Sexism and harassment at work creating a 'mental health timebomb' for women

Annie McLaughlin is the winner of the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women bursary. She will be writing articles for our media partner, the Sunday Herald, around the topics of violence against women and gender equality. Find out more about Annie here.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Herald. Read it here

NEW research has revealed shocking levels of sexism and harassment in Scotland’s public sector workplaces. Nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed by violence against women charity Zero Tolerance said that they had suffered or witnessed sexual harassment or innuendo at work, and one in 10 female respondents had been subjected to physical or mental violence in the workplace, including rape and sexual assault. Half had experienced sexual objectification, and the charity has warned of a "mental health time bomb".

The survey – which targeted the public sector – set out to assess what measures employers are taking to protect women from harassment and violence at work. It also found that sexism and misogyny are an everyday occurrence for many employees.

Amy Marshall, Zero Tolerance’s Educators and Employers Development Officer, said: “I was shocked but not surprised at the level of casualised misogyny and violence taking place, particularly in the public sector. The long-term effects are simply untold. Women reported that they were stressed, agitated and depressed; suggesting a mental health time bomb.”

Women described a range of experiences, including unwanted sexual advances, sexual comments directed at themselves or other women and accusations that they had slept with senior colleagues to climb the career ladder.

Some 31 per cent were unsure about whether their employer would be supportive if they reported sexism or harassment, with some saying they had felt unable to report past abuse for fear of recriminations.

One woman said: “In my last job … I was being sexually harassed by the director. There was also a culture of casual racism, sexism and homophobia which made me feel like, if I made a complaint, I would be ostracised. In the end, I threatened complaint and the director apologised and stopped harassing me. However, he no longer asked me to do certain tasks, which threatened my chances of progression. I felt like I did not want to work there any more. I felt panicked, I had trouble sleeping sometimes. In the end, I left.”

Another said: “It had a negative impact on my confidence and ability to focus on the job. I felt disgusted by my colleague's sexual innuendos but felt unable to speak up about it. I assumed people would say that I had somehow invited it.”

The Sunday Herald has been given exclusive access to the findings, with the full report due to be published later this month. The research is the first of its kind to assess levels of sexism, harassment and violence against women in Scottish workplaces.

In August last year, UK-wide research by the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project found that half of all women and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18 to 24 had experienced sexual harassment at work. One in five women reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual advances, with one in eight being touched intimately or kissed against their will.

Emma Ritch, Executive Director of Engender, Scotland’s feminist organisation campaigning against sexism and gender inequality, said: "Work done by the TUC in the summer suggests that over half of women in UK workplaces have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Despite the proliferation of workplace policies that pay lip service to equality and dignity at work, organisations are failing to get a grip of their employees’ harmful and damaging behaviour.

"Tolerating sexual harassment sends a powerful signal to female employees that they and their work are not respected and valued. Employers and unions need to work together to identify where it is happening in individual workplaces and take proactive steps to stamp it out.

"Sexual harassment and fear of being harassed constrains women’s working lives. It cuts across women’s aspirations and sense of safety at work. It prevents women’s knowledge, skills, and experience being fully utilised in boardrooms, public bodies, and council chambers and parliaments."

Zero Tolerance is calling for urgent action from employers, the Scottish Government and unions to tackle the underlying attitudes and stereotypes which perpetuate violence against women and gender inequality, as well as to establish better support for women who experience sexism at work or disclose violence at work or home.

Some 62 per cent of survey respondents were unable to describe any positive measures being taken to counteract sexism in their workplace, with 73 per cent unsure or not aware of a specific violence against women policy in their organisation.

Marshall said: “Misogyny and violence are a part of our wider culture. When we stereotype women as overly emotional, for example, as our study found, it’s easier to dismiss their claims of violence as exaggerated and begin to buy into myths around violence."

By addressing attitudes that exist within their workplaces, employers can help to dismantle "harmful gender stereotypes that reinforce gendered power imbalances”, she added.

More than a third of respondents described experiencing gender-based bullying or teasing. One woman said: “I found out that when I was being considered for a promotion at work, senior managers were discussing my age and whether I had indicated if I was planning on having a baby. I felt very angry [at] this. I also felt very intimidated that they would only value me in my work if I did not take time off to have babies.”

Some 42 per cent reported experiencing double standards at work for men and women, including allocation of tasks or types of work based on gender.

One respondent said: “I was repeatedly assumed as the assistant, secretary or minute-taker rather than the lead. Although my senior male colleague would correct this when I was given coffee orders (without asking) and referred to as 'honey', 'sweetheart' and even patted on the ass, the same male colleague would then take credit for the business and [money] brought in by these meetings at all staff get-togethers.”

