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Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
What we know about sexual harassment

Defining sexual harassment

This report focuses on the sexual harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people at work. The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

It is important to note that a perpetrator’s claim that a comment or action was meant as a joke or a compliment is not a defence in a sexual harassment case. Nor does the harassment have to be directed at the person complaining about it. For example, the display of pornography in a work environment or sexual comments directed at others may create a degrading, intimidating or hostile working environment for workers even if they are not intended as the object of the comments. It is also harassment to treat someone less favourably because they have rejected or been subjected to unwanted sexual conduct.

Some examples of behaviour that could constitute sexual harassment are:

  • indecent or suggestive remarks
  • questions, jokes, or suggestions about a colleague’s sex life
  • the display of pornography in the workplace
  • the circulation of pornography (by email, for example)
  • unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing
  • requests or demands for sexual favours
  • any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment.

Who is affected by sexual harassment and where does it occur?

Everyone and anyone can experience sexual harassment at work. However, women are more likely to experience sexual harassment than men. TUC research found that more than half (52 per cent) of women experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.3 This statistic was echoed by a 2017 poll by the BBC, which found that 50 per cent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment compared to 20 per cent of men.4

The sexual harassment and sexual assault of women at work sits within a wider, systemic experience of violence against women and girls at home, in education and in public and digital spaces. It is part of the everyday context of the lives and experiences of women and girls across the UK. As the Women and Equalities Select Committee noted in their report on sexual harassment in public places, harassment is, “a routine and sometimes relentless experience for women and girls, many of whom first experience it at a young age.”5 When looking at women’s experience of sexual harassment and assault it is clear that some groups, including Black and minority ethnic (BME), disabled and LGBT women are affected in different and disproportionate ways, their particular experience being shaped by structural discrimination and pervasive, harmful stereotypes.

Workplace sexual harassment can take place in a range of different locations. For example, a client or patient’s home, on a work trip, a team away-day or at a work social event such as a Christmas party.

Social media and email are increasingly involved in workplace sexual harassment. Our report, Still Just a Bit of Banter 6which looked at sexual harassment of women in the workplace found that one in twenty women had been sexually harassed by email or online.7

As well as taking different forms and occurring in diverse settings, sexual harassment at work may be perpetrated by people in a range of roles, including managers, potential employers, colleagues, clients, patients, or customers. For example, a care worker might be harassed by a client when on a home visit or a prospective employer might demand sexual favours of an actor at a casting session. Sexual harassment perpetrated by a client, contractor or customer is referred to as third-party harassment.

What do we know about LGBT people’s experience of sexual harassment at work?

Very little is known about the true extent of sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace.

The most recent research into LGBT people’s experience of workplace sexual harassment was conducted by the Government Equalities Office (GEO). This found that one per cent of LGBT people, who had been in a job for the 12 months preceding the survey, had experienced sexual harassment or violence at work.8

However, this finding was based on a short, single question within a wider survey which did not attempt to define sexual harassment or contextualise it for LGBT people. A similar approach was adopted in the last government survey which collected general data on sexual harassment at work. This also found that one per cent of people report being sexually harassed at work.9 It is therefore not surprising that the recent GEO research found such a small proportion of LGBT workers reporting sexual harassment.

Researching LGBT people’s experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace is complicated by the fact that most LGBT workplace research and interventions to date have focused on homophobic harassment and bullying.

Following the start of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment in the workplace has had a high profile in the media and been the focus of attention by government, regulators and employers. However, LGBT people’s experiences have not tended to be discussed as part of this.

The lack of representation of LGBT people’s experiences within public discussion of sexual harassment and the fact that when sexual harassment occurs it may be mixed with trans-, bi- or homo- phobia might be a barrier for LGBT people to identify their experiences as sexual harassment.

As with other forms of sexual harassment, several other barriers exist that complicate attempts to quantify incidents of sexual harassment. These include the normalisation of sexually harassing behaviours in the workplace and wider society, victims’ unwillingness to share their experiences, even anonymously, and a reluctance to name what happened to them as sexual harassment. 10


In order to better understand LGBT people’s experiences of sexual harassment at work, the TUC commissioned in-depth research. In November 2018, we surveyed 1,001 adult LGBT workers in Great Britain, who had worked within the last five years.

We did not set quotas as the exact profile of the LGBT population is not known and therefore the findings of our original set of 1,001 are not weighted.

To ensure a better balance between the number of responses from men and women, we gathered a further 150 responses from LGBT women, who had worked within the last five years, in January 2019.

The responses were combined with those from LGBT women from the main sample. The combined responses of women from the main survey plus the additional responses are referred to as the women-only sample and indicated through this report with an *.

We know from our previous work that the best way of getting an accurate picture of the prevalence of sexual harassment at work is not to simply ask people whether they have experienced it. This is because there are low levels of understanding of the full range of behaviours which meet the legal definition of sexual harassment in the workplace and also because individuals can be reluctant to label their experience as sexual harassment. 11 We therefore mirrored the approach adopted in our earlier sexual harassment research,12 listing a range of different types of sexual harassment and asking whether people had experienced these. We also used specific examples drawn from LGBT workers’ experiences of sexual harassment to contextualise the different types of harassment and ensure that LGBT workers were more easily able to relate to them.

The research examined the following aspects of sexual harassment of LGBT workers:

  • unwelcome verbal sexual advances (eg suggestions that sex with an individual from the opposite sex will make you ‘straight’)
  • unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature (eg jokes about gay men being promiscuous or lesbians needing a man)
  • unwelcome questions/ comments about your sex life (eg questions about how you have sex your role, etc)
  • comments of a sexual nature about your sexual orientation
  • comments of a sexual nature about your gender identity
  • hearing colleagues make comments of a sexual nature about a straight colleague in front of you          
  • hearing colleagues make comments of a sexual nature about a lesbian/gay woman, gay man, bisexual or trans colleague in front of you
  • receiving unwanted emails with material of a sexual nature
  • receiving unwanted messages with material of a sexual nature over social media from colleagues
  • displays of pornographic photographs or drawings in the workplace
  • unwanted touching (eg placing hand on lower back or knee)
  • sexual assault (unwanted touching of the breasts, buttocks or genitals, attempts to kiss)
  • serious sexual assault or rape.

Our survey also allowed participants to share written details of specific incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Throughout the report we have illustrated our findings with quotes and examples drawn from these responses. Where sources are not indicated, they all come from this research. We have also used quotes drawn from previously unpublished, qualitative information submitted by LGBT workers to The Cost of Being Out at Work survey.13

  • 3. TUC (2016) Still Just a Bit of Banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace
  • 4. BBC (2017) ‘Half of women’ sexually harassed at work –
  • 5. Women’s Equalities and Select Committee (2018) Inquiry into Sexual Harassment of Women and Girls in Public Places
  • 6. TUC (2016) Still Just a Bit of Banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace, page 17
  • 7. Ibid
  • 8. Government Equalities Office (2018) National LGBT Survey: research report, page 150
  • 9. Business Innovation and Skills (2008) Fair Treatment at Work Report: findings from the 2008 survey
  • 10. TUC (2016) Still Just a Bit of Banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace
  • 11. EOC (2007) Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: a literature review, Working Paper Series No. 59
  • 12. TUC (2016) Still Just a Bit of Banter? Sexual harassment in the workplace
  • 13. TUC (2017) The Cost of Being Out at Work: LGBT+ workers’ experiences of harassment and discrimination. This survey was conducted on Survey Monkey between 1 March and 14 May 2017 and was promoted on social media, receiving 5,074 responses. Of these, 412 respondents provided a written response detailing their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace.