Tackling LGBT+ Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
In this article we’ll be looking at the Trade Unions Congress’ (TUC) work on tackling sexual harassment towards LGBT+ workers.
Quinn Roache, LGBT+ and Disabled Workers Policy Officer at TUC, explained their previous work on sexual harassment, their methodology and key findings of more recent studies, and the recommendations for change.
What Does LGBT+ Sexual Harassment Look Like?
Sexual harassment in the workplace can take many forms, and there are specific types that affect members of the LGBT+ community.
One example given was from a trans person who walked into the kitchen at their work in the middle of a conversation between the chefs about gangraping them.
Another was when a bisexual man came forward to his supervisor to tell them he had been sexually assaulted. The supervisor found it humorous, told the rest of their colleagues, and the victim was mocked for weeks.
Finally, a middle-aged lesbian woman was told that she shouldn’t be out if she didn’t want to talk about the details of her sex life. This is a recurring theme amongst the findings of TUC’s work, that LGBT+ workers are expected to divulge details of their sex life in ways straight workers are not.
The TUC has been working to highlight workplace sexual harassment for years, including a substantial research-based report published in 2016 titled, ‘Still just a bit of banter?’
The report unearthed evidence gaps in three core areas:
- LGBT+ workers experiences of sexual harassment
- Disabled women’s experiences of sexual harassment
- Black women’s experiences of sexual harassment
To address these gaps, the TUC commissioned polling for a new report. They polled 1000 LGBT+ people on their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace. The questions followed a who, what, where, how, and why format.
There was also a focus on intersectionality, meaning they also wanted to get a sample that included the experiences of black women, disabled women, and trans people.
- Only 51% of LGBT+ people are ‘out’ to everyone at work
- 7 out of 10 LGBT+ people have experienced sexual harassment at work
- 47% of LGBT+ people have heard sexual comments made about another LGBT+ colleague
- 1 in 8 LGBT+ women have been seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work
Quinn highlighted that it is important to ask a broader range of questions rather than just asking someone if they have been sexually harassed.
The main reason for this that by asking a question as blunt as ‘have you been sexually harassed?’ will lead to a lower number of people saying yes, as the view of what sexual harassment is can be narrow.
By asking about specific behaviours that qualify as sexual harassment, not only is the data more in-depth, but people are more likely to answer yes to a specific rather than broad question.
The three acts listed above are all criminal offences. Unwanted touching, sexual assault, and serious sexual assault or rape are all punishable by prison sentences.
In these areas, the experiences of LGBT+ men and women are statistically different. Their experiences of verbal sexual harassment were statistically similar. This detail would go on to form the basis of the rest of the research.
Lesbian or bisexual women were also found to have more frequently received comments from men about ‘being turned straight’ if they were to have sex with them.
These comments that equate to threats of ‘corrective rape’ are then extrapolated further in the finding that 1 in 8 LGBT+ women has been seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work.
The translation of comments towards LGBT+ men does not correlate as steeply as for LGBT+ women.
Bisexual men and women have more similar experiences when it comes to physical sexual harassment, including sexual assault and rape.
23% of bisexual women have been sexually assaulted at work, along with 20% of bisexual men. 10% of bisexual women have been raped at work, as have 11% of bisexual men.
Trans women experience sexual assault and rape at higher rates than other women. Over 30% of trans women have been sexually assaulted at work, compared with just under 20% of other women.
Over 20% of trans women have been raped at work, compared with 7% of other women.
Black and ethnic minority women experience unwanted touching, sexual assault, and serious sexual assault or rape at higher rates than white women.
Black and ethnic minority men suffer from harassment at a similarly higher rate than their white counterparts, with 40% saying they had experienced unwelcome verbal sexual advances compared with around 22% of white men.
For disabled men and women, they also suffer from every form of harassment and assault at a higher rate than non-disabled men and women.
Over 50% of disabled women said they had experienced unwanted touching, with the number around 32% of disabled men experiencing the same.
In both cases this is over 20% higher than non-disabled men and women.
Disabled men and women have also experienced rape and serious sexual assault and much higher rates than non-disabled people.
Over 20% of disabled women and a similar number of disabled men have been raped or seriously sexually assaulted, compared with less than 5% of non-disabled workers.
Reporting Sexual Harassment
In terms of who is carrying out these acts of harassment and assault, the following answers were given:
- 70% said a colleague
- 20% said a third party
- 12% said a managerial colleague
A third party would be someone like a contractor or consultant who is not employed full-time by the same company.
When it comes to reporting, 66% of LGBT+ people did not report sexual harassment at work.
A specific reason why members of the LGBT+ community may not report sexual harassment is because they do not want to ‘out’ themselves as not straight to colleagues who did not know. This number was around 1 in 4 people.
In gay men, the numbers are as high as 3 in 4 do not report sexual harassment. In cases where they did report, they were less likely to be believed than other members of the community.
The report did find that trade union members were more likely to report their experiences of sexual harassment to their employer, and those who did report say it was taken seriously and dealt with satisfactorily.
The impact on the mental health of LGBT+ workers can be devastating, and lead to people leaving jobs without having another one to go to, which can start a more vicious spiral.
The TUC recommend the government introduces a new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.
Alongside this, strengthening legislation to tackle third-party harassment and a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment and harassment at work forms part of their recommendations for the government.
The TUC also advises that employers should review all their workplace policies to make sure they are explicitly inclusive with the help of trade unions and adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment.
Training of staff and managers to ensure they are aware of what constitutes harassment towards LGBT+ workers makes up part of this duty as well.
The TUC also implore all people to educate themselves to become aware of the issues facing LGBT+ people at work, and make sure they understand what harassment looks like, and that being part of a culture that mocks LGBT+ colleagues facilitates sexual harassment.
Their campaign #thisisnotworking highlights how widespread harassment and sexual assault is, and many companies including Amnesty International UK, Action Aid, and Unison have signed up to encourage the government to take action.
 Roache, Quinn. 2021. Policy Officer: Disability and LGBT+ Equality, TUC. Tackling LGBT Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
 TUC.org.uk. 2016. Still just a bit of banter?