Study on #metoo at the workplace: greasy looks

One in eleven employees reports sexual harassment in the workplace. Often it happens in the health and social sector.

Often young and inexperienced colleagues experience harassment at work Photo: Frank May/dpa/picture alliance

About one in eleven working people in Germany has experienced sexual harassment at work in the past three years. Women are affected almost three times as often as men. Around 13 percent of women report experiences of harassment, compared to five percent of men. These are key findings of a broad-based study commissioned by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, which was presented in Berlin on Friday.

In most cases, those affected reported inappropriate comments and harassing looks and gestures. Almost one in three of those affected felt harassed by inappropriately intimate or sexualized questions, and almost one in four complained of unwanted touching or advances. Eleven percent reported encounters in which they had been asked to perform sexual acts, and in individual cases there had also been blackmail or physical coercion.

Eighty-two percent of respondents said they had been harassed by men; among the women surveyed, the figure was 98 percent. Affected individuals often experience multiple instances of harassment at work, not one-time misconduct.

It doesn’t have to be a power relationship between upstairs and downstairs that leads to sexual harassment – a finding that surprised the researchers. "The people who harass are largely customers and patients," said Monika Schrottle, the study’s director. This was the case for 53 percent, with people from the health and social sector and service professions being particularly affected. "Men are definitely also affected," says Schrottle.

Only one percent react with legal action

Often it is also colleagues of the same rank who go too far. In 19 percent of cases, it was the supervisor who was assaulted. Young people with little work experience or interns and trainees who are not involved in the company on a long-term basis are also particularly affected, he said. "They are structurally weaker and have less experience of how to defend themselves," Schrottle said.

Often, those affected defend themselves verbally against harassment. Only 23 percent of respondents filed a complaint, and only one percent responded with legal action. It’s difficult for those affected to respond more broadly if, for example, they work in smaller companies or are in dependent relationships, Schrottle said. "Most of this is not addressed in the workplace." Reasons for this, he said, include "the fear of insufficient anonymity and negative consequences if they approach third parties, and trying: Somehow I will solve it myself."

For this reason, the authors of the study call for more external counseling services. They further suggest extending the time limits to file legal claims or sue. Currently, affected people have two and three months respectively to act. This is too little, they say, considering that those affected also need to process the experience in the first place and need time to seek support and legal counsel. The authors therefore suggest a period of six months.

The bosses must act

Family Minister Franziska Giffey (SPD) announced that she would use the results of the study to consider "what can be changed" in these areas. She appealed to women to fight back early: "You are not the problem, you don’t have to put up with this."

Ultimately, however, managers play a key role in preventing and ending sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the study. They have it in their hands to respond when incidents occur or to set up an anonymous complaints office within the company. It is up to them to take a clear stand against harassment and violence and to take countermeasures. For example, bosses could have regular investigations carried out to determine whether sexual harassment is occurring in their own company.

According to the study, many employees do not even know that there should be contact points for discrimination and harassment in the company. "Even though there is a legal requirement that all businesses have complaint departments, only 56 percent said they did: We have something like that," Schrottle said.

The researchers from Nuremberg and Bielefeld had surveyed more than 1,500 people from June 2018, i.e. after the start of #metoo, until May 2019 and evaluated numerous court rulings.