For many women, working from home during lockdown often means juggling childcare and home-schooling, elder-care, the bulk of the housework, pets and more.
But one might think that being away from the office, at least, would mean that sexual harassment was no longer a factor.
They were wrong. A new report from Rights of Women shows that workplace sexual harassment has instead moved online, following employees into their Zoom meetings, Teams messages, emails, WhatsApp groups and telephone calls.
Now the harassment seeps into the bedroom you work from, the living room where you home school your children, the phone that sits in your pocket.
But as the incidence of remote sexual harassment rises, so does the awareness of what can be done to fight back.
Victims often can feel alone and isolated, but it’s a staggeringly common occurrence – according to the survey, nearly half of those who were harassed in the office reported that the harassment continued online. This should come as no surprise in a pandemic that’s seen an explosive rise in image-based abuse.
Examples from the survey include clients propositioning employees, women being told they have a ‘sexy voice’ and that they should work in phone sex, demeaning comments in front of colleagues fobbed off as a ‘joke’, doctored screen shots from meetings making the attendees look like they’re having sex, and being told their boss’ sexual fantasies over text.
For all women, decreased job security and a pandemic that has disproportionately affected women’s livelihoods have created a perfect petri dish for remote workplace harassment.
To compound the problem, employers seem lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that their employees aren’t physically interacting.
Survey respondents say that lockdown has meant their employers are even slower to respond than usual to their sexual harassment complaints. Seven in 10 victims find that their employers haven’t done enough to help, and three in 10 find that the pandemic has worsened that situation.
Remember that the shame is not yours, but the perpetrator’s and that there is help to be had
But employers are wrong in thinking they’re off the hook just because they’re out of the office. The law doesn’t distinguish between sexual harassment done in person and done remotely.
In fact, harassment is defined widely in the law, with the Equality Act 2010 describing it as ‘any unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the victim’.
Ignoring or delaying a complaint can be the result of incompetence or ignorance – or it can be a deliberate strategy.
The Equality Act requires employees to exhaust internal procedures before complaining to Employment Tribunal, and some employers can thus be tempted to kick the can down the road, write the complaint off as ‘drama’ that the organisation simply can’t devote resources to in the middle of a pandemic – or simply fire the complainant.
But stalling can not only be traumatic for the victim but can backfire on employers. If an Employment Tribunal finds that an employer has not provided a fair grievance process, the damages can be raised by 25%.
The Employment Tribunal also requires victims to file a complaint quickly. The statute of limitations is just three months after the last incident of harassment – not, as many think, three months after the internal complaint procedure is complete.
Fortunately for victims, exceeding this deadline doesn’t mean they are out of options.
The Protection from Harassment Act has a statute of limitations of six years. The offending behaviour must be displayed on at least two occasions and be ‘oppressive and unacceptable’, not merely ‘unattractive and unreasonable’.
Remote sexual harassment often falls into this category and has the added benefit of being easier to capture and document legally, due to its digital nature.
If this happens to you, don’t hit ‘delete’ regardless of how strongly the urge may grip you. Instead, record and reach out.
Remember that the shame is not yours, but the perpetrator’s and that there is help to be had.
Georgina Calvert-Lee is Head of UK Practice and Senior Counsel at McAllister Olivarius
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