Pink Talks

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Harassment in the workplace: definition or interpretation?

This month has come in force with the release of a new Pink Talks episode called Sexual harassment in the workplace. If the last time we brought the gender impacts of armed conflict to the front, today’s discussion complements the previous one by reinforcing the importance of diversity, gender representation, and cultural change. This episode focuses on the gender power gap in the labor market, policies and procedures, definitions of sexual harassment, and the non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

The hosts, Tiziana Ruberto and Ana Catarina Caldeira, together with the guest, Dr. Christina Julios, have outlined fundamental evidence for the current gaps in the labor market, which is pretty segregationist in terms of jobs, gender, ethnicity, and disability. 

As an academic whose research interests include gender equality, violence against women and girls (VAWG), and gender activism, her most recent book, Sexual Harassment in the UK Parliament, is put in the context of the Me Too movement. Based on research that collects experiences of women working in the British Parliament and the labor market at large, the book unveils gender inequality, misogynistic attitudes, and the lack of women’s representation. The analysis draws attention to organizational culture, the lack of support for victims, and the dynamics in the work environment. These are issues to raise in all workplaces, and that is what the guest highlights in this episode. Not only does her research document evidence, case studies, and legislation, but it also looks at solutions and practical initiatives like HR improvement that organizations can take.

The unethical use of NDA’a

One of the most common and backlash generator questions is: why hasn’t she reported earlier? The low rate of reports is caused by fear, fear of not being taken seriously or not being believed, fear of losing their job, fear of potential damage to their reputation, and fear of jeopardizing their future careers. Lack of faith in the system, lack of access to the organizational system, for example, the HR system, and lack of resources are also among these factors. We must not forget about the Non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that remains legal but came to be used unethically: `The problem is that NDAs have become a common way of dealing with cases of sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse at work`,states Dr. Christina Julios. As a result, women either remain silent or leave their job. A daily livelihood where the employees are subjected to harassment impacts their mental health in the medium and long term, and the consequences include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and becoming withdrawn.

The need for new policies and procedures

Asked what measures could be taken in sexual harassment cases, she emphasizes policies and procedures. First of all, it is essential to have a more diverse workforce, to ensure parity in the labor market, and that refers to all underrepresented groups, women, minorities, and disability groups. The need for women in authority positions is also stated in this solution list, a solution also presented on the last episode by Kristen Meagher when she stressed the importance of women as decision-makers. This signals the urgency to have women representation in the system in order to narrow and eventually close the gender power gap. Another measure addresses the problem of the organizational culture dominated by misogynistic attitudes. The role of women is being seen as supportive rather than equal partners. We need to question the culture of the organizations, for instance, if it allows working mothers to have a career. And lastly, it is crucial to change organizational structures that perpetuate these situations.

Legislation on equality exists for decades, but the issue is with its implementation in the labor market. In this sense, we analyzed sexual harassment’s definitions, especially because they leave a gray area for interpretation. On one hand, there are legal definitions that differ from country to country, and the organizations’ definitions. On the other hand, it is language and interpretation that complicates the reporting process and perpetrators’ conviction. It is a matter of authority and power. The dynamic shows that the victims either remain silent or leave their job, while the perpetrators, in this case, the members of Parliament, issue a public apology, are reprimanded by the party or are temporarily suspended, and in rare cases, step down.

The book with its research and the extended reality of sexual harassment in the workplace demonstrates the urgency to change culture and attitudes toward women, working women, and women in authority positions. At the end of the episode, the message reiterates the need for organizational structures that protect the victim and not become complicit in these crimes. We concluded with an optimistic view of a future with more visibility and women in the labor market.

Listen to the whole conversation on our podcast and tell us what you think.

Show resources

Dr Christina Julios is an academic author, Honorary Associate & Assoc. Lecturer at The Open University, and Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. A former Honorary Research Fellow & Assoc. Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, she has guest lectured at Queen Mary, University of London. Previously, Dr Julios worked as Director of Policy and External Affairs at the Ethnic Minority Foundation, a national charity. Her research interests include gender equality, violence against women and girls (VAWG), and gender activism. She has authored the books: Sexual Harassment in the UK Parliament (2022), Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media (2019), Forced Marriage and ‘Honour’ Killings in Britain (2015), and Contemporary British Identity (2008).

Julios, C. (2022). Sexual Harassment in the UK Parliament: Lessons from the #MeToo Era. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 978-3-030-87140-6

Cox, L. (2018). The bullying and harassment of house of commons staff: Independent inquiry report, Dame Laura Cox DBE. the bullying and harassment of house of commons staff independent inquiry report dame laura cox dbe 15. Accessed 20 October 2022.

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