Complaints of widespread sexism and misogyny towards female MPs in Parliament have emerged this week, prompting experts to share insight on how HR leaders should be approaching similar issues in their workplace.
As reported byThe Guardian, a string of female Tory MPs have complained to whips about sexism and misogyny within the Tory ranks.
One complaint even includes allegations that a male MP was caught watching pornography on his phone while in Parliament.
It comes just days after a widely-condemned Mail on Sunday article accused Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, of a “Basic Instinct”-style plot to distract Boris Johnson by uncrossing her legs while sitting across from the PM on the front benches.
The Guardian reports that a senior Conservative claims female MPs are “on the brink of mutiny”, amid reports that 56 MPs (three cabinet ministers among them, allegedly) have had complaints of sexual harassment made against them.
A party spokesperson said the chief whip would be “looking into this matter” and that the behaviour is “wholly unacceptable and action will be taken.”
Data reveals differing views on sexual harassment
Of course, such incidents are sadly not exclusive to the House of Commons. Data recently carried out by the Everyday Sexism Project and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) discovered that 52% of women have been victims of unwanted sexual behaviours at work - from groping to inappropriate jokes.
As such, it is crucial that employers do all that they can to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. However, data collated in August 2021 found that the majority of companies are failing to instil sexual harassment training among their workforce.
A TalentLMS and Purple Campaign report polled over 1,200 employees and found that 92% of women surveyed said that unwanted physical contact counts as sexual harassment, compared to 78% of men surveyed.
Suggestive remarks were considered harassment by 88% of women and just 69% of men; likewise, sexual jokes were frowned upon by 86% of women and 69% of men.
Additionally, 73% of women surveyed said comments regarding someone's gender identity and expression were sexual harassment, compared to 47% of men.
‘Deal with it head on... and quickly’
Hannah Copeland, HR Business Partner at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest, said: “Complaints of sexism should always be dealt with head on. It might feel an uncomfortable topic to have to deal with in the workplace but sexism cannot always be easily identified and can manifest in underhand and manipulative ways.
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“Therefore, if an explicit complaint is received or someone is called out then, it must be dealt with quickly and in line with the correct company procedures. First step is for the employee who is offended to call out the behaviour and let the person involved have an opportunity to understand what they did or said and rectify. Not all individuals will realise that their behaviour is offensive so they should have the opportunity to be told and to change.
“If the allegation is more serious or the offended party has been unable to resolve directly then call in an independent investigator (whether that be from an external professional consultancy) or from internal resource.
“If you have a bullying and harassment procedure then use that to guide your investigation. If you do not, then consider putting one in place or go back to the guidance outlined in your Grievance Policy. Depending on the severity of the complaint, you may need to consider suspending the employee concerned with the alleged behaviour or think about whether there are others ways of preventing further unwanted behaviour, pending investigation. Always consult an HR expert.”
Copeland concluded: “Challenging sexism in the workplace starts with educating employees, managers and Directors about the ways in which they can become aware of their behaviour and how their unconscious bias impacts what they think and do in life, and at work, and in turn how that can be perceived by others. Start by defining what sexism actually means in your company – is it a backhanded comment? Is it a silly joke? Is it watching porn at work? Then look at how you can go about developing an open culture of dignity and respect – perhaps you need to rethink your recruitment strategy so that you start to recruit with desired behaviours in mind? perhaps you need to develop your senior managers so they can better role model desired behaviours?
“Critically, understanding what dignity and respect means, and living these values at work, will actively encourage an environment where sexism won’t be tolerated.”
Female workers ‘bearing the burden’ of stopping misogyny
Rachel Phillips, Employment Solicitor at JMW Solicitors, said that whilst some may look at their workplace and believe there is no such problem, countless women are still feeling the pressure to alter their behaviour and avoid unwanted attention and comments at work.
“Individual women bear the heavy burden of trying to stop misogyny in the workplace, often at great personal and professional risk to themselves, by adjusting their own behaviours, leaving jobs, or engaging with reporting and investigating systems that do not suit their needs”, said Phillips.
“It is clear that more action needs to be taken to put a stop to misogyny not only in Westminster but in all workplaces across the UK. Misogynistic behaviour could amount to sex discrimination, victimisation or harassment.”
What can HR do?
Phillips provides HR Grapevine with several tips for both employees and employers on how to combat sexist treatment within the workplace:
If employees do feel they are suffering sexist treatment, a first step is to raise issues informally with a supervisor or HR colleague. If a more formal avenue is required, employees should follow their employer’s grievance procedure. Employees will only have the confidence to speak up and raise issues to HR if they feel safe and supported in the workplace. Importantly, women should not have to adjust their behaviour to address misogynistic and sexist behaviour.
It is also important to add that transgender and non-binary employees also face high levels of discrimination within the workplace.
Misogynistic and sexist behaviour can have detrimental effects for an employer:
Holds employees back from senior positions and channels women to stereotypically ‘feminine’ roles.
Risks losing valuable female talent.
Negatively affects employees’ performance, sense of belonging, mental health and job satisfaction.
Damages an organisation’s image.
Could lead to Employment Tribunal claims which are time-consuming, costly and risk damaging reputation.
Employers need to be careful to assess their workplace policies, dress codes, gender pay gaps, promotional patterns as well as their overall culture.
Employers can help by having clear company policies on required standards of behaviour (including anti-harassment and bullying policies), staff training to handle complaints, allowing flexible working, having family friendly policies, avoiding role stereotyping, closing the gender pay gap, promoting a respectful and inclusive culture and importantly engaging men in the conversation. Practical and meaningful steps need to be taken to identify and eliminate all forms of everyday sexism.