Women’s Safety At Work
Women’s safety at work was a completely neglected subject for decades until more and more women started speaking up about their own experiences of facing discrimination and harassment. A study on 1500 women suggested that 52% of women had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work (The Everyday Sexism Project). Furthermore, a 2017 study by Fierce revealed that one in five workers felt unsafe attending work and this increased if the individual was a woman. These worrying findings unfortunately suggest that unwanted sexual behaviour is not an uncommon experience within the workplace.
There is often confusion as to what is considered sexual harassment, many may dismiss sexual harassment and only consider more serious sexual offences such as rape or sexual assault. However, sexual harassment includes misogynistic and degrading comments, intimidation, requests for sexual favours, seeking women’s personal information or even coercion to form a sexual romantic relationship. All of which can have a detrimental effect on women’s well-being.
‘Sexual harassment is often a hidden issue. Communities often view violence against women as normal or acceptable, and the victims themselves may normalize their experiences and not see a reason to report it.’ (Business for Social Responsibility)
Sexual harassment has many effects on workers including their mental and physical health. A study in 2019 found that women who had been sexually harassed within the workplace were 3x more likely to develop depressive symptoms. In addition to this, women may experience feelings of guilt and self-blame, increased anxiety, anger, loss of confidence and sometimes even impacting their work negatively. Evidence such as this demonstrates the detrimental effects sexual harassment has on women, it stresses the importance to recognise sexual harassment as a form of violence against women.
Abuse of Power or Toxic Masculinity?
Feminists have long argued that power is at the core of sexual harassment. The deeply embedded notion of power and dominance by men often means women are silenced and do not feel they can report their experience at the workplace. This also results in the lack of accountability surrounding sexual harassment. However, due to the nature of power imbalance at the workplace, this is even more complex. The hierarchy in place at work means that those in higher positions, often men, may abuse their power to those in positions below them. This often stops victims from speaking out due to the implications it may have on their professional opportunities. Women safety at work is also influenced by the fact that their allegation may not be taken seriously and her abuser may still be within the workplace making an extremely uncomfortable environment.
Although the abuse of power is extremely important to consider, we must recognise that women who are in senior positions also experience harassment. This introduces the debate surrounding the performance of masculinity among men. Feminists have argued that when women are in charge and often have to lead projects with men following the instructions, men’s performance of masculinity is threatened. Therefore the performance of masculinity must be achieved through different means, for example, sexual harassment. Other explanations as to why sexual harassment occurs include the belief in traditional gender roles, lack of empathy, and exerting dominance onto another.
The impact of the Me Too movement
The Me Too movement originally began in 2006 on the platform MySpace by a survivor of sexual harassment, Tarana Burke. In 2017, Alyssa Milano ignited this conversation again by encouraging Twitter users to comment ‘Me Too’ if they had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour. This powerful tweet encouraged many women to speak out about their experiences to recognise that they were not alone. It strived to continue the conversation that unveiled the prevalence of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Exposing high-profile men such as Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K, the Me Too movement has emphasised the importance of holding men accountable for their actions.
Since the Me Too movement, however, there has been positive development in the way in which sexual harassment is handled in the workplace. Firstly, and possibly most importantly, the Me Too movement has empowered women and enabled the voices of those who have previously been silenced. Women definitely feel safer at work post Me Too era. It has created a safe space and community in which women can talk to other women and relate to each other knowing that they are not isolated. This has made women more confident in reporting their experiences to employers in order for the correct action to take place. Reaching millions of women across the globe, Me Too has allowed women to unite together and see this as a global issue.
‘By early November 2017, #MeToo had been retweeted 23 million times in 85 countries.’ (Law Reviews)
This in turn has also led employers to take these allegations more seriously. The zero-tolerance approach of sexual harassment has perhaps been stressed within the workplace even more since the Me Too movement. This potentially has reflected in statistics, the Harvard Business Review states that when conducting a study in 2016, 25% of women reported being sexually coerced, however in 2018 that number had declined to 16%. It also noted that the reporting of sexual harassment had increased from 76% to 92% implying women feel more confident reporting their experiences and trusting that the right action will be taken by companies. This is extremely positive and demonstrates that many companies have responded to the movement and have been cooperative in providing a safe space for all. Women’s safety at work was finally taken seriously by men.
The Me Too movement has also changed the way in which the world responds to survivors’ allegations of sexual harassment. The movement has attempted to dismantle the nature of victim-blaming and changed the narrative of ‘boys will be boys’. The scale of the movement has shown the world that sexual harassment is an epidemic within society. It has demonstrated that women’s experiences of sexual harassment are not rare and we should take a survivor’s centred approach by believing and listening to the victim.
The conversation must continue
The movement is far from over. Every day there are hateful replies and tweets to women on the #MeToo hashtag. Many survivors will receive blame, name-calling, misogynistic remarks, or even rape threats. We must keep the conversation regarding sexual harassment in the workplace going to tackle the problem fully.
-We must always include men in the conversations. Interrogating and dismantling the concept of hegemonic masculinity is crucial for men to understand the ways in which it can oppress women. This also allows the opportunity for men to become allies for women at work and recognise when something is not quite right. Men must be involved in these conversations to overcome many of the issues patriarchal structures create.
-Demand the implementation of policies that prevent sexual harassment and hold men accountable for their actions. This can include companies highlighting zero-tolerance approaches to sexual harassment at work that stress professional consequences for harassment. Moreover, changing traditional gender beliefs at an early age through educational policies. A gender-neutral curriculum can dismantle the gender norms that have been deeply rooted within society for decades. Educating children with a gender-neutral approach will develop a level of respect among peers and encourage children to see each other as equals.
-Empowering women has always been at the centre of the Me Too movement. Women must not be silenced anymore. The majority of the sexual harassment cases at the workplaces are not reported even today as women fear retaliation, shame and stigma. Creating a safe space for women to share their experiences and accounts of sexual harassment will always be crucial. The movement has also stressed the importance of strength in numbers to encourage women to unite and tackle these problems together.
Also read: The Silencing of Women Around the Globe