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A Cable survey of people who’d experienced workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, yielded shocking results. What can be done about this persistent issue?

Research: Jo Clarke
Illustration: Luke Carter (www.lukecarter.co.uk)

‘‘When i had a chesty cold, a colleague made a comment about rubbing Vicks on me…’’

Sadly, in 2016, it’s still over-optimistic to think of workplace sexual harassment as a thing of the past; the dwindling preserve of ultra-macho industries or lone dinosaur employees who’ll be on their way out soon.

We collected personal testimonies from 18 people working in Bristol, all of whom had experienced and/or witnessed some form of sexual harassment or discrimination in their workplace.

A grim daily reality…

A number of testimonies describe incidents of an explicit and highly sexual nature. One source says she’s been asked by male colleagues to “go for a quickie” in the storeroom, and has experienced countless uninvited sexual advances from colleagues and customers alike. Two female respondents working in the hospitality industry describe aggressive incidents of harassment: one claims her breasts were “grabbed by the bartender” at the end of a waiting shift; another recalls being frequently harassed by older men.

Most common within the testimonials are examples of employees using positions of authority to perpetrate sexual crimes, chauvinism and sexism under the pretence of that old chestnut, banter. One respondent mention:

“inappropriate comments about my clothing, hair, the way I smell and what I wear” made by the general manager. She says she was tricked into having dinner with a boss who told her everyone on staff was going out to a restaurant. On arrival, she realised “it was only he and I – everyone else was unaware”.

‘My boss was often in the habit of parading his female staff to male customers, saying “isn’t she beautiful?” – which made us feel objectified, and sometimes unsafe’

Aside from harassment, many respondents give accounts of gender-based discrimination. One was discriminated against “for being a single mum” and subsequently “fired for being unreliable”. Another says she has “two male colleagues that do the same job as me but exclude me from everything”. One of the most shocking is the testimony of one woman who was told she “wouldn’t be a good candidate for management, but would fulfil a ‘mother hen’ role instead”.

One female respondent who was temping in an office discovered her male colleagues had apparently been masturbating while thinking about her, “using how they felt in the minutes afterwards to gauge how attractive I was”.

While they are the majority, it’s not only women who encounter discrimination. “Being the only male employee working on certain days,” says one male respondent, “I was made to do all the heavy lifting at work under the excuse of being a ‘big strong boy’, which I found patronising and burdening”. Another tells of how he worked at a children’s café where all men were made to work in the kitchen because the female boss assumed they’d be “freaked out” by breastfeeding mothers.

How are problems tackled?

‘One guy said that he looked forward to seeing my legs every day’

Sadly, many respondents say they’ve felt unable to report incidents because “it’s systematic”, “a normal thing” or the employer is uninterested. One would report harassment from customers to her boss who advised her to refuse them service. However, her coworkers only advice was to stand up for herself. This got her branded as “moody” and a “bitch”. While one individual’s reporting led to the perpetrator being fired, another says her claims were denied by her harasser – and that shortly afterwards she was put up for redundancy.

What more can be done?

From the grassroots to the council, sexism is finally beginning to be challenged. Groups such as BS5 Against Street Harassment and Hollaback are directly confronting everyday sexism. More institutionally, Bristol Zero Tolerance (BZT) is an initiative that works towards Bristol becoming a city free from gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation.

Charlotte Gage, Partnerships Project Officer at Bristol Women’s Voice and BZT coordinator, tells us BZT is encouraging businesses and organisations to sign a pledge committing them to tackling forms of harassment, abuse or discrimination in the workplace. BZT works with them to create an action plan which includes what the business can do to support staff who may be experiencing discrimination or violence. Plans are tailored to the specific organisation and its needs, and could include actions such as a bi-annual workplace questionnaire, an online auditing tool to report incidents anonymously, or having workplace unions that offer private consultations for discrimination, harassment and violence cases.

Bristol is the first city in England to take on this challenge and work with the council and other institutions to support victims. Clearly there’s still a lot of work to be done to create safe workplaces where individuals are treated with respect and claims of harassment and discrimination are dealt with appropriately.

Let’s hope that 2016 is the year Bristol achieves gender equality at work, in the street and in the home.

Read more on: feminism, sexism, sexual assault, workers rights.

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