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New work harassment helpline flooded with calls on bullying, demotion and rape

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Emma Watson has backed a new helpline over sexual harassment at work. Photo: Shooting Star/SIPA USA/PA Images

A new helpline for victims of workplace sexual harassment says it has been inundated with calls since its launch, with women reporting “sustained campaigns” of sexualised bullying, demotions for speaking out and even incidents of assault and rape.

Actor Emma Watson helped launch the Sexual Harassment at Work helpline in August, the only one of its kind and funded through donations in the wake of the #MeToo scandal.

Deeba Syed, a senior legal officer at the Rights of Women charity who runs the helpline, revealed it had now expanded its opening hours, team of staff, and volunteering lawyers in response to “massive demand.” It was also recently nominated in the LawWorks Pro Bono Awards.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance UK, Syed told of her shock at the number of callers reporting assaults and rapes, as well as “sustained campaigns” rather than one-off incidents of harassment.

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She said most callers had already complained but said they were ignored or victimised, on top of a “culture of silence” among colleagues over reportedly known repeat perpetrators.

Syed said: “It’s not women calling about one-off comments or ‘bantery’ jokes. Women are used to that. It’s sustained bullying or harassment, and there’s a pattern of sexual or sexist comments, which tend to escalate in an incident of a sexual advance or remark.

“What we’ve seen come through is a serious, significant problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, across all sectors. It’s endemic, and what we have always feared.

A charity says there is 'massive demand' for legal advice from women being harassed at work. Photo: REUTERS/Catherine Benson CRB

“There’s massive demand, as we give impartial, confidential, specialist employment advice in a climate of disbelief for women who come forward.

Panic attacks and sick leave

“A significant amount involve sexual assault and rapes. Others say they can’t go to work, they’re having panic attacks thinking about it or they’ve been signed off sick with anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress. The impact is huge.

“Some are victimised for rejecting sexual advances — disinvited to meetings, put on performance plans or demoted.

“Only the minority are checking if is harassment — the majority are fully aware it is.”

The charity, funded via the Time’s Up movement and charitable fund Rosa, hopes its findings can give fresh insights into the scale and forms of harassment in modern Britain, given a lack of official data.

A 2016 survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found 52% of women had experienced sexual harassment, but the vast majority went unreported. Syed said women speaking out during the early #MeToo movement were the “tip of the iceberg.”

Rights of Women is also calling for a new duty on employers to prevent harassment to “retip the scales,” calling employment tribunals an expensive, difficult system that put the burden for enforcing rights on complainants.

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Syed said the breadth of callers had been striking, with a wide range of ages, industries, employer sizes and kinds of employment, from zero-hour contract workers to full-time professionals.

Healthcare, retail, hospitality and leisure had been particularly prominent among industries. “We’ve had quite a few from startups,” she added.

But she said the common theme was “people in positions of power abusing that power,” with most callers more junior in their organisation.

Syed was keen to emphasise that callers’ problems typically went well beyond specific incidents or even harassers themselves, with victims facing a “culture of disbelief” in their workplaces.

She said victimisation for speaking out over one or repeated incidents formed a key but less understood part of the picture. Some women reported that employers “dismissed or minimised” their complaints and in some cases the victims were suspended themselves.

“The bulk of what we deal with is women treated unfairly by the system. We see women being deterred from making complaints, seeing complaints flat out ignored or being punished or threatened with the sack.

“There’s a closing of ranks; people protect the harasser,” Syed added.

She also said many women reported their harassers as known, and behaving similarly to other women. “There’s a culture of silence and deference, with a reluctance to challenge people.

“Sexualised bullying can be part of the workplace culture that’s laughed along with or encouraged. We have to move away from the idea it’s ‘not that bad.’”

The Sexual Harassment at Work helpline provides free specialist legal advice, including identifying sexual harassment, how to complain, how to file tribunal claims and navigating settlement and non-disclosure agreements on 020 7490 0152. Visit the Rights of Women website for the latest opening times.