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Preventing Sexual Harassment: A loud wake up call

Updated: Mar 28



“Impunity for perpetrators, who are often well known in their organisations for serial offending, must end.” Sexism in the City Report

On 8th March 2024, as organisations around the world marked International Women’s Day, the Treasury Committee published its Sexism in the City report.

In the five years since the Committee’s previous inquiry, exploring progress made against the Women in Finance Charter, we have seen high profile scandals, from sexual misconduct claims at the CBI to the fall of Odey Asset Management. It’s 2024. Surely the tide has changed? Sadly not. If you have yet to review the report in full, brace yourself for a sobering read. With findings including a “shocking” prevalence of sexual harassment and bullying and an “overwhelmingly negative view” of the effectiveness of internal whistleblowing procedures in Financial Services firms, the report serves as a loud wakeup call on the barriers that persist for women in finance.

As October 2024 looms, and employers prepare for the Worker Protection (Amendment of the Equality Act 2010) Act 2023 to come into force, the Sexism in the City report makes abundantly clear that more robust and effective interventions are needed in order to prevent sexual harassment in Financial Services firms.

But, as we know, Financial Services are not alone here. To name just a couple of studies, a survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal sector by the International Bar Association and Acritas in 2018 found that one in three women had experienced sexual harassment in a workplace context. And a 2016 Trades Union Congress survey found that one in two women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Even more alarmingly, in the 18-24 age bracket, that figure rose to nearly two in three women.

Whether it’s anti-harassment policies, grievance procedures or mandatory training, employers at large have taken steps to tackle workplace harassment for decades. Which begs the question what isn’t working? Sexism in the City goes some way towards providing answers. Impunity: The inquiry found a widespread view that male perpetrators of harassment and abuse suffered few consequences as a result of their behaviour and raised strong concerns over the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements, protecting the perpetrator and their firm, and “covering up” allegations. Fear: In contrast to the perceived protection of perpetrators, the inquiry found that for women who reported harassment, outcomes were usually negative, with many women reporting feeling no option but to move roles or leave a company after making a complaint.

Complaint handling: The focus of HR was perceived as protecting the firm rather than the victims of sexual harassment, leading to a large degree of mistrust in internal reporting processes. Inactive bystanders: While male colleagues were often seen as privately supportive of women experiencing inappropriate behaviour, they would rarely intervene or call it out. Instead, the report highlighted an emphasis on helping women to avoid known “bad actors”. Misogynistic mindsets: While some participants reported a reduction in overt sexism and misogyny in the workplace, misogynistic mindsets remained widespread, with behaviours becoming more underhand. The report made clear more must be done to tackle microaggressions and “low level” bullying and harassment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sexism in the City highlights that firm diversity & inclusion efforts can be seen as exercises in virtue-signalling and box ticking. So where do we go from here? Our three essential steps for employers are: 1. Listen to your people: Addressing misogyny and preventing harassment requires a deep focus on the attitudes, behaviours and norms that lead to inappropriate behaviour, or see it go unchallenged. But we don’t know what we don’t know, right? So where do we start? At Inclusive Group, we have found that employee listening, whether that’s group based or through 1:1 discussions, provides a powerful and deeply impactful means of understanding the perspectives and experiences of your people. Closing the awareness gap can be a deeply challenging and confronting process, but it is often the only way to ensure that your interventions tackle the real issues. 2. Are your policies and procedures fit for purpose?: A zero-tolerance approach to harassment is really just a starting point. It’s crucial that your people are absolutely clear on what this means in practice. Preventing harassment is likely to require complete clarity on what is, and is not acceptable, with a specific focus on behaviours that may have been overlooked or tolerated historically. As well as understanding how to report concerns, it’s crucial staff trust these channels. If you haven’t provided robust and tailored complaint handling training to Managers and HR colleagues recently, now may be the right time to do so. 3. Invest in impactful training: Anti-harassment training may not be popular, but it’s crucial, and it’s important to invest in getting it right. Inclusive Group always use scenarios tailored to your organisation to ensure the learning feels “real”. Anti-harassment training should incorporate a strong focus on everyday exclusion and micro-behaviours alongside a highly practical focus on bystander intervention. Every organisation wants to ensure that the training “sticks” and has genuine impact. We have found that achieving this relies on four success factors. Firstly appointing a high quality provider – this is certainly not an area where any employer can afford to cut corners. Secondly, making inclusion and appropriate conduct relevant and deeply meaningful to everyone in the room. Thirdly, equipping your people to spot and tackle inappropriate behaviour (removing inaction from the choices available), and finally, providing your leaders managers with not only the skills, but the inclination, to listen and respond appropriately when staff speak up. If you would like to discuss how Inclusive Group can support your organisation in reviewing cultural strengths and shortfalls, in coaching your leaders and managers or in delivering programmes focusing on anti-harassment and embedding speak up cultures, please get in touch.


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