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16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence: Women’s stories of sexual harassment at work

November 25, 2022

Today marks the start of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread, with over half of women having experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact in the workplace. This is a particular issues for workers in low-paid and insecure work, often migrants or from ethnic minority communities, who are already more vulnerable to abuse and additionally face greater barriers to reporting it.

Our own research has found high levels of sexual harassment in low-paid and insecure sectors of the economy, with 42% of women and non-binary participants in cleaning, 44% in hospitality, and 57% in app-based deliveries reporting experiencing sexual harassment.

Our position paper published earlier this year highlighted the gap in enforcement of sexual harassment protections in the workplace, with currently no public body with the remit, power or resources to effectively tackle it.

To mark these 16 days of activism, we are sharing the stories of some of the women who have been involved in our research and are calling for better protections for women against sexual harassment at work.

Martha’s story

TW: sexual harassment

Martha had been working for an outsourced cleaning company for four years when a new cleaning supervisor started sexually harassing her.

The other men couldn’t get into the toilet when a woman was cleaning, but he was a supervisor, so he would come in and start with insinuations: “Are you doing it well?”, “I don’t want you to miss anything”, “I want you to have everything that you need”.

The harassment escalated from insinuations and looks to groping and unwanted touching, always when Martha was cleaning alone.

[H]e started coming behind me and saying, “I’ll show you how to do it, you’re not doing it right”. He would come behind me and embrace me from behind and say, “I’m only showing you how to do it”. Always when there was nobody around.

When Martha said she would complain, he threatened her, saying he would discredit her. He took advantage of the fact that she did not speak English, claiming she would not be believed if she reported him.

I once said, “I’m going to complain”, and he said, “I’m only showing you how to do it right. If you complain, I’ll explain that you are not cleaning well enough”. And then he’d say, “Try, they won’t understand your English, but go ahead and try.’

Martha tried to avoid being alone with the supervisor by changing her schedule, but he prevented her from doing so.

I changed the schedule to do the toilets when there were other people around. He noticed this and made me go back to cleaning the toilets at that time when he wanted me to do it. 

When an opportunity opened to clean offices rather than toilets for a few weeks, Martha jumped on it. She wanted to work with other people to get away from her supervisor and to practice her English.

I needed to leave that job. I needed to speak to other people, to practice my English, because I was always alone with him, speaking Spanish, so I took the cover. 

At the end of the two weeks, the client Martha was cleaning offices for wanted to keep her on, but the cleaning supervisor lied to both Martha and the client to stop her from leaving.

He told the client that I couldn’t do the cover because I didn’t want to do it, and he told me that the client had said that I couldn’t do it because I didn’t speak English. 

The supervisor told Martha that if she had not rejected him, he would have fought for her to get the job.

He said, “See, if you would have gone out with me, even for a tea or a coffee, I would have fought for you to stay in this job, but now you’ll [go back to] cleaning toilets”. 

Fortunately for Martha, an employee of the client company happened to pass just as the supervisor was telling her this, and she could see that Martha was distressed. The client company employee called someone over to translate and Martha told her what had been happening.

[The client] said, “But you never reported?”. No, I never wanted to have any problems. […] Yes, it did affect me, but I never looked for help […] I was struggling financially. I was also working a lot of hours and I have a son.

The client company took the matter to the cleaning company, but they did not take it seriously. The client company asked for the supervisor to be removed, but instead he was only banned from entering the specific area of the building when Martha was there. The client company then found more complaints and evidence of further issues with the same supervisor, but the cleaning company still did not address them. Eventually the client company decided to change cleaning contractor, as nothing was done about the perpetrator. He has since been promoted to Regional Manager.