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Reflecting on IWD 2023: What can your business do to shift a culture of harassment?

Stranger Harassment remains a common occurrence for women all around the world. Unlike other forms of harassment where the perpetrator is known to the victim, for example, a colleague or friend, stranger harassment is perpetrated by people unknown to the victim in the public domain such as on the street, in stores, at bars, or on public transport. Whilst not all forms of stranger harassment are sexual in character, there is frequent overlap with sexual harassment. In the UK, over 80% of women aged 18-34 have experienced sexual harassment in a public space and two-thirds of those who have experienced stranger harassment at work experienced it in the last 12 months [1]. The culture surrounding stranger harassment is detrimental to women’s well-being and restricts their freedom of movement and their right to safety in public spaces [2].

There are many instances in the working day when employees may be vulnerable to stranger harassment, for example when they enter public spaces or for those assuming public-facing roles such as working in retail, public service, events, and hospitality. Research conducted by TUC revealed that over 1 in 2 women and around 7 out of 10 LGBTQ+ workers in the UK have been sexually harassed in the workplace [3, 4]. The incidents of stranger harassment in the workplace such as catcalling, whistling, staring, and unwelcome touching have a long-lasting impact on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. This includes depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and feelings of anger, shame, and isolation [5]. Furthermore, this also impacts the workplace which contributes to persistent gender pay gaps and labour market inequalities as poor mental well-being creates significant barriers for victims to progress in their roles or position.

“An elderly male photographed me as I was working, which involves me bending over at times...”
“...A man wolf-whistled at me and told me he loved to see a woman on her knees as I was stocking a bottom shelf...”
“...An elderly man kept complimenting my body, such as telling me to look into his eyes [so he could] admire my eye colour.”

Excerpts from a survey respondent for TUC Report - "Not part of the job - What does third-party harassment look like?"

In the UK, there have been several promising legal reforms designed to tackle harassment in and out of the workplace. With the Equality Act, of 2010 employees are guaranteed protection against sexual harassment at work. Moreover, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and heightened focus on instances of sexual harassment in the workplace, in 2021 the UK government proposed further legislation to strengthen legal protection in the workplace. However, legal action alone cannot solve cultural norms and inequalities that are deeply normalised and internalised. This International Women's Day, we want to encourage businesses to be key actors in bringing about social change by equipping them with the tools to understand and shift the culture surrounding stranger harassment and gender inequality.

Understanding the roots of stranger harassment

Stranger Harassment is a persistent type of gender-based violence that affects each person’s ability to feel safe in their everyday lives. Although this behaviour is often rooted in patriarchal norms, it is crucial to remember that harassment does not only affect women. By applying an intersectional lens, it is evident that women with disabilities, those from BME backgrounds or the LGBTQ+ community, migrant workers, and those in insecure jobs such as zero-hours contracts and agency work due to labour market disparities commonly encounter sexual harassment [6].

A major barrier to tackling