04:48, October 31 336 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-31 04:48:03
Don’t let outrage over sexual harassment fade. We can stop it

In workplaces up and down the UK, including the Houses of Parliament, people are rejecting the idea that those in positions of power can sexually harass – or even assault – with impunity.

It’s inspiring to see so many women (and many men) speaking out and demanding better treatment. Because we’re not talking about a few bad apples here. TUC research suggests that more than half of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. This is a vast, systemic problem whose implications can be felt in every area of our society. It goes far beyond specific industries, businesses or political parties.

In fact, the issue is so serious that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard too many people say that the problem is too big to solve, and that cultural change will take decades.

In reality, there’s a huge amount that politicians and employers can do right now to make women safer at work – assuming they take the problem seriously rather than cracking “jokes” about it on national radio.

Firstly, we need hard numbers on how widespread sexual harassment and violence is at work. It’s not good enough to rely on WhatsApp groups or secret spreadsheets: the government should be gathering its own data and making fully informed policy decisions. In parliament itself, tapping into information traditionally held by the whips’ office would be a good place to start.

This won’t be an easy process. We’ve already heard lots of horror stories and we’ll need to brace ourselves for a lot more. But burying our heads in the sand simply isn’t an option. The people who have spoken out about their experiences deserve better than that.

Secondly, government should be building up equalities law, not stripping it back. Employers should be required to have clear sexual harassment policies in place, and make sure that everyone knows about them, so that victims can take actions as soon as an inappropriate encounter occurs.

But instead of ensuring robust protections against harassment in the workplace, the government has been chipping away at hard-won rights.

Take, for example, the repeal of section 40 of the Equality Act 2010. This was a provision that required employers to protect their staff from harassment by clients or customers. This is a big deal for women in public-facing roles, including NHS staff, shop workers and millions of others, who now have even less capacity to challenge perpetrators.

The Conservatives should also take responsibility for their outrageous decision to impose punitive employment tribunal fees, after which the number of harassment claims fell off a cliff.

Thankfully, Unison brought a challenge to the supreme court and the fees were abolished. But too many women still don’t know their rights, or how to go about enforcing them. So now that sexual harassment is headline news, the government should be taking out ads informing women of their rights.

Indeed, education is the single most important step we can take to crack down on sexual harassment, and government and employers should work together to deliver it.

Employers – especially large employers – should offer specific training on sexual harassment. All staff should know what inappropriate behaviour looks like, and that the employer has a zero-tolerance policy. Men can’t be allowed to get away with the “just banter” defence.

What’s more, workers should know what steps they can take if they are victims of harassment or if they witness it happening to someone else. And line managers and HR staff should have a clear understanding of how to deal with allegations of harassment.

I’m hopeful that what we’re seeing right now is a step change in our attitude to sexism in the workplace. But I’m also afraid that, sooner or later, the media will get tired of salacious stories involving MPs and movie stars, and millions of women will be left right where they were before – vulnerable to the unwanted advances of creepy bosses and colleagues.

So while this issue is front and centre, politicians from all parties, as well as employers and trade unions, should be working together to stop sexual harassment from happening in the first place.

While change should have happened sooner, we can’t let it slide again now.

Frances O’Grady is TUC general secretary