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Sexual harassment

Sarah Horrocks
by Sarah Horrocks Published on 22 January 2009

According to a study from the European commission, 30% of working women are victims of sexual harassment in Europe. Sexual harassment is serious and widespread but often misunderstood and difficult to define. How does the law protect you against it and what should you do if you are a victim or a witness?

What is sexual harassment?

The law makes it clear that sexual harassment is unacceptable. You have a legal right not to be sexually harassed at work, according to the Sex Discrimination Act which makes it unlawful to treat women (or men) less favourably because of their sex. Sexual harassment is also unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. It is not about fun or friendship – it’s about the abuse of power. It can also mean asking for sexual favours using orders, threats and pressure.

Sexual harassment can take many forms:

Verbal

* Comments about appearance, body or clothes

* Indecent remarks

* Questions or comments about a person's sex life

* Asking for sexual favours

* Sexual demands made by someone of either sex

* Promises or threats of employment conditions with regards to sexual favours

Non-verbal

* Looking or staring at a person’s body

* Display of sexually explicit material such as calendars, posters or magazines

Physical

* Physically touching, pinching, caressing, kissing or hugging

* Sexual assault

* Rape

The consequences of sexual harassment are serious and can be psychological in nature (anxiety, depression, insecurity, guilt, shame etc.) and physical (illness, nightmares, tiredness etc.). Sexual harassment creates an insufferable working environment for the employee and therefore requires the employer to put rules in place to prevent it.

Protection and punishment

The law protects you from sexual harassment, from the moment you are hired, during your contract, and until you leave. It protects you whether you suffer from it, refuse to suffer it, witness it or report it. It makes sure that you don’t get punished or lose your job over it, and also forbids discriminatory attitudes toward you. The sanctions faced by the harasser are disciplinary (sacking) and penal if the case is taken to a tribunal. In the most extreme cases, sexual relations obtained by abuse of authority can be considered as rape and the crime will be judged in a court.

What should you do if you are a victim or witness of sexual harrassment?

Resist and react immediately.

- Often the first step to take is to confront the person calmly but seriously. Some people are not aware of the consequences of their behaviour and when they realize the seriousness of the consequences they may stop.

- If this does not happen, talk to someone in HR, an orgaisation or work inspector. Speak to a colleague you trust and get advice from a solicitor.

- If you want to take the case to court you need to have evidence in the form of documents, images, witnesses, emails, written traces or other documents to prove the harassment. You can also ask an organisation for help, or your trade union, which may be able to act on your behalf.

Who to contact for help

* Women Against Sexual Harassment (WaSH), 5th Floor The Wheel, 4 Wild Court (off Kingsway), London WC2B 4AU (020 7405 0430)

* The Equal Opportunities Commission, Head Office, Overseas House, Quay Street, ManchesterM3 3HN (0161 833 9244; fax: 835 1657; email). Wales: Windsor House, Windsor Lane, CardiffCF1 3DE (01222 343552; fax: 641079; email) Scotland: Stock Exchange House, 7 Nelson Mandela Place, GlasgowG2 1QW; email. For equality issues in Northern Ireland contact the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

* Your trade union, if you have one

* Rights of Women, 52 Featherstone Street, LondonEC1Y 8RT (020 7251 6577)

* Citizens Advice Bureau – look in Yellow Pages, ask at your local library or call the National Association of Citizen’s Advice Bureaux in England and Wales (020 7833 2181), in Scotland (0131 667 0156) and in Northern Ireland (028 90 231120)

* Your local law centre – look in Yellow Pages or call the Law Centres Federation (020 7387 8570; Scotland: 0141 561 7266)

by Sarah Horrocks

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