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10 tips for preventing violence against women in the workplace

With 1 in 3 women experiencing violence at some point in their lives, the likelihood of staff experiencing abuse or harassment is high, be that at home, at work, or of an everyday nature such as “banter”. These can have negative impacts on the working environment such as poor mental health, productivity and employee relations1.

Violence Against Women (VAW) therefore has a huge effect on the workplace – yet it often goes unrecognised as a site of prevention work. 

Below we’ve outlined our top 10 tips gathered from our PACT programme which advocates having a VAW policy in the workplace; from our work with employers; and from international evidence, to bring employers a quick guide on preventing and protecting against VAW in the workplace.

Promote gender equality

Think about it – if your workplace wants to tackle VAW, it makes sense to root out the cause of VAW, and that’s gender inequality. This means changing attitudes, and enhancing women’s position in the workplace.

Gendered patterns of employment increase the likelihood or opportunity for violence to be committed against women by entrenching the balance of power that men have in society2.

When women are concentrated in low paid or insecure work3, are segregated by occupation, do most of the unpaid caring at home4, or are not rewarded equally to men, then these patterns of work can sustain and embed their reliance upon men for income and embed inequality. In short, they entrench gender stereotypes about ‘who’ holds power. Feminists have long pointed out how these narratives of power justify and condone violence and abuse.

Because of gendered stereotypes about ‘who’ women are, they may be asked to carry out certain tasks at work, or be perceived as less valuable than their male colleagues after a pregnancy. We know women experience forms of sexism at work that are troubling and reflect attitudes that affect their working environment.

This means that workplace policies should seek to disrupt these causal factors of inequality. Employers can:

1. Build Gender Governance – by considering gender equity/the prevention of VAW part of your core work or strategic plan of operations. This could be accompanied by gaining high level support for gender equality across your organisation (of whatever size), including setting company-wide workforce goals5.  Gender equality should be a consideration in the development of all policy and practice, including methods such as gender budgeting6  to consider resource allocation. These should be appropriately checked and evaluated, built into projects, job descriptions and/or performance or annual reviews.

2. Strengthen working conditions – to ensure that women are valued and promoted in the workplace. Because women experience enhanced insecurity, direct and indirect discrimination at work7, employers can provide at least the living wage, conduct pay audits to ensure there are no discrepancies in their pay and ensure that recruitment and development procedures are transparent8. Because of women’s disproportionate caring responsibilities and the likelihood of experiencing violence, flexible working options and supportive leave policies are also worthwhile pursuits to ensure that women have more options at their disposal should they experience violence.

3. Assess leadership - have mechanisms, targets or programmes been put in place to ensure that women are supported into leadership? What kind of leadership does your workplace value – is it based on competition and domination or equality and fairness? Leadership that explicitly supports gender equality is important, so leaders should assess their organisations’ structure and how it supports gender equality as a whole.

4. Question the ‘natural order’ – by tackling gender stereotypes at work. This will include assessing what stereotypes and gendered interactions are taking place. This may include dismantling male dominated networks and ensuring women and men are not congregated in undertaking certain gendered tasks at work9. This should also involve alternative visions of parenting, for example by engaging fathers to counteract narratives of caregiving and ensuring that mothers are fully supported through breastfeeding policies for example.

Counteract violence supporting norms

Violence is also enabled by the attitudes that we, as a society, hold. Different forms of VAW have all been linked with what are known as “violence supporting attitudes”. This refers to beliefs that, for example, women deserve or invite violence, should accept subordinate roles or expect sexual victimisation as part of the “normal order” of things, or that gender roles are innate and justified (men as strong and in charge, women as weak or deserving of violence)10.

Workplaces, like all institutions, are not immune from such violence supporting norms. Efforts to counteract VAW therefore must significantly focus efforts on cultural change and recognise the clear crossover between promoting a healthy culture for women at work with legislation such as the Equality act.  Employers could:

5. Undertake unconscious bias training - to assist in ensuring that gendered assumptions do not infiltrate decision making processes.

6. Establish a zero-tolerance code of conduct – to ensure a culture that counteracts sexual aggression, gender based bullying or assumptions including “banter” of a degrading or sexist nature. Seek to encourage and enable men and women to speak out, and to not be afraid to name when inappropriate behaviours are taking place

7. Conduct facilitated conversations or workshops to build support – by asking employees to undertake a facilitated session which models what good behaviour looks like (note: this session may need to be include women only spaces so that sexism can be talked about openly). Ensure that actors understand that attitudes which objectify women (including activities such as pornography, lap dancing) share a relationship with the spectrum of VAW.

8. Audit the environment – to take all opportunities available to remove anything such as offensive calendars, graffiti in communal toilets, ‘lads’ mags’ on coffee tables, all of which contribute adversely to the mood and atmosphere of a workplace and can affect the safety of women in the workplace. Actively promote a positive environment by utilising your communications channels to let people about your gender strategy, knowledge awareness raising, training from outside organisations etc.

Offer a package of support

Taking these measures will go some way to ensuring that your workplace is a place where, should employees be experiencing abuse at work or at home, they feel clear that they are likely to be supported should they experience abuse. But it is also important to have the right procedures in place should you receive a disclosure. Employers could:

9. Outline a clear process on the support you will provide – this should ideally include, if needed: a temporary change in duties, advances of pay, additional flexibility, additional special leave for counselling and training upon return to work.

  • Additionally, safety planning such as up to date emergency contacts and IT systems should be considered, as should full risk assessments (respecting anonymity where possible whilst at work) with the help of relevant local authorities. Each type of VAW should be considered on its own dynamics, for example, if a woman is being stalked it may be useful to have a buddy system11, a temporary change of office or the ability to work from home (depending on which will offer the most safety).

10. Swiftly deal with perpetrators - even if you work in a small team, there is a chance that you are working in an environment where perpetrators are present. It is important to acknowledge that this may not only contravene good practice and professional standards but that you should have a clear process so as not to revictimize survivors. 

Acknowledge your success!

Think about ways to reinforce the message that your workplace is a health promoting workplace. The whole environment should be considered from management practice, leadership, through to culture, the environment, and your response to violence or abuse.

Workplaces promoting healthy work cultures can rest assured they will reap the benefits and more. Aside from the rights based imperative to undertake these easy to implement preventative procedures, employers spending time on activities that promote healthy workplaces can ultimately expect a cost benefit. They can expect to retain talented staff, avoid litigation and lead more productive teams because when employees lead lives at work that are free from discrimination, are content at work and feel safe and respected, they flourish.

And that’s good for business.

Any employer wishing to discuss what more they can do to prevent VAW and/or learn more about our PACT programme should contact Amy Marshall on amy.marshall (at) zerotolerance.org.uk

1. http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/about-us/devolved-authorities/commiss...
2. http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/uploads/media/Research_series/WRIB-470_Gen...
3. https://www.closethegap.org.uk/content/gap-statistics/
4. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/03/1081/2
5. http://www.whlm.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Gender-Equity-Quality-...
6. http://wbg.org.uk/gender-responsive-budgeting/what-is-a-gender-budget-an...
7. http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1814
8. http://www.whlm.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Gender-Equity-Quality-...
9. http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/09/15/women-white-house-amplify...
10. Lombard. N (2015) “Gendered violence: a cause and a consequence of inequality” in Bettio, F. & Sansonetti. S (Eds) “Visions for Gender Equality”. European Commission
(http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/documents/vision_repor...)
11. A buddy system is like a lone working policy in that where police or relevant authorities cannot provide surveillance, survivors can be accompanied by chosen workmates to their travel destination or route home etc.

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