COVID-19 hasn’t killed sexual harassment at work – it’s just moved online

Caligaris’s concerns build on the widespread harassment that was documented in a 2019 survey by her organisation. It found that 85% of the women journalists it surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work; 35% reported sexual blackmail and 34% physical harassment.

Like Emily, many of the women reporting harassment were not permanent employees at media organisations; about a third were on short-term or zero-hour contracts. Meanwhile, about 15% of the women who reported harassment said they were also “penalised at work” as a result.

In the UK, a 2016 report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that “more than half (52%) of women polled” had “experienced some kind of harassment”. This included comments of a sexual nature about a woman’s body or clothing, unwanted touching and unwanted sexual advances.

While sexual harassment has moved online for many women, Syed also wants to draw attention to the experiences of those working on the front line of the coronavirus response, in jobs that can’t be done from home.

These are often lower-paid workers who are “suffering in silence”, she warns, because they fear that complaining could put already precarious jobs at risk. During a recession, it is even harder to speak out.

“We work a lot with front-line staff, such as carers and nurses,” Syed said. “They often experience what’s known as third-party harassment – sexual harassment from a patient, for example. Women who have been on the front line, working through COVID-19, are put in this impossible situation.”

The Rights of Women charity is now campaigning to reinstate protections against such third-party sexual harassment. These protections, introduced in the UK in 2010, were scrapped by the coalition government in 2013.

The charity also wants the government to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment at work, including if the workplace is the home. This would involve employers being “proactive in preventing harassment to take the responsibility off of women’s shoulders,” Syed says.

Crucially, the duty they are calling for would apply to all workers, including freelancers, agency workers and self-employed people like Emily.

“We always imagine harassment as something physical, like groping or an unwanted approach,” Caligaris commented, explaining that our understanding of problematic behaviour must also be enhanced. “It isn’t only that, what is considered harassment should be expanded.”

* Not her real name.


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