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Sexual harassment - breaking the silence around the world 22/11/2017

Quite easily, the sexual harassment scandal could have unfolded quite differently. Harvey Weinstein - now referenced as the first abuser in a long, long list of names - could have been the only person to be publically accused of multiple offences, including unwanted comments, physical contact and rape. Yet Weinstein would not be the only person to stand accused, nor would Hollywood be the only industry. As the #MeToo hashtag moved around the world, workers - mainly women, but a proportion of men too - from film, theatre and politics came forward to talk about how they had been subjected to sexual harassment or assault at work.

As it becomes apparent that numerous women have felt unsafe and uncomfortable while doing their jobs, the solidarity that has emerged as people find the confidence to speak out has been a bittersweet silver lining to a thunderstorm cloud. Even more disturbing is the prevailing narrative: prior to the amnesty of the current situation, where speaking out has been normalised and encouraged, women have felt that they cannot speak up about harassment for fear of losing their jobs. An article in the Guardian detailed how women across a variety of creative industries were pushed out of their jobs after reporting sexual harassment. It has become clear that many women feel trapped between a rock and an impossible hard place - either keep quiet about the harassment they are suffering, or risk losing their jobs by speaking up.

The sexual harassment scandal has its roots in a lot of problems - including the positions of authority in a variety of industries being male-dominated. There is also a long way to go before speaking out about matters concerning crime involving sex acts is a process liberated from shame and taboo: the #MeToo campaign will optimistically be a cornerstone in overcoming this. But given the widespread instances of sexual harassment that has only been reported following this recent, public movement, do we need to reexamine the law surrounding sexual harassment and employment?

In legal contexts, we class sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” Rather than falling within the criminal bracket - as sexual assault would - it comes under the Equality Act. Also, an employment grievance has to be reported within three months. For people who feel that to complain about harassment would jeopardise their employment, or at least their stance within the company, bringing a sexual harassment case to an employment tribunal might not be possible - at least while they are employed at the company where it is happening.

The legal definition of sexual harassment provides good coverage of many common instances of inappropriate workplace conduct. Yet oftentimes, a person who has made a claim of sexual harassment - under the above definition - has found speaking out to be ineffective, having been locked into a “one word against another” situation. Some have had their claim weaponised against them, and have found themselves being subject to professional discrimination. This has in turn created a toxic environment in which women feel compelled to “put up” with harassment, with the understanding that doing otherwise would hinder their careers.

Every situation is different, and it is these factors - plus other unspoken ones, unique to the scenario in question - that force women to keep quiet about sexual harassment. The collective awareness brought about by Weinstein’s case and the #MeToo outcry has been overwhelmingly difficult for all those who have suffered - but it has exposed the prevalence of the problem. It has also shown the need for consistency in the implementation of employment law on a cross-industry basis. In particular - creative sectors, usually exempt from the meticulous regulations of corporate workplaces, need to step up and prioritise sexual harassment claims. This cannot be a matter which sinks back into silence.

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