Nearly a quarter of women in the UK who have faced work-based sexual harassment said that it has increased online during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research from the legal charity Rights of Women, which supports survivors of abuse.
In late 2020, the charity surveyed hundreds of women and also found that 42% of respondents had recently experienced harassment from co-workers online and that more than 70% think their employers are not doing enough to protect them.
One woman reported how “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.”
Another said that remote working has forced her to virtually invite her harasser into her bedroom, causing her to feel that “my privacy has been invaded and nowhere is safe.”
Rights of Women is now demanding the UK government takes further action to protect workers from sexual harassment both on-site and when working from home.
“The survey highlights how the current legal framework for sexual harassment complaints is not fit for purpose, and employers continue to undermine their responsibility to keep women safe,” said Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at the charity.
“Until legislation and guidance reflect the lived realities of women, whether working from home or on site,” Syed warned, “no [work] space is safe from harassment and abuse.”
New tools, new threats
Campaigners say the shift to remote and online working for many people during COVID-19 has not curbed workplace sexual harassment – rather, it has given perpetrators new tools with which to intimidate, abuse and try to silence women.
It may be easier online compared to in-person, for example, to virtually corner someone and say or do something abusive without anyone else witnessing it.
“The fact it's on Zoom in front of others in a jokey manner makes it difficult to address,” said one respondent to the UK survey, about her experience of online harassment.
The UK charity’s research, released on Friday 8 January, also suggested that employers’ responses to harassment have been delayed under the pandemic.
One woman told Rights of Women that after she reported her experience of workplace harassment to her employer, “it took a long time to get a meeting arranged because, due to restrictions, only management staff were allowed into the office.”
It also “took a long time for them to answer my emails due to Covid”, she added, “so the pandemic had a huge impact on the way the situation was handled.”
Abuse on the frontlines
The UK survey also reflected how workplace sexual harassment is not only affecting home workers during the pandemic. Fewer than half (45%) of the women who said they had recently experienced such harassment had experienced it online.
The majority had instead experienced harassment in person. These include women working with the public and frontline health workers responding to the crisis.
One healthcare worker said they felt completely “unprotected” from her harasser as “all attention was diverted in managing clinical pressures and needs”.
She said that an investigation into her harassment, by her employer, was delayed as a result of this diversion of attention and “there was no system in place to remove the harasser from the department whilst an investigation was pending.”
She also complained that while she said she works in a “mammoth organisation”, her employer has “no policy… that addresses sexual harassment”.
Nearly a third of respondents to the UK survey said their employers’ responses to workplace harassment seemed to have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before the current crisis these issues appeared endemic.
Research published in 2016 by the Trades Union Congress found that more than half of women polled in the UK had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Campaigners say that one problem is the government’s removal of third-party protection from the 2010 Equality Act – which protected workers from harassment by, for example, patients in a hospital or customers in a shop. This act made employers liable if they knew of third-party harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it.
Rights of Women is now calling on the UK government to do more to protect women from workplace sexual harassment, including introducing a mandatory preventative duty for employers to tackle the issue.
It also wants the government to follow up its own consultation on sexual harassment, and strengthen the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance to employers, which, for example, states that company policies should include “appropriate warnings against online harassment and encourage workers to report [transgressions].
“Now more than ever,” said Syed, the senior legal officer at the charity, “this guidance must be made statutory for all employers to follow as an urgent priority.”
In response to openDemocracy’s questions, a spokesperson for the UK government’s Equality Hub said: "Sexual harassment is wrong and must be stamped out.”
They added: “Strong laws against workplace harassment are set out in the Equality Act 2010. Under the Act, employees who feel they have been harassed in the workplace can take legal action through an employment tribunal. We consulted to ensure that laws to protect people from sexual harassment at work are operating effectively. The response to this will be published as soon as is feasible."
They did not respond directly to questions about workplace sexual harassment rising during the pandemic, or to Rights of Women’s specific demands for the government to introduce a mandatory preventative duty for employers to tackle these issues, and make the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance statutory for all employers.
They also did not respond to questions about the protection of workers from third-party sexual harassment, and the impact of this being removed from the Equality Act.
* This article was amended on 12 January 2021 to include UK government comment.