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Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, was one of the first high profile women in business to shed light on the difficulties facing women in the workplace: her 2012 TED Talk on the differences between men and women at work, exposed the reasons behind the statistics that show women are not reaching the top of any profession, anywhere in the world. Sandberg attributed this global scarcity of female leaders to the facts that women are incredibly self-critical and have an inability to promote and market themselves as successfully as men, as well as the added pressure to start a family and find a supportive and encouraging partner. Although Sandberg’s honest and truthful presentation highlighted the trade-off between professional success and personal fulfilment for women, she failed to add sexual harassment to the list of obstacles women have to tackle on a daily basis, in order to successfully climb the career ladder.
The current trend to normalise sexual harassment suggests that unwelcome comments, verbal abuse and unwanted physical touching have become part of our everyday and that our culture of acceptance simply brushes the problem under the carpet for the next generation to deal with. Although men are also victims of sexual harassment, women are far more likely to be the subject of systematic gender bias.
According to the Trades Union Congress, over half of all women in the workplace experience some form of sexual harassment which varies in severity from leering and wolf whistling to obscene phone calls, requests for sexual favours and in the most severe cases, rape. Why do we not tackle the pandemic, when we know sexual harassment is still a problem within the global workplace? The main problem: the blame is often placed on the victim, not the perpetrator. TUC’s study showed that 4 in 5 women who were sexually harassed failed to report these incidents to their managers, for fear of being called out as a liar, losing the trust and respect of peers or even losing their job in an uncertain economic climate. Unequal power relations between men and women often mean that victims are in a subordinate and vulnerable position in comparison to perpetrators, who usually hold a position of power over their victims.
Furthermore, women who speak out against sexual harassment are often labelled as ‘frigid’ and unemotional, unwilling to take part in “workplace banter”: sexually explicit gestures, sexist jokes and groping all seem to be labelled as “harmless fun” by perpetrators, who exploit their power to abuse others. The irony is, the UK offers legal protection from sexual harassment to everyone under the Equality Act of 2010; until our society starts to take sexual harassment seriously, perpetrators will be free to abuse again, victims will struggle silently without the support that they need and our society will teach young children and students that sexual harassment is “just a bit of fun” and commonplace in the professional world of work.
By Julia Contsable