Say the words ‘sexual harassment in the workplace’ and you can expect to see employers immediately lawyering up. Many simply don’t know how to handle sexual harassment effectively, particularly since it has become an international focus thanks to the #MeToo movement. No-one wants to be in the eye of this particular storm but rather than looking to stamp out harassment it seems too many employers focus on making the problem go away or limiting their liability – this isn’t an adequate – or long-term – solution. Instead, we want to see employers taking proactive and employee-centred action to tackle sexual harassment in their workplace.

Over the past few years, there have been disturbing reports of men who have avoided working with women due to a fear that they’ll ‘accidentally harass them’. While I will never be able to understand how these people have interpreted #MeToo to mean ‘let’s stop working with women’ (which is sex discrimination) rather than ‘let’s stop harassing women’, it does seem that we need to do more so that all workers have a clear understanding of what sexual harassment is and how to avoid it.

Despite home-working being the norm for many these days, harassment in various guises is reportedly on the rise. With workers being at home alone and using numerous communication tools to stay in touch, reports are coming in across the world– including in the US, Australia and India – of rising numbers of sexual harassment complaints. It is evident that remote working creates an environment where sexual harassment is as much – if not more – of a problem than it was pre-pandemic.

Women have said that harassers have found their personal phone numbers, or turned up outside their homes. There have also been reports of male managers telling women to attend video calls wearing more make-up and “sexier” clothing.

The think tank Credos recently published a report highlighting concerns that sexual harassment will also be more of a problem when business return to the office, due to the ‘dangerous knowledge gaps’ created by a period of time away from the office, as well as ‘pent-up’ emotions leading to an increase in inappropriate behaviour.

In a recent consultation of women’s experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, we heard from women who have taken the brave step to report their experience of sexual harassment at work, only to be met with apathy – and, in some cases, hostility. One woman told us that, when she reported her experience to her employer, she was told that the harasser had been an employee for years, so they would take no action. Another was to be ‘be an adult” and deal with it herself. One woman was told by her manager to keep quiet for the sake of her job.

It doesn’t matter where we are working – at home, in a care home, in an office, or on a construction site – we know that employers’ responsibility doesn’t end at an office door. It is crystal clear that women who have experienced harassment at work need to be better supported and employers need to be trained and confident in how to do this effectively.

This means that the work that my organisation, the Fawcett Society, is doing - along with its partners Chwarae Teg, Close the Gap and the Women’s Resource and Development Agency across all four nations - to give employers the confidence and tools they need to respond to sexual harassment, create a culture of prevention and give women the confidence to come forward, is essential and urgent.

Women have told us that they wish their employer knew the appropriate way to respond: “I wish my manager had the tools and confidence to protect me, to empower me to file a formal complaint, to do anything that made me feel supported and not guilty/shame/scared about my job security.”

To create these tools, we simply must know more. We need to understand how employers are currently dealing with sexual harassment, and whether it is working or not. We need to investigate and see how and where cultures are changing for the better. We need to understand what works best. Who is doing the best work and how can we share that across the country?

And, most importantly, we need to know how the women who experience sexual harassment at work think about their employer’s current response and what they recommend as the best way forward.

While we recognise that men also experience harassment, our project is focussed on understanding the experiences of women, who are far more often the target of workplace sexual harassment.

This isn’t about criticising employers or expecting them to be experts. It is about listening to women who have gone through these experiences and ensuring that anyone who employs people – myself included – knows exactly what they can do to create an effective and supportive culture where sexual harassment is understood, prevented, and managed appropriately when it arises. To inform this work, we’re asking women who have experienced sexual harassment to share their experiences with us. If you are have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, we would ask you to please share your experiences here.

With a better understanding of what sexual harassment is, and sensitive and effective tools in place to create the right culture, fewer women will have to endure sexual harassment in the workplace, fewer employers will be forced to defend the indefensible.