What can employers do to provide safe workplaces for women?

The reaction to the murder of Sarah Everard has brought women's safety into the spotlight
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With concerns heightened around the safety of woman after the death of Sarah Everard and worrying data about levels of sexual harassment, how can employers create safe spaces for women? Dr Samantha Evans outlines a number of changes they can make.

The change being demanded across the UK in the light of recent tragic events is desperately needed, as the most recent research reveals shocking levels 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% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed.

As the Reclaim These Streets movement draws attention to women’s safety in the UK’s streets, we must consider all spaces where women feel vulnerable. TUC research reports that over half of women, and nearly two-thirds aged 18-24 years, have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Evidence has built for years, with #MeToo helping to uncover its full extent and impact. But why are so many employers failing women in the workplace, and what now can be done to reverse this?

Collaboration is everything

Despite the Equality Act 2010 recognising sexual harassment as sex discrimination, with clear and strong wording, regulation alone has proved insufficient in eradicating discriminatory attitudes and behaviour towards women in the workplace.

A united and collaborative effort across departments, businesses and sectors must begin, starting with leaders.

Without collaboration across the workplace, threads of remaining discrimination with continue to perpetuate the problems. Essentially, while examples of this behaviour remain, it encourages future incidents, jeopardising the safety of women and constraining the entirety of the workplace.

Therefore the changes must be broad and touch all areas of the business. Every single aspect of the business must be committed to the safety of women in the workplace.

Role of leaders

Leaders at all levels, from line managers to CEOs, must consistently role model and champion these behaviours from the front. Without serious adoption of these attitudes by our leaders, workplaces simply won’t measure up in terms of modern safety standards for all employees.

Employers must be forceful in increasing efforts to create physically and emotionally safe workplaces. With such leadership, organisational cultures can be inclusive and supportive to ensure all staff are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.

Importantly, we cannot underestimate the fact that young workers still look up to senior staff in more than simply professional ways. Senior staff will also be mentors to younger staff, either formally or informally.

Values important to equality in the workplace and manners of conduct, courage, enthusiasm and determination are characteristics that younger workers can often adopt from their leaders. It is the conduct of leaders that sets the example for the workplace, and the tone for the future.

Building frameworks

Every workplace must adopt robust frameworks to counter any potential harassment or discrimination against women with policies that cover every aspect of employment.

From this, any form of alleged harassment must be treated with zero-tolerance. This should be a primary point of every role, department and business, to ensure safety and dignity of colleagues.

This not only works to protect employees, but to protect the business as a whole. Ensuring this framework of protections helps us to instil the dedication of the business to the safety of women as a primary point for each and every employee and leader. Having this as an agreement between employer and employee is fundamental to the protection of both and the workplace they share.

This should also not simply be a legal document of workplace responsibilities and guidelines – it must be a gospel of workplace absolutes to be referenced regularly.

It is the conduct of leaders that sets the example for the workplace, and the tone for the future”

Such a framework, and the ethos behind it, should be considered integral to the DNA of each business; a script of ethics, safety and pride. It is those three points that will vital to seeing the long-needed change come.

The business case

There is a clear business case for protecting against harassment at work. With women feeling unsafe in your organisation, they may take their talent and skills to another business wherein their safety and wellbeing is respected as the greatest priority by their new employer.

As an organisation gains either a negative or positive reputation for their regard for women’s safety in the workplace, the tide of talent recruitment will react accordingly. As time passes, firms that fail to realise the priority of women’s safety will fail as a business, and the business world will move on; safer, happier, and greater for it.

The role of HR is often associated with mundane workplace tasks and this can lead to it being taken for granted. HR is a business function that has led to the rise of equality at work, expelling negative factors and instilling positive protocols for the benefit of employee and employer.

Proper utilisation of HR historically leads to progressively safer and more positive workplaces, with higher motivation rates within the workforce. Businesses can benefit greatly from a contented workforce, but a modern HR department must be dedicated to the elimination of harassing behaviours with the workplace, ensuring women feel safe to be at work.

If a business’ HR function doesn’t hold this as a primary purpose, the change will not come.

Everyone has the right to feel safe in all areas of their lives. With our workplaces being such huge factors in this, employers play a primary role in tackling the systemic discrimination that is making women feel unsafe. They must act now.

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Dr Samantha Evans

About Dr Samantha Evans

Dr Samantha Evans is a lecturer in Human Resource Management at the University of Kent
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