Not just a bit of banter: Tackling sexual harassment of disabled women in the workplace

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2019 National Disabled Members' Conference
11 July 2019
Carried as Amended

Conference notes that the #MeToo movement has illustrated how sexual harassment is widespread in our society and in the workplace but for too long has been swept under the carpet and dismissed as “just a bit of banter”.

UNISON’s ‘Harassment at Work’ guide defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct that is of a sexual nature whether verbal, non-verbal or physical.”

Conference acknowledges that anyone at any time can experience sexual harassment, but the statistics demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of victims are women. A study by the TUC in 2016 found that 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes. Four out of five women had not reported this to their employers, with many feeling they would not be taken seriously.

As is the case in other types of violence against women, sexual harassment is inextricably linked with power and attempts by (mostly male) perpetrators to disempower women they see as less powerful or who they want to undermine to enhance their own status in the workplace. For disabled women this power imbalance is often even more pronounced leading to higher rates of sexual harassment.

However, conference notes that there is a lack of specific data on disabled women’s experience of sexual harassment in UK workplaces. Nonetheless a Women’s Aid report found that disabled women were twice as likely to experience gender-based violence compared to non-disabled women due to discrimination relating to both gender and disability. The TUC’s recent groundbreaking research ‘Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace’ also highlights that disabled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) women respondents reported significantly higher levels of sexual harassment than non-disabled respondents. Disabled women respondents were:

Around twice as likely to report unwanted touching (50% disabled women compared to 26% non-disabled women),

i)More than twice as likely to report sexual assault (38% compared to 14%) and

ii)Six times more likely to experience serious sexual assault or rape (24% compared to 4%).

Although research is sparse, learning disabled women are likely to be even more at risk form sexual harassment and face greater barriers to reporting and being believed.

Conference strongly believes that more research is needed into disabled women’s experience of workplace sexual harassment. This includes acknowledging the experience of Deaf women who face specific barriers to reporting harassment at work.

Conference regrets that, despite the widespread nature of sexual harassment in the workplace, in 2013 the government reduced protections for workers by repealing Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 which ensured employers had a duty to address harassment by third parties, such as clients, contractors and members of the public. Conference notes that UNISON’s response to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry into the enforcement of the Equality Act called for re-enactment of the third party harassment provisions.

Conference welcomes the adoption of a composite motion on sexual harassment agreed at UNISON National Delegate Conference 2019 which continues and expands UNISON’s campaigning activity, including:

1)Publicly supporting the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns

2)Conducting further research into women in UNISON and the sexual harassment they experience

3)Producing tool kits for activists on negotiating a zero tolerance sexual harassment policy with employers, with appropriate protections and safe reporting routes

4)Developing training for our reps to give them the skills to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace

Conference further notes UNISON’s involvement in the TUC’s #ThisIsNotWorking campaign, calling for an anticipatory legal duty for employers to take all reasonable steps to protect workers from sexual harassment and victimisation

Conference believes that the needs of disabled women must be acknowledged and fully included when it comes to UNISON’s policy and campaigning work on sexual harassment.

Conference therefore calls on the National Disabled Members Committee, working with the National Women’s Committee, Labour Link and relevant campaigns where appropriate, to:

1)Publicly endorse and promote the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns

2)Seek to ensure UNISON research on sexual harassment includes the experience of disabled women including Deaf women

3)Seek to ensure UNISON guidance on challenging sexual harassment and negotiating zero tolerance policies, and UNISON’s training for activists, includes acknowledgement of the disproportionate impact of sexual harassment on disabled women in the workplace

4)Promote UNISON’s guidance on sexual harassment at work

5)Seek to ensure that disabled women are highlighted in UNISON’s campaigning work on sexual harassment

6)Continue to lobby for the third party harassment provisions in the Equality Act 2010 to be reinstated

7)Campaign for accessible workplace sexual harassment reporting mechanisms, including text, videophone and British Sign Language services