Violence Against Women: What Employers Can Do

Post author image. Charlotte Woodworth
Charlotte Woodworth, Gender Director at Business in the Community (BITC) outlines three things businesses can do to drive gender equality.

Last week was book ended by events designed to celebrate women. Monday was International Women’s Day, Sunday was Mothering Sunday. But events during the week shone a stark light on how far we have to go before we can claim equal rights for all. On the most basic of issues, that of women’s safety, the tragic case of Sarah Everard, prompted many to ask: what can be done?

The answers are complex and there are no quick fixes. The choices employers make can have a tangible impact, shaping a working world, and by extension wider society, where more people can live free from violence and harassment and where they can prosper and thrive, regardless of gender.

Business in the Community (BITC) recommends businesses wanting to drive gender equality do three key things.

  1. Champion gender equality at work.
    One of the most powerful things employers can do is ensure they hire, retain and progress women in a fair and unbiased fashion. The employment gap (women in the UK are less likely to have a paid job than men)1, pay gap (women earn an average circa 20% less)2, and power gap (women are less likely to hold senior, powerful roles than men)3 both reflect and drive wider gender inequality. While the links between a women’s working life and her risk of violence are complex, worries about financial security affect women’s options when they face difficult, potentially abusive situations4. Employers should make gender equality a business priority, filtering through into all areas of policy and practice. BITC’s newly published Route Map to Gender Equality at Work lays out steps businesses should take to address ongoing gender imbalances.
  2. Take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment of any kind.
    Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research found that more than half of women have experienced sexual harassment at work. In the past year many women have reported increased rates of online sexual harassment, and concerns that employers’ response to complaints have been blunted by dealing with the pandemic. Employers must take proactive action to address sexual harassment, developing a specific policy and a holistic definition of the issue. This should include clear reporting mechanisms (formal, informal, and anonymous), effective tracking of incidents through regular and anonymous surveys and focus groups supported by third parties.

    This should be accompanied by a concerted campaign to raise awareness and understanding among all staff, including high quality training exploring the steps they should take if they are concerned. Make clear that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, that you take action against perpetrators, and that those who report concerns can do so without fear of retribution. Business must also be mindful that some groups are at greater risk of sexual harassment than others, for example black, Asian and ethnic minority women experience higher levels5. Similarly, some workplace circumstances see increased levels of sexual harassment, for example male dominated working environments6.

    This approach should be part of a wider drive to foster and maintain an inclusive working culture for employees of all backgrounds and identities. Efforts to address poor behaviours will be more successful in environments where people feel they are valued and heard, and therefore, more comfortable speaking up.

    If you are a BITC member you can read more about how to address this issue in BITC’s toolkit on addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment (member only document).
  3. Acknowledge and act on your responsibilities to support employees at risk of domestic abuse.
    Domestic abuse is common, and in the past year rates have escalated as families face increased stress and successive lockdowns have seen many forced to spend much more time at home7. Increased isolation means employers may be one of the few, and possibly the only, connection someone facing abuse has outside their abuser, but it may also be harder to spot concerning behaviours. Stay in contact with your staff through, for example, manager one-to-ones and check-ins at the beginnings of team meetings so conversations go beyond work projects. In conjunction with Public Health England, we have developed a three step approach for employers to follow when developing and refreshing the approach they take to supporting colleagues at risk of domestic abuse – acknowledge, respond, refer. Read more about this in our Domestic Abuse Toolkit.

    Finally, the government has re-opened their consultation on violence against women and girls – the more people share their experiences, the more policy makers can develop effective approaches to the epidemic blighting so many lives, in some cases with fatal consequences. If you have not done so please complete the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Call for Evidence and share the survey among your networks.

HELP accelerate progress towards a truly equal working world

References

  1. Business in the Community (2021) Route Map To A More Gender Equal Future, available at https://www.bitc.org.uk/
  2. Office for National Statistics (2021) People in work, https://www.ons.gov.uk/
  3. ibid.
  4. Dr Sara Reis (2019) Domestic abuse is an economic issue – for its victims and for society, Child Poverty Action Group, available at https://cpag.org.uk/
  5. Maya Oppenheim (2019) Black women more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace, study finds, The Independent, Tuesday 09 July 2019, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/
  6. James E. Gruber (1998) Gender and Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 301-320, available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/190287?seq=1
  7. Refuge (2021) Refuge response to Home Affairs Select Committee report on domestic abuse during Covid-19 https://www.refuge.org.uk