. This will undermine their complaint.
It is always a good idea to keep an eyewitness to give you moral support – a friend, a colleague or union representative. They could also act as a witness to any incidents of improper behaviour.
If the victim feels that she would be unable to confront the harasser face to face, she may prefer to write to them to explain that their behaviour is making her feel uncomfortable and that she wants it to stop. Victims should keep a copy of the letter and let the harasser know that if his behaviour persists, she will take the matter further.
It is also very important for the victim to maintain a diary to note down all the behaviour that offends her, the dates, times and location where the behaviour took place – and if there were any other people present, the victim should also keep a record of their names. This will help the victim if she needs to make an official complaint.
If the perpetrator’s behaviour continues, the victim should tell her employer. The employer is under a legal obligation to investigate the victim’s complaint and deal with it. The victim has a right to take someone with her to any meetings about the complaint. They can back you up if necessary. Once again, victims should keep a written record of everything that happens.
The victim should go to an employment tribunal if the harassment continues after she has told the perpetrator to stop and she has reported it to her employer. The victim should also take the matter before the tribunal where the harasser owns the company and there is no one else to complain to, or if the victim is not happy with the way the investigation was handled, or with the outcome. It is very important to note that the victim must file her complaint with the tribunal within three months of the incident taking place.
It is hoped that the recent revelations will encourage more women to come forward to open up about their experiences and bring the perpetrators before justice with the full force of law.
The previously untold stories reveal that sexual harassment at work threatens the victim’s confidence and self-esteem. It can stop her working effectively, undermine her dignity and affect her health and happiness.
The law should be there to help the victims to report problems without fear of hurting their career, and to ensure that there will be consequences for the perpetrator. Nobody should be subjected to sexual harassment in any workplace. While there will always be an increased risk of sexual harassment as long as the gender disparity at the top of the profession persists, employers can take effective steps to curb the problem now.
If we don’t talk about the widespread problem of sexual harassment now and support the victims to speak out publicly, we will fail to combat it and deny victims a chance to see justice being brought upon its perpetrators.
Muhammed Abdul Muid Khan is a barrister of Lincoln's Inn and a chartered legal executive of CILEX. He won the CILEX President Legal Award in 2016. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org