Violence against women (VAW) occurs at epidemic levels. It affects all aspects of women’s lives and the workplace is no exception.
Over 70% of women reported having experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace in Scotland. However, the vast majority (80%) of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace will never report it due to fear of being blamed, not being believed or losing their job. Other forms of VAW, such as rape and sexual assault, can significantly impact on women's ability to hold down a job, as a result of needing to take extended periods off because of the emotional and physical impact. Victim-survivors often experience trauma which can make it increasing difficult to be in work situations which involve groups of men or being alone with men.
We also know that 1 in 4 women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime in Scotland with three quarters of women being targeted at work. Perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking often use workplace resources such as phones and emails to threaten, harass or abuse their current or former partner, acquaintance or strangers. Perpetrator tactics such as sabotage, stalking and harassment at work affect women’s ability to do their jobs, and their ability to stay in work.
The impact of so-called 'honour-based' violence on women's experience at work is similar to that of domestic abuse but can also include being shamed or judged for wanting to have a job, or by being coerced into specific occupations. Women can also be prevented from going for a promotion because it is seen as inappropriate for a woman, or because they will be expected to interact with men.
Most women never report their experience. Some women have stated that they have not come forward because they feel VAW is so widespread and commonplace that there is no point in trying to challenge it, while other women have expressed their frustration with inadequate reporting procedures and lack of confidence in their line managers to effectively handle their complaint.
Employers have a key role to play in not only supporting women who are experiencing gender-based violence but for also preventing it, both at work and in wider society. VAW is a cause and consequence of gender inequality, and therefore tackling women’s inequality in the labour market is a necessary step in ending VAW. This means addressing occupational segregation which sees women clustered into undervalued and low-paid stereotypical female jobs such as care, cleaning and retail; tackling toxic, male-oriented workplace culture where women’s skills and contributions aren’t valued equally to their male colleagues’; creating quality part-time and flexible roles to enable women to balance work with caring responsibilities; and delivering equal pay.
Equally Safe, Scotland's national strategy to eradicate violence against women and girls, is strong on the causal story of VAW and importantly recognises that solutions must include interventions in the workplace. Close the Gap have developed a world-leading employer accreditation programme, which enables employers to better support women who have experienced gender-based violence by creating an inclusive workplace culture that prevents VAW and advances gender equality. It further supports employers to enhance their policies and practices which are key to addressing the barriers that women face at work.
Equally Safe at Work is being piloted in seven councils across Scotland which include Shetland Islands, Highland, Aberdeen City, Midlothian, Perth and Kinross, North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire. We have organised a shadow group of 16 councils that share learning from the pilot. We have also received interest from other public and private sector employers in participating in the programme following the completion of the pilot.
Since its launched in January, the early adopter councils have been working towards meeting the wide range of criteria set out in the programme’s framework which is organised into six categories: leadership, data collection, flexible working, workplace culture, occupational segregation, and VAW.
So far, the programme has seen a variety of activity delivered by councils including:
A key aspect of Equally Safe at Work is ensuring that the activities and initiatives being developed are reaching all levels of staff. To ensure that staff are feeling the impact of the programme, we developed a survey to capture baseline data on employee attitudes and behaviours around VAW and gender equality. The survey has had 2800 respondents and has gathered a range of rich data which gives us an important insight into the experiences of women working in local government. The data from the survey highlighted that there is a lack of awareness of the causes of gender inequality in the workplace. There were high numbers of respondents who did not think that men earned more money on average than women in Scotland. There were also high numbers of respondents who thought women weren’t as good at negotiating their pay. The survey further highlighted that respondents were not comfortable disclosing or reporting VAW to their line managers.
We also wanted to gather information from women working in low paid roles as their experiences are important to understanding women’s inequality in the workplace, and often their voices are unheard. Through a series of employee experience panels, we spoke to over 50 different women who work as pupil support assistants, caterers, homecare workers, admin workers, and cleaners. A number of key issues were highlight by women including feeling undervalued and excluded in the workplace; being unable to access flexible working, and training and development opportunities; feeling that’s inappropriate to talk about VAW at work; and a lack of confidence in the disclosure and reporting process. We’ll be using the data collected from both the survey and the panel to measure if progress has been made during the pilot.
While we are only mid-way through the pilot, councils have stated that the programme is highlighting and giving strength to equalities work throughout the organisation. They’ve shared that it is pulling together equalities work that has already been done and also bringing different departments together to work towards the council’s equality agenda. In addition, councils shared that by highlighting the importance of gender equality and VAW in the workplace, it has created opportunities for employees to talk more openly about VAW at work. It has also helped to facilitate discussions within councils on specific aspects of gender inequality at work such as flexible working and occupational segregation.
Over the next months, councils will continue to work towards the criteria of the programme and to gain accreditation, they will need to provide evidence of the changes they have made in the workplace. We will continue to work with the pilot councils to ensure that they are creating sustainable and long term changes in the organisation through Equally Safe at Work. The learning from the pilot is important not only for the success of Equally Safe at Work, but it also provides invaluable evidence on how to lever gender and VAW-sensitive employment practice which will create meaningful change for different groups of women in Scotland.
We are always looking for new voices on our blog.
Please send us your blogs and we can offer editing advice, and we also have some opportunities for paid contributions.