Sexual harassment is against the law in the UK. Yet there’s evidence this type of discrimination is still widespread, including in the workplace.

According to a recent large-scale report commissioned by the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project, more than half of women, and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18-24 years old, have experienced sexual harassment at work. The report also found that:

  • Nearly 1 in 3 (32%) women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
  • More than 1 in 4 (28%) women have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
  • Nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work
  • A fifth (20%) of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
  • Around 1 in 8 (12%) women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work

In 88% of cases the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was male, and nearly 1 in 5 (17%) women reported that it was their line manager or someone with direct authority over them.

But not only women experience sexual harassment at work. One 2016 study carried out in Australia found that while the majority of sexual harassment complaints are made by women, 11% of men reported sexual harassment at work by other men and 5% by women.

What is sexual harassment exactly?

There is no strict legal definition as to what constitutes sexual harassment, but in general it describes any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature.

According to the Equality Act 2010, any form of harassment (including sexual harassment) is when a behaviour is meant to or has the effect of either violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

In cases of sexual harassment this behaviour can take many forms, including the following:

  • Comments or jokes about appearance, body or clothes
  • Looks or stares at a person’s body
  • Comments or questions about a person’s sex life
  • Requests or demands for sexual favours (from the opposite or same sex)
  • Sexually explicit material being circulated or left on display (calendars, magazines etc.)
  • Inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing
  • Physical and/or sexual assault

Adopt a zero tolerance attitude

Arguably one of the most concerning aspects of the TUC/Everyday Sexism Project survey is how women and their employers respond to sexual harassment at work.

Almost 4 out of 5 women who had experienced sexual harassment at work said they hadn’t told their employer about what was happening. Some (28%) thought reporting it would impact negatively on their work relationships while 15% believed it might harm their career prospects. Others (20%) said they were too embarrassed to talk about it, and 24% felt they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady responded to the report’s findings by saying sexual harassment has no place in a modern workplace, or in wider society.

“Employers must be clear they have a zero tolerance attitude to sexual harassment and treat any complaint seriously,” she said. “It’s a scandal that so few women feel their bosses are dealing with the issue properly.”

What should you do?

If you or someone you know is being subjected to sexual harassment at work, there are a number of things you should do:

  • If you feel able to, you could try and speak to the person harassing you and tell them to stop doing whatever they’re doing that’s causing you distress. If the idea of confronting your harasser makes you anxious, consider asking a colleague, manager or someone else you trust to act on your behalf
  • Inform your employer or manager about the problem – if this isn’t possible, consider getting some advice from your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau. You can also get more information from the Equality and Human Rights Commission
  • Keep a diary of all incidents, including dates, times, places, other people present and how the incident made you feel. Also make notes about all the steps you’ve taken to try to put a stop to the behaviour in question 

If after trying to resolve the problem nothing changes, you may want to take advice on your legal rights, since you may be able to make a claim to an employment tribunal

Whatever legal query you have, we offer confidential advice and information. For personal legal advice, including advice about your basic statutory working rights and employment tribunals, visit our Law Express website. Alternatively, call our free 24-hour UK legal helpline on +44 (0) 1788 556 366.

We also offer a range of emotional support if you’re having a difficult time at or outside work. Our trained counsellors are available over the phone and face to face, plus our online counselling programme can help if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression or stress.

For advice and information call +44 (0) 1788 556 366 or chat to an advisor online 24 hours a day.

Was this article useful?