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Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace

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Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

#MeToo has been effective in focusing the eyes of the world on the problem of sexual harassment at work. But the voices of LGBT people haven’t been heard clearly enough in discussions around this issue. We wanted to change this and foreground LGBT people’s voices and experiences in the ongoing debate and search for solutions. We therefore conducted the first survey of its kind on this issue.

We found shockingly high levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Around seven out of ten LGBT workers experienced at least one type of sexual harassment at work (68 per cent) and almost one in eight LGBT women (12 per cent) reported being seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work.

However, this is a hidden problem with two thirds of those who were harassed not reporting it; and one in four of those who did not report the harassment being silenced by fear of ‘outing’ themselves at work.

Government must act urgently to put the responsibility for tackling this problem where it belongs – with employers. We need stronger legislation that places a new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment, with real consequences for those who don’t comply.

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For over a year we’ve been listening to the voices of the #MeToo movement – to the thousands of stories about sexual harassment and sexual assault at work. The stories that were shared echoed the findings of our 2016 report Still Just a Bit of Banter and shed light on the lives of women whose experiences of workplace sexual harassment were all too often dismissed, normalised and swept under the carpet.

The wave of disclosures that has swept across the country, through industry after industry, is both welcome and empowering, shining a powerful light on experiences that have too long been marginalised and ignored.

However, the voices of LGBT people have rarely been heard on this issue and very little in-depth research has been carried out to properly understand their experiences. We know from our previous research on LGBT people at work that their experience of the workplace is all too often marked by prejudice and hostility.1  

Why we conducted the research

We wanted to understand LGBT people’s experience of sexual harassment at work and make sure that when government, regulators, employers and unions develop their responses to the epidemic of sexual harassment that #MeToo has revealed, the experiences and needs of LGBT people are at the heart of this. We therefore carried out the first specifically targeted research of its kind in the UK, seeking the views of more than 1,000 LGBT people on their experience of sexual harassment at work. We not only asked about instances of sexual harassment but also whether people had felt able to report it and what impact the sexual harassment had on their physical and mental health.

Main findings

Our findings were shocking. Around seven out of ten (68 per cent) LGBT people who responded to our survey reported being sexually harassed at work, yet two thirds didn’t report it to their employer. One in four of those who didn’t report were prevented from raising the issue with their employer by their fear of being ‘outed’ at work.

The research found unacceptably high levels of sexual harassment across all different types of harassing behaviours for both LGBT men and women.

LGBT women responding to our survey experienced higher levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault in many areas. There were also some areas where men and women reported similar levels of sexual harassment.

The difference in experience was particularly apparent in reported instances of unwanted touching, sexual assault and rape at work.

LGBT women are:

  • more than twice as likely to report unwanted touching (35 per cent*2   of women compared to 16 per cent of men).
  • almost twice as likely to report experiencing sexual assault. More than one fifth (21 per cent*) of women compared to 12 per cent of men
  • almost twice as likely to experience serious sexual assault or rape. Around one in eight women (12 per cent*) compared to one in fourteen (7 per cent) of men.

Many of the incidents of sexual harassment that we were told about appeared to be linked to the sexualisation of LGBT identities and the misconception that these identities solely focus on sexual activity. People influenced by these stereotypes see being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans as an invitation to make sexualised comments or ask inappropriate questions about an LGBT person’s sex life, particularly if an individual is ‘out’.

A number of those responding to our survey described a range of longer-term impacts caused by their experience of sexual harassment at work. Around one in six people (16 per cent) reported a negative effect on their mental health and a similar proportion (16 per cent) left their job as a result of being sexually harassed.

Two thirds of respondents who had been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted at work had not reported the most recent incident to their employer.

More than half (57 per cent) of those that hadn’t reported said that this was because they thought there would be a negative impact on their relationships at work if they did. Over four in ten (44 per cent) said they didn’t report because they feared a negative impact on their career.

One in four had not reported because it would have revealed their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

What unions want

Importantly, our findings also tell us that being a union member makes a real difference to people’s experience. Union members were more likely to report their experiences of sexual harassment to their employer (32 per cent vs 22 per cent non-union members), more likely to say it was taken seriously (27 per cent vs 15 per cent non-union members), and more likely to say it was dealt with satisfactorily (17 per cent compared to eight per cent of workers who were not union members).

But workplace cultures need to change. This will only happen on the scale that we need if government introduces a new legal duty on employers to take preventative steps to stop sexual harassment happening.

We also need to strengthen the role of key regulators such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and reintroduce and improve legislation to protect workers from third-party harassment.

Every employer must take a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of discrimination and harassment (and sexual harassment).

  • 1TUC (2017) The Cost of Being Out at Work: LGBT+ workers’ experiences of harassment and discrimination
  • 2Where there is an * it indicates the use of combined responses drawn from the responses of women in the main survey plus an additional sample of 150 women.
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