A new hotline is offering free, confidential legal advice to women in England and Wales who are experiencing sexual harassment at work. Launched in August, it is the only hotline of its kind dedicated to addressing a problem affecting women from all walks of life.
Already, the hotline has been inundated with calls from women of all ages and from across England and Wales, suggesting that the scope of the problem is much bigger than previously thought, said Deeba Syed, the hotline’s senior legal officer, in an interview with PassBlue.
“We had thought in the beginning that we might have to explain what sexual harassment is to women, and we have had one or two inquiries like that, but the majority are either things that have gotten quite serious or have gotten physical,” she said. That included several cases of sexual assault.
Sponsored by a public interest group called , and operated by volunteer female lawyers specializing in employment and discrimination law, the hotline takes calls only two evenings a week for now. The British-based number is 020-7490-0152.
Initial funding came from a group of female actors, including Emma Watson, who is UN Women’s goodwill ambassador and has played a key role in publicizing the hotline through social media. Other donors, some high profile as well, have since stepped in, drawing additional publicity (and calls), helping to keep the hotline going.
Syed says the phones have been “constantly ringing” since the hotline went live, suggesting that it fills an acute need.
The service is a venture into “uncharted territory,” Syed said, since neither the government nor employers in England and Wales collect data on sexual harassment in the workplace. Rights of Women — a London-based nonprofit group that provides legal advice and works to improve the law and increase access to justice for women — has long wished to tackle workplace harassment. Until now, however, it has focused on more urgent problems like domestic violence and family law.
Callers often say they have been harassed by men in positions of authority who were “on the radar of the organization” as “serial harassers” known for their inappropriate behavior but to whom employers turned a blind eye.
“It tends to be a long pattern of behavior, and there are quite a lot of [women] that have been signed off sick from work,” Syed said. “The harassment is significant enough that they are having stress, anxiety and depression.”
Women often say they have remained silent for fear of not being believed, or of colleagues’ being unwilling to help with an investigation. One caller said her employer was just refusing to acknowledge the situation or any wrongdoing.
Some callers have said that they were unhappy with how their trade union had handled their complaint, in some cases charging that the union was “too close to” or “in cahoots with” the employer.
Syed said another problem was the varying length of time it can take different companies to complete an internal grievance procedure.
Sexual harassment was outlawed in Britain by the Equality Act of 2010. Yet it remains a systemic problem in the workplace, and protections are either insufficient or not properly implemented.
According to the , a private group that collects first-person stories; the [TUC], a trade group that represents British labor unions; and reporting by the BBC, in 2016-17 half of all women in the workplace said they had experienced sexual harassment.
The issue was thrown into the international spotlight by the #MeToo campaign two years ago, leading to demands that, unfortunately, have not led to change. It doesn’t help that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has been accused of sexist behavior.
A Trade Union Congress report in December 2018, found that 36 percent of young workers had experienced some form of harassment, abuse or violence at work perpetrated by a third party — that is, someone whom they must interact with but who does not work for the same employer, such as patients, clients, customers or business associates.
published by the TUC in April 2019 found that 68 percent of LGBT workers had experienced sexual harassment at work. A survey this year () by Britain’s largest trade union, Unison, found over a fifth of National Health Service employees reported sexual assaults at work. Men as well as women were affected.
The legal hotline was borne out of frustration with the lack of progress since 2010.
In a July , the Government Equalities Office in Britain stated:
“Sexual harassment has been against the law for decades and strong, clear laws against it are set out in the Equality Act 2010. Even though these laws are in place, recent reports, including those of the #MeToo movement, have shown there is still a real, worrying problem with sexual harassment.”
Policymakers are entertaining several proposals, including one that would legally require employers to protect their employees from sexual harassment. Women’s rights advocates say this would take the responsibility away from victims and place it on the shoulders of the companies that allow the culture of workplace sexual harassment to endure.
There is no guarantee that the government will take action, but, as the TUC’s senior equality officer, Sue Coe, told PassBlue, “The prevalence of workplace sexual harassment uncovered by the TUC and our affiliates demonstrates the extent to which the current legislative framework is failing to provide a safe working environment free from sexual harassment and assault for a significant proportion of the UK workforce.”
Any new measures would therefore be equally unhelpful if not properly implemented. As Syed put it, “Bad behavior begets bad behavior, and so bad work environments [are] where sexual harassment thrives.”
Until that changes, the number of women calling the hotline looks likely to rise.
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Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.