Women’s conference calls for stronger sexual harassment policies in the workplace

Members cannot rely on employers ‘to do the right thing’ over sexual harassment

Sexual harassment at work was a strong topic at this year’s women’s conference in Bournemouth, both in and outside the conference hall.

At a conference workshop on the subject, one delegate expressed how difficult it can be for individuals to call out sexual harassment at her male-dominated workplace. “When I do, my colleagues just say: ‘Oh there she goes again’. But this is not harmless banter. It’s insulting and it’s distressing.”

Another delegate shared how she was sexually assaulted at work. She said that although she received support and counselling at the time, she had been unable to move forward because sexual harassment is so normalised in the culture of her workplace.

“Every time there is a sexual harassment-related incident at work – even if it doesn’t involve me – it triggers memories of my assault,” she said.

A motion on workplace policies on sexual harassment addressed these issues head-on. It noted that too many public bodies are moving away from individual policies for specific issues, such as sexual harassment and racial discrimination, in favour of an all-encompassing, fair treatment at work policy, “where the voices of marginalised groups are lost through merging them under the equality banner.”

The motion added: “Our employers cannot continue to get away with ignoring both the specific needs of women in the workplace or the intersectionality issues faced by marginalised groups.”

Proposing the motion, Elaine Wishart, of the City of Edinburgh branch, told delegates: “The #MeToo movement was incredibly powerful and overdue. But unless we have the framework of a steadfast and robust sexual harassment policy at work, good people might be afraid to act. Far too often claims are investigated by men and covered up by men.

“We need to ensure that everyone understands the magnitude of sexual harassment policies. We need to stand with survivors and make the workplace a safe place. Any compassionate employer must ensure there is clear guidance in place for dealing with our experiences.”

Passing the motion, delegates called on the national women’s committee to:

  • Increase the understanding of sexual harassment and the different ways it can impact people in the workplace;
  • Encourage equality and women’s officers to negotiate and roll out sexual harassment policies with the employers covered by their branch, ensuring that they include references to the specific needs of women, both cis and trans, and of other marginalised groups, with a focus on intersectionality.

“Engaging with UNISON reps is the best and most meaningful way to address the huge range of sexualised behaviours which are commonplace at work,” Ms Wishart added. “We need to make employers realise these are never acceptable, regardless of whether they’re criminal or not.

“We must start labelling them and calling them out. It takes real courage and real strength to do so, but we must start asking difficult questions. We cannot rely on employers to do the right thing.”