Revealed: Disabled women face shocking levels of workplace harassment – TUC

The government's sexual harassment consultation must introduce a duty on employers to take steps to prevent sexual harassment, Alice Moss writes

Alice Moss is governance and secretariat officer in the equality and strategy department of the TUC, working with the TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee.

Five years ago, the TUC published ground-breaking research in our report Still Just a Bit of Banter? It was the year before the #MeToo movement emerged, and showed that more than half of women workers had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Today, we are publishing new research that looks specifically at the experiences of disabled women. Seven out of 10 have experienced sexual harassment at work – and some have been forced to leave their job as a result.

Unions are here to support our members. Our reps negotiate policies with managers to prevent sexual harassment. And if any of our members do experience it, we are there to give them whatever help they need.

To do this effectively, we need to understand why, when and where workers are most at risk. In 2019, we followed up Still Just a Bit of Banter? with a report Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace. We found that LGBT people are an elevated risk of sexual harassment, with around seven out of ten LGBT workers having experienced have sexual harassment at work (68 per cent).

If the risk is elevated for LGBT workers, could it be for other groups of workers too?

Inequalities stack up

We already knew that disabled workers face other disadvantages. They face a significant disability pay and employment gap and they are more likely to be in insecure work.  On top of that, research we put out in June found that one in eight disabled workers did not feel able to tell their employer about their disability, health condition or impairment.

Disabled women experience inequalities and stereotypes based on both gender and disability. These intersect to amplify discrimination, for example, disabled women experience a pay gap of 36 per cent compared to non-disabled men, equivalent to £3.68 per hour.

Today’s report adds to the evidence we can share with union reps, employers and government, showing that disabled women are at elevated risk of sexual harassment too.

It was very disturbing to discover that 7 out of 10 disabled women who responded to our survey reported that they had been sexually harassed at work. Our report seeks to understand their experiences, with proposals to ensure they are taken into account when designing policies to tackle sexual harassment.

The research also highlighted that many disabled women workers experience multiple forms of harassment, with more than half of respondents (54 per cent) telling us they had experienced two or more types of sexually harassing behaviour, and 45 per cent telling us they had experienced three or more. This points to workplace cultures where sexual harassment is a frequent and normalised occurrence rather than an isolated incident.

Yet our analysis found that two-thirds (66 per cent) of disabled women who were harassed did not report it to their employer.

Nearly two out of five (39 per cent) of those who did not report it said it was because they did not think they would be taken seriously, and three in ten (31 per cent) concerned that reporting would negatively affect their career or work relationships.

Slipping through the net

Workplaces that fail to have clear policies is another concern, with one in ten (10 per cent) of the respondents who had been harassed unaware of how to make a complaint, and some (6 per cent) not knowing they could report the incident at all.

This shows that a lack of trust, fear of discrimination and poor policies are affecting disabled women’s ability to report sexual harassment. This must be addressed.

Despite renewed interest since #Metoo 2017, lots of incidents of sexual harassment still slip through the net. But the solution isn’t just to exclude a few high-profile perpetrators and consider the job done. Government, employers and unions need to work together to tackle the misogynistic workplace culture that has allowed these incidents to take place in the first place.

That’s why we hope that a government announcement expected soon on their sexual harassment consultation will introduce a duty on employers to take steps to prevent sexual harassment, and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will introduce a code of practice.

To make these measures effective, workplace policies against sexual harassment must be promoted and enforced. Employers should do this in consultation with trade unions, so that the workforce are aware of the policies and have confidence in them.  And to give a new duty some teeth, the EHRC should take enforcement action where employers are failing.

There are other steps the government should take too, such as tackling insecure work and extend the full range of statutory employment protections to all workers, regardless of contract.

Trade unions should hold employers and government to account – making sure their reps are armed with the knowledge of what employers’ obligations are, what the behaviours of sexual harassment are, and how to support members if affected.

Image credit: Ivan Radic

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