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Victims of sexual harassment asked to take part in huge government survey

The responses will help the government understand the scale of harassment at work

It’s 2020, and despite the influence of movements like #MeToo, the Time’s Up campaign and a number of government policies aimed at tackling sexual harassment, abuse is still rife across UK universities, on public transport, and at work

But in a major new move announced today, victims of sexual harassment are being asked to share their experiences in a huge survey to help the government understand the scale of the problem in the workplace, and take steps to tackle it.

The Government Equalities Office is urging survivors to respond to the survey so they can establish how prevalent sexual harassment is in workplaces across the UK, and what forms it commonly takes. 

The initiative is part of a wider government move to strengthen protection for workers, allowing victims who have experienced harassment first hand to have an impact on the policies that seek to tackle it. 

Victoria Atkins, minister for women, defined sexual harassment as “behaviour of a sexual nature which intimidates or casues distress or humiliates the person to whom its directed”.

“Sexual harassment is wrong and survivors must be able to share their stories,” she said. “This survey will help us build a clear picture of who is affected and where. Working together with business, we can stamp it out.”

In an interview with the BBC, Atkins disclosed that she had experienced sexual harassment, and explained that value of an anonymous survey where victims feel they can describe their ordeals honestly without fear of judgment.

“I have suffered sexual harassment. I’m not going to be drawn on the details because I’m not going to be defined by the grubby behaviour of the men that behaved like that towards me,” she said. “But the huge benefit of this survey is that it’s anonymous, it’s confidential, so people can share their stories in a way that they can feel safe that the data is just going to be used to help us with policy.”

In 2017, research conducted for the BBC found that 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work at some stage in their careers.

Speaking to LBC, Atkins said people needed to use “common sense” to determine what was classified as sexual harassment in the work place and what wasn’t. “Yesterday, I was wearing a very colourful skirt and everybody was saying how wonderful it looks,” she said. “I did not take that as sexual harassment.” 

“But I was telling officials that, after a public appearance, I had an individual email about my footwear. It was in a way that showed a great interest in my footwear. And that was something that made me feel uncomfortable.”

“I think common sense here will prevail and we just want to gather the evidence to see how people react to different types of behaviour.”

Labour’s Dawn Butler, who is currently in the running for deputy leader of the party, tweeted that the survey would “only be a good thing” if the government take action on the issues gleaned from the results. “It's a shame it comes after the Tories have cut women’s services,” she added, referencing the Tory government’s slashing of spending on women’s refuges, specialist charity organisations, sexual health services, and maternity units.

As part of measured to have tackle harassment at work, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has also published a draft code of practice for employers that advises them on how to make their workplaces safe. 

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the the Trade Union Congress which protects workers’ rights, said that the survey will help the government and unions understand the scale of the problem in the workplace. “The next step must be to change the law,” she said. “So that responsibility for preventing harassment at works sit with employers, not victims.”