When the first allegations of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood began to surface almost a year ago, it felt like at long last the lid had been lifted on the ugly reality of too many women’s working lives.
It was as if the scales had fallen from our eyes and everyone could see that this huge problem had been in front of us all along.
Many of us had already experienced such behaviour in workplaces up and down the country (more according to the TUC’s own research and around 18% of men according to BBC research).
Many of us had seen it. Feminist organisations and trade unions had campaigned about it for decades.
Yet somehow the world was taken by surprise.
Not only did the #MeToo movement lift the lid on the problem of sexual harassment, it also lifted the lid on some pretty ugly attitudes.
I and other women who were invited to talk about sexual harassment on TV and radio were asked if we weren’t overreacting, if #MeToo had gone too far, if it wasn’t just human nature for men to be predatory, if men could no longer speak to women at work for fear of being accused of harassment, and if women might somehow be to blame – somehow it always comes back to women being to blame.
“It’s just human nature” is a pretty convenient position for anyone who doesn’t want things to change.
But there’s actually a huge amount we can do to prevent sexual harassment happening and to deal with it properly when it does happen.
That’s why today’s Women and Equalities Select Committee report into workplace sexual harassment is a breath of fresh air.
No hand wringing about how hard it is to tackle sexual harassment. No victim blaming. No buck passing. This report sets out clearly what the government, employers, and enforcement agencies need to do to tackle sexual harassment.
The solutions aren’t rocket science – they’re common-sense proposals that unions, the Everyday Sexism project, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others have been making for years.
The burden of holding perpetrators and employers to account on workplace sexual harassment is too great to be shouldered by individuals alone
Maria Miller’s committee is calling on the government and employers to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, to recognise the scale and impact of sexual harassment in the workplace, and to take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place – and to deal with it swiftly when it does happen.
Crucially, the report recognises the need to shift the burden away from the person on the receiving end of the harassment and onto employers, the tribunal system, and enforcement agencies.
The Committee’s finding that “the burden of holding perpetrators and employers to account on workplace sexual harassment is too great to be shouldered by individuals alone” goes to the heart of the problem.
The TUC’s own research found that over half of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment, but only one in five ever disclosed it to anybody.
The obstacles to reporting sexual harassment are huge and varied.
Women told us they were too ashamed – in fact one in five said they were too embarrassed to report their experience of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is by its very nature humiliating so it’s not hard to see why so many are reluctant to talk about it.
Others said they feared losing their jobs if they spoke out.
TUC research found that fifteen per cent of women who hadn’t reported sexual harassment held back because they feared a negative impact on their jobs.
The case of Harvey Weinstein has taught us a lot of things, not least that women’s fears of victimisation are real and often well founded .
In practice, shifting the burden away from the individual means creating a mandatory duty for employers to prevent sexual harassment, supported by a statutory code of practice.
As well as shifting the burden of dealing with sexual harassment away from the individual, the report also echoes many of the union movement’s recommendations, such as better collection of data by government, good workplace policies and training, strengthening of the Equality Act, and an extension of the time limit to lodge a tribunal claim and greater tribunal awards to improve access to justice.
Now that #MeToo has lifted the lid on the problem, it’s time for the government to respond with solutions.