One in four healthcare workers have been sexually harassed by colleagues, research shows

06 October 2023

A quarter of healthcare workers have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour from colleagues, but less than half felt confident enough to report it, new research shows.

A quarter of healthcare workers have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour from colleagues, but less than half felt confident enough to report it, new research shows.

The research, commissioned by The Barrister Group, reveals the true extent of the toxic cultures that still exist in many workplaces.

Groping, stroking, inappropriate comments, and threats that it would harm their career if they did not return sexual advances were among the unwanted attention received, mostly from colleagues in senior roles.

Victims described feeling violated, intimidated, ashamed, degraded and scared, but many chose to stay silent rather than report it for fear they would be treated negatively as a result.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of the 285 healthcare workers surveyed had experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour from a colleague and over half (58 per cent) said the perpetrator was senior to them.

However, 61 per cent did not report the matter and, of those who did, many said they felt awkward, isolated, were accused of overreacting and, in 13 per cent of cases, forced to find another job.

The main reasons for staying silent included fears that they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously, and even that they would be blamed.

Anna Loutfi, an employment barrister and part of The Barrister Group, said, “For many of us, the #MeToo movement felt like a watershed moment which started a wider conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, not just for women and not just at work.

“The fact that sexual harassment is still so prevalent in the workplace is hugely disappointing.

“Recent celebrity scandals may have heightened public awareness of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, but the reality seems to be that far too many people are still putting up with it for fear that they will be seen as the problem rather than the perpetrator.

“That is fundamentally wrong and must be addressed.”

The Barrister Group surveyed 2,019 UK workers in total across a range of sectors, with 29 per cent overall revealing they had been a victim of sexual harassment at work, 69 per cent from a more senior colleague.

Worryingly fewer than half (48 per cent) reported it, with a third (34 per cent) believing their bosses were complicit and happy to look the other way.

Although most people claimed they knew what constituted inappropriate behaviour, a third didn’t think touching someone’s breasts, slapping their bum or making sexual comments about their appearance was wrong. Women were quicker to call this out than men.

Fewer than two-thirds (61 per cent) said their employer had a policy in place to deal with sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Anna added, “It is surprising that so many people still don’t recognise that certain behaviours are wrong, and, for the avoidance of doubt, employers should have clear policies in place.

“There is obviously a distinction between what is unlawful and what is inappropriate, but both are unacceptable in the workplace. 

“Employers have a legal duty of care, and employees have a right to expect that they will not be made to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or violated in the course of their work.

“There needs to be a culture of openness and transparency, where employees feel empowered to report inappropriate behaviour and are confident that when they do, they will be supported, and the necessary action will be taken.”