The report warns of the consequences of ignoring or underestimating sexism and harassment in the workplace, including long-term effects on women workers’ mental health and productivity.

One respondent's comments shed light on the effects a sexist atmosphere can have on employee performance. “I questioned my loyalty to the organisation," she said. "I didn't work as hard for a while. I took longer lunch breaks, came in late and left early. I didn't care about the organisation, its aims or objectives and took no active part in trying to help move things forward.”

Another said: “It made me feel like I wasn't valued as highly as my male colleagues. It's a subtle thing but it gives you the message that you aren't as interesting, important or worthwhile. It feels like you don't have a voice unless you speak on so-called male terms. You have to cover up how you feel and pretend to be more calculated and without feeling because in the dominant 'corporate' culture; those are the traits people want to see.”

By law, employers can be taken to tribunal if they fail to protect staff from sexual harassment or discrimination. Since the introduction of tribunal fees for employees in July 2013, the number of cases brought has dropped by 70 per cent.

In August, the TUC’s report into workplace sexual harassment called for the UK Government to abolish tribunal fees to remove barriers to justice for women who had been victimised because of their gender. The Scottish Government have already committed to abolishing employment tribunal fees.

Under current laws, employers cannot be held responsible for harassment or abuse of women perpetrated by third parties such as customers or business clients. However, companies may still face consequences if it can be proven they failed to prevent the abuse.

One shopworker, Karen, told the Sunday Herald that she was made to feel neurotic and was pushed out of her job after reporting being sexually harassed by a customer.

She had been helping the man with a purchase when he began to make inappropriate comments. Karen said: “He suddenly stopped and said, ‘You are so unbelievably beautiful’. I just kind of laughed awkwardly and tried to change the subject. He later said he’d like to get me alone ‘to see if I was beautiful all over’.”

The man later returned and repeatedly tried to get Karen alone, in an area of the shop where there were no security cameras. She reported the incidents to her manager, who said that there was no action he could take since the man was a customer. He did not confront the man or ask him not to return and Karen felt she was left with no choice but to walk out.

The store owners later emailed Karen to apologise and promised to speak to the manager. The email assumed she would not be returning to work however and offered her one month’s salary as compensation.

Karen said: “I was now without a job and felt like I’d taken hush money. I felt let down and like I had been made out to be hysterical.”

In another workplace, Karen worked alongside a heavily pregnant woman who was being sexually harassed by a male colleague. He would make sexual comments to the woman and on one occasion backed her into a corner and touched her.

Karen supported the woman to report the incidents to their female manager, but says that they were ignored and the incidents dismissed as unimportant. Both women resigned, but Karen recognises that financial necessity will leave some women trapped in abusive work environments.

She said: “I suppose I was ‘lucky’, I wasn’t on the breadline, so was able to leave both jobs. Many women don’t have that escape route.”

Zero Tolerance’s report praises general gender equality initiatives such as Athena SWAN, which aims to tackle gender imbalances and improve workplace culture in universities. The University of Strathclyde’s Equally Safe In Higher Education programme is also working to eradicate gender-based violence against both staff and students on Scotland’s campuses.

However, the charity says that Scotland’s employers still have work to do in tackling sexism and misogyny, including better support mechanisms for women experiencing violence and promotion of an anti-sexist workplace environment. It also stresses the need for employers to recognise that sexual harassment is linked to wider gender inequalities and match up violence against women initiatives in the workplace with action around women’s job security, career progression and reducing unequal pay.

Zero Tolerance has developed the PACT programme for businesses in Scotland to help them tackle violence and harassment of women at work. The programme is targeted both at those experiencing abuse and their managers and colleagues.

Only 26 per cent of managers who responded to the research reported that they would be confident in dealing with incidents of violence against women in the workplace.

Marshall said: “Employers are still sometimes unable to pick up on the signs of abuse or appropriately assess the correct support mechanisms needed to challenge hostile attitudes to women.

“However, the responses do show a clear appetite for change in the Scottish workforce, both from employers and employees. If employers take up the mantle and make some changes to their workplace, we could make real strides in creating a more gender equal workforce.

“Ultimately this will benefit the employers too; those who spend some time and energy promoting a healthy and supportive workplace will retain talented staff, avoid litigation and lead a more productive team."

Read '"Sexism is a waste": the need to tackle violence and misogyny in Scotland's workplaces' here

Employers looking to improve their workplaces can find further information on the Zero Tolerance website

Anyone experiencing gender-based violence at work should contact with their local union or Citizens Advice Bureau or the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre or Equality Advisory Service

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