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50% of female workers have experienced harassment at work

There are calls for greater accountability from employers, including from Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society

There have been calls for a more proactive approach from employers towards harassment and discrimination prevention following a report from the Fawcett Society. The year-long review was set up following the decision to leave the EU to respond to the risk that rights in the area of sex discrimination law could be adversely affected.

Sexual harassment at work has been experienced by half of all women, according to the report. Dame Laura Cox, a retired high court justice, led the review and found the increased levels of violence and abuse evidenced by the report very disturbing. There are now calls for fundamental changes to the legal system, which could include protecting women at work from sexual harassment by third parties and broadening protection from pregnancy discrimination to six months after any maternity leave finishes.

The report was welcomed by Maria Miller MP, who is the chair of the women and equalities committee. She believes the review reinforces the need for work in areas such as the gender pay gap, sexual harassment and family-friendly working rights, which are all issues under investigation by the women and equalities committee. The report emphasises the need for radical change to make the workplace fair for all, as the importance of improved uptake in shared parental leave, increased flexible working opportunities and the closing of the gender pay gap cannot be overstated.

As an employment law consultant for the ELAS Group, Emma O’Leary is well placed to assess the significance of this report. Whilst she acknowledges the movement made since sex discrimination was formally identified legislatively in 1975, she believes this report shows just how much the law fails in some areas more prejudicial to women and how far there is to go to rectify this.

Some moves, such as gender pay reporting, are still to show any positive effect; however, other recommendations made in the report will help to ensure women have further protection from discrimination in the workplace. The figures in the review revealing the levels of sexual harassment are concerning, so changes would be welcome.

The review also addressed the wider issues of sexual harassment against women in public places, finding that two-thirds of females of all ages have been affected. In addition, one in five women over 16 years of age have been sexually assaulted.

There was evidence in some sexual offence cases that the victim’s sexual history was used in court inappropriately. There were also indications of a pervasive blame culture whereby both women and men believe a woman’s outfit and drinking could be a factor in her being sexually assaulted.

There are calls for greater accountability from employers, including from Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. By believing gender equality is a benefit in business, we must also acknowledge the counterbalance that discrimination and harassment are harmful.

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