Why are many employers failing to provide safe workplaces for women?

By Dr Samantha Evans

The shocking kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard has shone a light on the issue of safety for women in our society. As we witness the reactions to Sarah’s tragic murder and many women reflect on their own experiences of feeling scared and unsafe, we must challenge our individual and societal responses to the calls for change.

That change is desperately needed across all areas of life. The most recent research reveals the shocking level of sexual harassment experienced by women. A recent ONS survey found more than four times as many women as men had been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in the year ending March 2020. An investigation by the UN Women UK found that 97 per cent of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed.

As the Reclaim These Streets movement quite rightly draws attention to women’s safety in the UK’s streets, we must also think about other spaces where women feel scared.  TUC research reports that more than half of women overall, and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18-24 years old, have experienced sexual harassment at work, too.

Evidence of this problem has been building for years, with #MeToo helping to uncover the extent and impact of the abuse experienced by many. We are hearing too many accounts of women who have felt unsafe in their workplace simply by virtue of being a woman. This poses the question – why are so many employers failing to provide safe workplaces for women?

‘Regulation alone has proved insufficient’

Within UK legislation sexual harassment is recognised as a form of sex discrimination with The Equality Act defining harassment as ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’. Yet regulation alone has proved insufficient in eradicating discriminatory attitudes and behaviour towards women in the workplace. So, what can employers do to make the change?

Employers need to increase their efforts to create physically and emotionally safe workplaces. Organisational cultures must be inclusive and supportive to ensure all staff are treated with dignity and respect at work.  Robust frameworks to counter any potential harassment or discrimination against women with policies that cover every aspect of employment need to be in place. Any form of alleged harassment must be treated seriously with organisations demonstrating zero-tolerance to such behaviours. Senior leaders and line managers need to consistently role model and champion these behaviours.

Everyone has the right to feel safe in their lives and employers have a big role to play in tackling the systemic discrimination that is making too many women feel unsafe in their everyday lives.

Dr Samantha Evans is a lecturer in Human Resource Management at Kent Business School. She is also the Athena Swan lead for KBS, an organisation which serves as body of recognition for the advancement of gender equality in higher education, encompassing representation, progression and success for all. She led the School’s successful application for a Bronze Athena Swan award in 2020.

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