More protection needed against sexual harassment by third parties

The law should be strengthened to protect women from sexual harassment by third parties, as well as colleagues, a gender equality charity has recommended.

The Fawcett Society’s Sex Discrimination Law Review, which has looked at gaps in current legal provisions to protect women, suggests that employers should be held responsible for sexual harassment by third parties, such as customers and contractors, if they were aware of a previous incident of harassment and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it from happening again.

It says the protections for employees provided under section 40 of the Equality Act 2010, which was repealed in 2013, should be strengthened and brought back into law. Section 40 considered an employer liable for sexual harassment if it was aware of two incidents of harassment and failed to prevent a third.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: “The time has now come for a greater responsibility and accountability to be placed onto organisations to prevent harassment and discrimination in the first place.

“If we believe that gender equality is good for business, then we must also believe that discrimination and harassment are bad for business. The chances are this will be happening to some extent in most workplaces, so let’s move towards proactive action and require employers to do something about it.”

The report also looked at measures to help address the gender pay gap and recommended that civil penalties are introduced for companies that fail to report their gender pay information. It said that by 2020 the threshold for gender pay gap reporting should be lowered to incorporate organisations that employ 50 people.

It found that current reporting requirements do not give employers sufficient context to identify the causes of their gender pay gap and suggested that reports should be broken down by age, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and whether the employee is part time or full time.

It claimed that looking at the gender pay gap in isolation is “too blunt a measure” and will “not reflect the challenges faced by women with multiple protected characteristics”.

It said: “These [current] headline figures will not give employers sufficient information to identify the causes of the gender pay gap within their organisation. Nor will they be detailed enough to identify causes of unequal pay, or enable women to identify a comparator or make equal pay claims.

“There is no requirement to publish salary ranges for the salary quartiles, so employees will not even be able to tell which quartile they are in.”

The report also suggested several measures to bolster the rights of new parents, including extending new mothers’ protection against unfair dismissal until six months after their return to work, and raising current statutory maternity pay to the “real” Living Wage (currently £8.75 per hour across the UK and £10.20 per hour in London) for 36 hours per week.

The recommendations were welcomed by Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, who said there was still significant work to be done to address the gender pay gap and sexual harassment by third parties and colleagues.

Miller said: “We need a revolution in the workplace to ensure fairness for women, men and their families. Closing the gender pay gap, improving take up of shared parental leave and providing more opportunities for flexible working all play an important role as our own reports have found.”

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