Sexual harassment at work concept

Are we beating sexual harassment in the workplace, or is it beating us?

Image credit: Viacheslav Iacobchuk/Dreamstime

Initiatives like today’s International Women in Engineering Day are making slow progress in tackling attitudes that seem to be as deeply embedded in society and industry as they ever have been.

A couple of years ago, at a weekend dinner event, a young female engineer told me a story about her MEng dissertation viva exam, which had happened a few years before. Her project had been industrially sponsored, and an engineer from the company had been part of her viva panel. At the end, he returned the dissertation hardcopy which he had annotated, and on the cover was the comment: “Should have worn a shorter skirt”.

Three years ago in E&T, Rebecca Northfield asked whether engineering was due for a #metoo moment (‘Harassment of female engineers: #metoo’). MeToo is a social movement dedicated to empowering victims of sexual harassment and abuse through public sharing of experiences. The article includes a litany of stories as bad as or worse than the one above, and wondered whether there would be a surge of complaints as female engineers decided enough was enough and brought their experiences out from behind closed doors into the light by going public, making complaints and following through with tribunals.

Since then, some of our best-known brands have experienced negative publicity and reputational impact because of sexual harassment or misconduct claims: Microsoft, Uber, Google, Weatherford and Jaguar LandRover have joined the unfortunate early movers of GitHub and Tesla in this regard.

So, is the tide now turning? Not fast enough, and not widely enough. In a 2016 survey by New Civil Engineer, more than half of respondents reported that they had heard sexist comments in the workplace. In 2017, research by US engineering organisation the IEEE resulted in more than a quarter of the 4500 female respondents disclosing that they had experienced unwanted sexual advances at work by a male colleague or superior.

However, to really get to grips with sexual harassment as a crisis, and to understand women’s decisions about reporting and careers, we also have to recognise the wider societal context in which these workplace practices sit. According to UK data released by the UN in March this year, more than 80 per cent of women aged 18-34 (and 95 per cent of full-time students) have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place. And the 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that nearly a quarter of women have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault since the age of 16. Reporting such incidences is the exception, not the rule.

In even younger people, the story is shocking. Just this month, schools inspectorate Ofsted concluded in a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges that sexual harassment has become “normalised” for schoolchildren, in school, online and in other unsupervised spaces. Girls suffer disproportionately - gendered name-calling, rape jokes, upskirting (taking photos in a way as to see up a skirt or dress), unwanted touching, being sent unsolicited explicit photos or videos.

I wonder whether people who consider harassment at work to be ‘banter’ also consider it banter when it is conducted by children and towards children.

If we ever find ourselves sceptical of the scale of sexual harassment because we do not see many complaints, consider an alternative - that we do not see complaints because sexual harassment is so normalised... in school, in university, at work. And, instead of being on the retreat, it is growing.

Reported or not, harassment is a deeply undermining experience. Recipients feel ashamed, humiliated and scared and it can negatively impact mental health. Allowing a culture of sexual harassment to develop makes for an unappealing and off-putting workplace; the TUC considers these cultures a significant barrier to women entering male-dominated sectors including engineering, and a cause for them leaving [PDF].

Thinking about this as a culture is important. Overt sexual harassment (in the guises of, for example, verbal and nonverbal hostility or objectification, unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion) is just the smallest tip of the iceberg. When even a small amount of sexism becomes visible, underneath it lies a vast amount of hidden misogyny, prejudice and bias that affect the culture of an organisation. On this International Women in Engineering Day, you will not have to look far to find an article describing how this prejudice and bias damages the performance of companies... it is becoming a well worn argument.

Where, then, is the space where women can just get on with their best, brightest and bravest work whilst being treated as a professional? How do we all push back against these statistics?

Well, the answers aren’t rocket science, but we still aren’t doing them consistently enough. That place lies in good HR policy that is discussed publicly, taken seriously by all levels of staff, and followed through professionally and quickly. It lies in good colleagues who speak up when somebody crosses the line, even if they themselves get accused of being humourless. It lies in good managers and leaders who do not let harassment happen on their watch. And it lies with all of us, whether we use a ‘MeToo’ hashtag or not, to continue building a shared commitment to fighting sexual harassment in all its forms.

Professor Beverley Gibbs CEng MIMMM FIET is chief academic officer at NMITE.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles