Rights of Women survey reveals online sexual harassment has increased, as women continue to suffer sexual harassment whilst working through the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Women’s rights charity survey data shows that Covid-19 has seen women experience an upsurge in online sexual harassment whilst working from home, as harassers take advantage of online work platforms and social media during the pandemic.
  • Nearly 1 in 2 women who have experienced sexual harassment at work reported to experience some to all of it online.
  • 15% of women who have experienced sexual harassment at work reported an increase in online harassment whilst working from home during Covid-19.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 women who have reported sexual harassment to their employer said that the process had been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
  • Since announcing a package of commitments to tackle sexual harassment at work last year, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has yet to respond to their consultation on sexual harassment. Rights of Women are calling on the Government to urgently prioritise making guidance on sexual harassment for employers statutory.

Between 23rd November and 15th December, leading women’s charity, Rights of Women, conducted an online survey to gather information on women’s experiences of sexual harassment at work and working from home through the Covid-19 pandemic.

This inaugural data is the first of its kind in England and Wales and reveals the ways in which women are unsafe and unprotected from sexual harassment at work during Covid-19.

The survey exemplifies how current protections in the Equality Act 2010 are not robust enough to challenge the culture of sexual harassment at work, or whilst working from home, and a mandatory preventative duty for employers is needed to tackle the issue.

Rights of Women is calling on the Government to act by strengthening the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) ‘Sexual harassment at work technical guidance’ and making it statutory for all employers.

Rights of Women also urges the Government to publish its response to its ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ September 2019 consultation, which was due in spring of this year.

Survey exposes an upsurge in online sexual harassment whilst working from home

  • 45% of women experiencing sexual harassment, reported experiencing the harassment remotely. Remote sexual harassment refers to the following: sexual messages (e.g. email, texts, social media); cyber harassment (e.g. via Zoom, Teams, Slack etc); and sexual calls.
  • 42% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work have experienced some to all of the harassment online.
  • 23% of women who have experienced sexual harassment reported an increase or escalation whilst working from home, since the start of lockdown (23rd March 2020),
  • 15% of women who have experienced sexual harassment reported that some or all of the harassment has moved online whilst working from home, since the start of lockdown (23rd March 2020).
  • One woman highlighted how working from home has enabled her harassers to further invade her privacy: “having to let colleagues into my bedroom (via video meetings) means I feel my privacy has been invaded and nowhere is safe. The men now have more ammunition to mock me with.”
  • One woman spoke of her experience of cyber harassment, via Zoom: “The director of the company uses Zoom to take screenshots of myself and other women which he shares with colleagues making derogatory statements and implying the photos look like we’re doing sexual acts.”
  • One woman spoke of the impact working from home has had on her ability to report sexual harassment: “The fact it’s on Zoom in front of others in a jokey manner makes it difficult to address.”

Survey reveals women’s access to justice and safety from sexual harassment at work has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, as investigations stall

  • 72% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work do not feel their employer is doing enough to protect and/or support them from the harassment and abuse.
  • 29% of women who have reported sexual harassment to their employer reported that the response has been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • One woman wrote of how working from home impacted their employer’s response and investigation into sexual harassment: “due to restrictions in limiting contact with people, management haven’t wanted to go into the home of the perpetrator to speak with them about the matter because it’s not viewed at necessary and could be risky. It also took a long time to get a meeting arranged because, due to restrictions, only management staff were allowed into the office. It took a long time for them to answer my emails due to Covid so the pandemic had a huge impact on the way the situation was handled.”
  • A key worker at a hospital told us of how the investigation process into sexual harassment was stalled, and she had to continue working with her harasser, due to the pressures of the pandemic: “As the pandemic was declared, all attention was diverted in managing clinical pressures and needs as I work in a hospital. This meant an investigation was not started for months. In the meantime, I felt unprotected as there was no system in place to remove the harasser from the department whilst an investigation was pending. …There is no policy in this mammoth organisation that addresses sexual harassment.”

Deeba Syed, Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women, said:

“These statistics echo what women have been telling us already, sexual harassment at work happens online as well as in-person. Although more women are working from home, online sexual harassment has increased and women continue to suffer sexual harassment despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Women working from home have seen their harassers take to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, social media, messages, and phone calls, to continue the torrent of abuse.

What is more, women’s health and safety from sexual harassment at work is being undermined and overlooked by their employers. Women have told us that employers are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to delay and frustrate the justice processes for women who do come forward to report harassment. In doing so, they continue to neglect their legal responsibility to prevent and protect women from sexual harassment at work.

The survey highlights how the current legal framework for sexual harassment complaints is not-fit-for purpose, as employers continue to undermine their responsibility to keep women safe from sexual harassment and harassers repeatedly evade justice. Until legislation and guidance reflect the lived realities of women, whether working from home or on site, no space is safe from harassment and abuse for women at work.

It has been over a year since the GEO closed their ‘Consultation on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ and we are still waiting on the Government’s response and next steps which they pledged to release by spring. Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published technical guidance for sexual harassment, and now more than ever this guidance must be is made statutory for all employers to follow as an urgent priority.”

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