Unions are there to support their members who have experienced sexual harassment, standing with them so they aren’t alone. They can negotiate policies, raise awareness and promote a positive workplace culture that stops sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
But, as the recent TUC report on sexual harassment of disabled women at work shows, the individualised reporting-based approach to tackling sexual harassment is not working. We need to move the onus away from victims of sexual harassment, especially when, like disabled women, those who have experienced it already suffer from discrimination and structural inequality.
Our research found that almost 7 out of 10 (68 per cent) of disabled women have experienced sexual harassment, and of them two-thirds (66 per cent) did not report it, which means huge numbers of incidents going unreported. And, unfortunately, these incidents aren’t isolated – more than half (54 per cent) of those who had experienced sexual harassment had experienced two or more behaviours, and more than four in 10 (45 per cent) had experienced three or more.
And of the disabled women who did report, less than half of them considered the matter to be dealt with satisfactorily. This finding highlights that there is little incentive among disabled women to report the sexual harassment they encounter.
Workplaces and the law are failing disabled women
The government needs to bring in a new legal duty to prevent harassment (including sexual harassment) so employers have a legal obligation to protect workers. But employers shouldn’t wait for this legislation - they need to take steps to provide a safe and inclusive workplace for disabled women (and everyone) now.
Disabled women encounter structural discrimination supported by harmful stereotypes, based on both disability and gender. These stereotypes can be dehumanising – think about how throughout the pandemic the government have continuously written off the deaths of disabled people.
Disabled women have it tough in the labour market
Disabled women encounter significant pay and employment gaps because of their gender and disability: they earn £3.68 per hour less on average compared to non-disabled men. Disabled people are also more likely to be in insecure work. We know the threat of unemployment makes it more difficult for workers to stick their head above the parapet and make a complaint. This is particularly true when workers know they are unlikely to reach a satisfactory resolution.
Effects on health
An individual complaint process is unreasonable when sexual harassment may have already negatively impacted the health of the worker concerned – over a third (34 per cent) of the disabled women who had experienced sexual harassment reported that it had a negative effect on their mental health, and one in 17 (six per cent) on their physical health.
Tackling structural inequality means moving from an individual approach to a collective approach. We’re not talking about calling out a few perpetrators (while leaving the majority undetected), we need to tackle inequality and discrimination.
And we need to make noise about it and hold employers to account – there’s no point having a policy if it sits in a dusty handbook and doesn’t apply in the real world.
Things can and will be better but we need to get serious about preventing sexual harassment and not just picking up the pieces afterwards.
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