NIC-ICTU survey reveals shockingly high levels of under-reporting of sexual harassment at work

27 Nov 2019

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75% of workers experiencing sexual harassment at work do not report the incident to their employer according to a new survey from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 and the 16 days of action campaign, ICTU surveyed more than 600 trade union members in Northern Ireland with experience of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.

The law defines harassment as ‘actions or behaviour which have the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’. Sexual harassment occurs ‘where a person subjects another to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, for example, inappropriate sexual contact or lewd comments’.

Commenting on the survey Congress Assistant General Secretary, Owen Reidy: “Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Yet all too often, it happens in the workplace.

“Of all the alarming statistics thrown up by the polling, the fact that jumps out for me is the unacceptably high levels of under-reporting and dissatisfaction with their employer’s action among those who do report sexual harassment” he added.

3 out of 4 (75 %) of respondents did not report the unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer, while of those who did report 62% felt that it was not dealt with satisfactorily and in some instances reported that they had been treated less favourably as a result of reporting sexual harassment. 

The opinion poll of 638 union members with experience of sexual harassment at work was conducted online between 01 and 14 November. Around 73 % of the responses were from women. The survey focused exclusively on people’s experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, rather than measuring the scale of the problem.

“We wanted a deeper understanding of workers’ experience of sexual harassment at work - the types of incidents experienced, the perpetrators and location, the barriers to reporting, and the impact sexual harassment has on the lives of those affected” said ICTU Equality Officer Clare Moore.

“For instance, the Christmas party has long been identified as the most common off-site location of workplace sexual harassment, and this is borne out in our survey. However, the extent of unwanted sexual behaviour from colleagues taking place online also reported points to a growing problem in the modern workplace” she said.

29% reported their most recent experience of sexual harassment had taken place at a work-related social event; while a sizeable minority reported being harassed by phone or text (11%) or by email, online or via social media (9%).  

“While the #MeToo movement has shed light on the hidden problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault at work and empowered women to speak out, the fear of a negative impact on their career or of not being believed or taken seriously were common reasons for not pursing a complaint” She added.

“Trade unions and employers play an important role in preventing violence and harassment against women at work. The ICTU is calling for the UK Government to ratify the ILO Convention 190 which mandates government to take proactive steps to address violence against women including in the world of work” said Ms Moore.

Mr Reidy said “Sexual harassment in work is illegal and there is a responsibility on employers to prevent sexual harassment and protect their employees.

“However, trade unions are concerned that duties on employers do not go far enough.  Employers must act urgently and proactively to tackle this problem – raise awareness such behaviour is unacceptable and may be subject to discipline, implement a comprehensive policy with an associated programme of training, set up proper, timely procedures for reporting and support the victims and deal with the perpetrators. There needs to be real consequences for those employers who don’t comply with their obligations. Everyone has the right to respect and wellbeing at work.”

Key Headline Findings –

Incidence

We asked respondents to select from several options the type of sexual harassment experienced and let them select more than one option in recognition of the fact they might have had multiple experiences. Subsequent questions invited respondents to think about the most recent incident.

  1. Nearly half (54 %) of respondents have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature.
  2. 2 out of 5 respondents (44 %) reported receiving unwelcome verbal sexual advances in the workplace.
  3. 2 out of 5 (43 %) have been subject to unwelcome comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes.
  4. More than a third (38 %) have experienced unwanted touching, such as a hand on the knee or lower back.
  5. 2 out of 5 (42 %) have been subject to unwelcome questions or comments about their sex life.
  6. Harassment via phone, text, online, by email or via social media accounted for 13% of all reported incidents.
  7. 1 in 5 (20 %) reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them.
  8. Around one in six (16 %) have been subject to unwelcome questions or comments of a sexual nature about their sexual orientation.
  9. 2% of all respondents reported being seriously sexually assaulted or rape at work, of which 1 said that this occurred within the past 12 months.

Perpetrators and location

  1. In line with existing research on sexual harassment, the ICTU survey found that in eight out of ten cases (84 %) the perpetrator of the most recent incident was a man.
  2. For the majority, the harasser had been a colleague (55 %).
  3. Over a quarter (28 %) reported that their direct manager or another manager was the perpetrator.
  4. 56% of incidents of harassment took place at workplaces.
  5. However, for a significant minority (29 % of respondents) the harassment had taken place at a work related social event such as a Christmas party.
  6. 13 % of incidents of unwanted sexual behaviour had taken place on the phone, by email or on social media.

Reporting

  1. Three out of four (75 %) did not report the sexual harassment to their employer. Of those who did report, 62 % felt that it was not dealt with satisfactorily and in some instances reported that they had been treated less favourably as a result of reporting sexual harassment. 
  2. 36 % respondents who did not report the incident to their employer feared that doing so would have a negative impact on their working relationships or on their career (29 %).
  3. 33 % did not think they would be believed or taken seriously, while 18% thought they would be blamed if they reported the unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer.
  4. Around 29 % did not believe the person responsible would be sufficiently punished.
  5. 29 % said they were too embarrassed to report the unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer.
  6. 13 % did not report the incident because the perpetrator was part of the reporting process.
  7. 17 % were unaware that they could report or know how to report the harassment.

 

Impact

  1. Those polled were asked to choose from several options describing the effect that the harassment had on them. Over half reported that they felt embarrassed (59 %).
  2. 50 % reported that they avoid certain work situations as a result.
  3. 38 %reported that they felt less confident at work, with a further 21 % saying it had a negative impact on their performance at work.
  4. Around a third 33 % reported that the harassment had a negative impact on their mental health, and a further 13 % reported that there was a negative impact on their physical health.
  5. 19 per cent had wanted to leave their job as a result but had been unable due to financial or other factors. A further 6 per cent reported the harassment had caused them to change their role within the company or to leave their job with that employer.