Sexual harassment in the workplace

26th Jun 2018


One third of women in the UK report having been harassed in the workplace and 70% said they didn’t feel able to report it.


It’s difficult to put a figure on this because of differing definitions of harassment. The one third figure comes from a survey that isn’t necessarily representative of adults across the UK, and is about in the middle compared to other survey estimates we’ve seen.

“One third of women in the UK report having been harassed in the workplace and 70% said they didn’t feel able to report it.”  

Afua Hirsch, 21 June 2018

A survey last month found that about a third of women had experienced sexual harassment at work. It also found that 46% of women experiencing bullying or harassment of any kind (not just sexual harassment) had reported it. We believe this was the source for the claim though haven’t been able to contact Ms Hirsch to confirm.

The study also surveyed men and looked more widely at unwanted workplace behaviour, not just sexual harassment.  

This study only surveyed members of the Prospect union, which focuses on professionals, managers and craftspeople, and so isn’t representative of UK workers generally.

Other estimates for sexual harassment vary a lot depending on whether the survey question specifies acts of sexual harassment, or leaves the respondent to define sexual harassment themselves.

One survey estimated that 20% of women in the UK currently working reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, leaving it up to the respondents to interpret what they considered sexual harassment. Of those women, 58% had never reported instances of sexual harassment to their employer or someone in authority at work. A further 28% had reported some instances but not others.  

Some men also experience sexual harassment. One survey estimated that 7% of men had experienced workplace sexual harassment and 56% of those men had reported at least one instance of it. For the rest of the article we concentrate on the female experience of workplace sexual harassment as the claim from Question Time did.   

Defining sexual harassment has a big effect on how large the problem appears to be

Sexual harassment in the workplace often goes unreported, which means the best available source of data to understand the scale of the issue is asking people anonymously in surveys.  

Over the past year, many pollsters have published surveys on this, and the results vary considerably from 20% of women reporting that they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work to 53%.

One of the key things that affects the results appears to be whether surveys define sexual harassment. In surveys that don’t specify what sexual harassment is, the proportion of people saying they have experienced it are lower.

Sexual harassment is legally defined as when one person subjects another to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature leading to violation of dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Some surveys give specific examples of things that constitute sexual harassment, like “inappropriate jokes” which isn’t as clear cut against the legal definition. For example, there’s evidence that inappropriate sexual jokes are not considered sexual harassment by 30% of women.

One pollster, ComRes, surveyed UK adults in October and found 53% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or place of study, but in December found only 25% had.

The key difference in the surveys was that in the October study, they defined sexual harassment, but in December left it up to the respondents to decide whether the behaviour they may have encountered constituted sexual harassment.

The inclusion of “place of study” in these surveys also means the results are likely higher than if they had looked solely at workplace harassment.

Who you survey also makes a difference

It’s also difficult to put a precise number on workplace harassment, as many surveys look at different groups. The data referenced during Question Time seems to refer to a survey of working current members of the Prospect union, and so isn’t representative of the working population as a whole.

A survey done by Opinium in September surveyed people currently working in the UK, meaning they excluded people who are retired.

ComRes surveyed a sample of all adults in Britain, meaning they interviewed some retired people who had worked previously, but also may well have included people that had never worked. This could have the effect of underestimating the proportion of people experiencing workplace sexual harassment. That’s because by surveying a group of people who have never worked, you dilute the numbers of people who have experienced workplace sexual harassment.

The reporting of sexual harassment is inconsistent

Estimates for how many women don’t report workplace sexual harassment also vary, but the figure of 70% seems to be in the right ballpark.

The Opinium survey of UK workers found 58% of women never reported instances of sexual harassment and another 28% sometimes reported sexual harassment.

The ComRes survey from November 2017 found 71% of women didn’t report sexual harassment—but this survey didn’t allow for women to say they had reported some instances but not others. The only answer options were essentially “yes” and “no”.

What none of these surveys tell us is why women do not report all instances of sexual harassment.

This fact check is part of a roundup of BBC Question Time. Read the roundup.