More young women have experienced workplace sexual harassment than have not. Learn how to identify if sexual harassment is happening to you, or to others, and discover the steps you can take to address it

When we read phrases like ‘workplace sexual harassment’, most of us probably have a strong gut reaction, and an automatic mental picture of what that may look like. It can be easy to believe that sexual harassment happens only rarely, or is something that happens in the shadows of workplaces – but that wouldn’t be true, as recent research has uncovered just how widespread the problem is.

This week, research published in the British Journal of Surgery found that 63.3% of female surgeons had been sexually harassed, while 89.5% reported witnessing such behaviour. The news of the findings led to a great deal of discussion and debate, but it isn’t the first time a study has uncovered this kind of workplace abuse.

In 2019, a survey by law firm Foot Anstey found that more than one in ten retail workers in the UK have experienced sexual harassment. In 2021, a TES survey found that one in four female secondary school teachers had been sexually harassed or abused over the previous 12 months. And, earlier this year, a study from the TUC found that nearly two-thirds (62%) of young women have experienced sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse while in the workplace.

All this, of course, takes a toll on people’s mental health, impacting their confidence, and leading to anxiety and, in some cases, PTSD. What’s more, research has found that sexual harassment that is taking place in a workplace can be particularly detrimental to our mental health. In 2017, a study published in BMC Public Health took a look at 7,603 employees from 1,041 organisations. What they found was that exposure to workplace sexual harassment was associated with high levels of depressive symptoms. But what they also saw was that employees who were harassed by colleagues, supervisors, or subordinates had a higher level of depressive symptoms than those who were harassed by clients or customers.

exposure to workplace sexual harassment was associated with high levels of depressive symptoms

Clearly, there’s a widespread problem here. So, what does workplace sexual harassment look like, and what can you do if it’s happening to you or to someone you know?

Quite simply, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. The Equality Act 2010 protects employees, contractors, and job applicants against sexual harassment at work – and in order to be sexual harassment, the behaviour must have either ‘violated someone’s dignity, whether it was intended or not’, or ‘Created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for them, whether it was intended or not.’

It’s important to remember that sexual harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender, their sexuality, or their age. It may also not always happen in-person, and can also happen online – in emails, on social media, or in messages.

Acas highlights the following as examples of sexual harassment:

  • Flirting, gesturing, or making sexual remarks about someone's body, clothing or appearance.
  • Asking questions about someone's sex life.
  • Telling sexually offensive jokes.
  • Making sexual comments or jokes about someone's sexual orientation or gender reassignment.
  • Displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content.
  • Touching someone against their will, for example, hugging them.
  • Sexual assault or rape.

Acas also highlights how ‘banter’, which may be considered part of a workplace culture, can still be sexual harassment if the behaviour is of a sexual nature, is unwanted, and violates someone’s dignity, is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive.

If you or someone you know have experienced sexual harassment at work, the company, by law, should take any reports seriously. Make notes about what happened and when. If you have evidence (for example, if the harassment was online or in an email) you can save this, but be wary of taking sound or video recordings – Acas highlights that some workplaces may have policies that staff must not make recordings at work without permission, and you could be at risk of disciplinary action.

If you fear that the employer may not take the complaint seriously, or if you need further support, there are a number of avenues available to you. If you are a member of a trade union, you can speak to your representative. You can also contact the Acas helpline for free, confidential advice. Women in England and Wales can also contact Rights of Women, and women in Scotland can contact the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre.

It’s imperative that we take sexual harassment seriously. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, and learning how to spot and address such abuse is one step we can all take to ensure this is the case.