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Sexual Harassment in the European Workplace: no laughing matter

By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared on www.expatica.com/hr)

Sally (not her real name) has worked for eighteen months in the Amsterdam office of a large multinational management consulting firm. Sally, an American, says she has encountered attitudes and behaviour here in the European office she had previously only read about.

"This is what it must have been like in the 60s in the States", says Sally. "Last week I was asked to attend a management meeting at one of our client firms, to replace a male co-worker who was ill. When I walked into the meeting room, one of the men actually told me I had the wrong room. That’s how confident he was that the tax consultant they were expecting could never be a woman".

False assumptions, perceptions and expectations may not be the worst problems facing women in the European workplace. According to a 1999 study for the European Commission, up to 50% of EU women have faced unwanted sexual proposals, yet the level of awareness of this phenomenon in the member states is very poor. Attention paid to sexual harassment issues has long been considered ‘North American-style political correctness" and women who complain about being harassed are often advised by colleagues and superiors to develop a sense of humour.

There are few women working in the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe today who won’t have been confronted with sexist "humour" sent via e-mail or fax, from the ubiquitous dumb blonde jokes to the extremely offensive visual images that jam company intranets. In North America forwarding these messages or even keeping them on your computer are serious offences, and employees can be dismissed, prosecuted or both. There is no similar legislature in the Netherlands, and it is unlikely such will be forthcoming. As with everything from smoking to affirmative action, in the polder model of discussion and consensus the general feeling is that ‘we can work this out together’. Several years ago, when the Netherlands set out to train 800 female police recruits, half quit before finishing the course. Monique Matze of Holland's Social Affairs & Employment Ministry attributes at least some of the attrition to harassment. Nonetheless, the Dutch government that year reported just 48 cases of harassment --''a fraction of the real problem,'' says Matze.

Sexual harassment has far-reaching effects. According to Jenny Watson, Deputy Chair of the Equal Opportunity Commission in the UK, there are often very grim consequences. Even if sexual harassment claims are successful, 90% of the claimants end up either losing their jobs, or resigning, because of the action. "Sexual harassment, far from being 'just a bit of fun' as some people try to claim, makes people's lives a misery, affecting their confidence and their health, as well as their performance at work", says Ms. Watson.

"Our analysis of employment tribunal cases paints a grim picture, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Nearly half of the people bringing a case had not made a formal complaint to anyone at work because there was no one they felt they could complain to, they were too embarrassed, they feared that they would not be believed or they thought they could handle it for the sake of their careers. Many of the people we talk to have put up with harassment for months or even years before contacting the EOC."

The EOC recommends European companies implement the following measures:
  • Adopt a clear policy that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace
  • Spell out what kinds of behaviour is unacceptable
  • Make sure victims know how to raise concerns and feel confident in doing so
  • Investigate problems and take firm action to stamp out harassment when it occurs

Britain, where several cases have made headlines including one involving the Royal Navy, is Europe's exception. There, penalties run to six months in jail and a fine of Euro 4,000.
Otherwise only France and Belgium have laws explicitly banning sexual harassment while most other EU member states have partial legislation - and Portugal and Greece have nothing on the books at all. If a new law is approved by the European Parliament the EU will for the first time have a clear legal definition of sexual harassment, commissioners say, worded as follows: "Sexual harassment shall be deemed to be discrimination on the grounds of sex at the workplace when an unwanted conduct related to sex takes place with the purposes or effect of affecting the dignity of a person and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive or disturbing environment, in particular if a person's rejection of, or submission to, such conduct is a basis for a decision which affects that person." The law will also reinforce protection for employees, both male and female, who complain about discrimination, and will acknowledge the right of women to return to their jobs after maternity leave.

The aim of the legislation is not to have a tidal wave of sexually harassment suits, reported EU Employment and Social Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou in an interview in the BBC last year.
"It is preventative," she told reporters. "We want to nip harassment problems in the bud. Just the presence of such a law will encourage women to tell of sexual harassment in public, to react, to go on, and not to accept it in a passive way."

And how pervasive is the problem? In a Guardian profile of sexual harassment in London’s financial district published earlier this year: "Most City males think the world is divided into three types of women," says one former analyst. "The sweet, virginal, Julia Roberts look-a-like who responds with delighted giggles to any sort of "perfectly normal workplace banter", yet is desperate to don crotchless knickers and give the boss a blow-job. Then there are the mothers - unreliable because not only did they go and get pregnant, but they have the nerve to clock off early if a child breaks an arm. And then there is the largest group of women - the humourless bitches."