The last 12 months have seen a monumental cultural change, particularly for women. With the #MeToo movement, people are able to call out sexual abuse and harassment in ways that wouldn’t previously have been possible.
The latest sexist relic to be put under the spotlight was The Presidents Club charity gala, at which ‘hostesses’ were paid £150 for a 10 hour shift – £15 an hour – to be groped, propositioned and flashed at by wealthy, powerful guests at the Dorchester Hotel.
We spoke to Monica Atwal, a managing partner at Clarkslegal law firm, about what constitutes harassment, what you can do if you think you’ve experienced it, and what you can expect the outcome to be.
First of all, what is sexual harassment?
‘Sexual harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive treatment for them”,’ Ms Atwal said.
‘In practice, this covers a wide range of behaviour – everything from suggestive remarks to unwanted touching, leering, or sharing pornography around the office.’
How common is sexual harassment?
‘According to a recent BBC study, 53% of British women and 20% of British men have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study,’ she said.
‘More than a quarter of people experienced harassment in the form of inappropriate jokes or banter, and nearly one in seven suffered inappropriate touching.’
What are employers doing?
She explained that, in the wake of the Presidents Club scandal, employers need to recognise that they have a responsibility to change their work culture in order to protect employees.
‘Employers need to be aware that they can be held liable for the actions of their employees that engage in sexual harassment,’ Ms Atwal continued.
‘It is a fine line that may seem innocent, but claiming any unwanted conduct was meant as a joke or compliment is not a defence. As a result, many businesses have systems in place to deal with complaints, with an eye to preventing them in the first place.’
Ms Atwal said that this could include:
What if you’re not sure if a colleague, customer or employer has crossed the line?
This is where it gets tricky for someone being harassed to know whether or not to complain.
Ms Atwal told us: ‘Some sexual harassment behaviours are so obviously “unwanted” that an individual subject to such behaviour could almost walk into a tribunal asking for an open chequebook.
‘However, there are situations when the question of whether or not someone has crossed the line may be difficult to identify.
‘For example, when does innocent flirting become unacceptable pestering? When does a genuine compliment become embarrassing and uncomfortable?
‘It is important that with some behaviours that are not necessarily overtly sexual, aggressive or offensive, that an individual makes it clear that the behaviour is “unwanted” so any repeat of such behaviour is clearly known to be on the wrong side of the line.’
So what are your rights if you think you’ve been sexually harassed?
Here is what Ms Atwal suggests you should do.
You should first raise the issue or issues immediately with your employer, and document the behaviours if you can, as this can prove crucial – make notes, take video, keep anything you can stored on your phone.
Ideally you should then formally report it as soon as you can, because witnesses’ memories can fade and evidence can be lost over time.
‘The law provides for further protection once a complaint has been raised, making victimisation an offence,’ Ms Atwal added.
‘If the harassment is on a mass scale, as has been suggested with the Dorchester Hotel event, any individual may also have the added protection afforded by whistleblowing legislation.
‘Compensation for sexual harassment is uncapped at a tribunal and can be significant, with awards for an individual who loses their job as a result of the harassment as well as injury to feelings, which alone can be in excess of £30,000.’