20% fired after public sector sexual harassment claims

Male colleague getting too close to a female worker Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption At least three-quarters of the 84 allegations of sexual harassment were made by women against male staff

Fewer than 20% of sexual harassment allegations in Wales' public sector have led to a dismissal, figures show.

Since 2016, from the 81 public sector bodies that replied, there have been 84 complaints with 16 staff sacked.

Two authorities paid out a total of £16,000 in so-called non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) after allegations.

A Welsh Women's Aid spokesperson said it was "disturbing" to see public bodies spending taxpayers' money "to silence women on sexual harassment".

A woman who got £40,000 through an NDA after enduring sexist bullying and touching said the real amount paid out is likely to be far higher.

Rachel, not her real name, who worked for a Welsh university, claimed this was because most authorities avoid attributing the confidentiality agreements to a single cause.

In total, BBC Wales asked 89 public sector bodies, including UK government departments with offices here, for information relating to sexual harassment and the use of NDAs.

The 81 responses received show:

  • At least three-quarters of the 84 allegations of sexual harassment were made by women against male staff
  • These allegations led to 52 disciplinary proceedings, from which 16 people were dismissed
  • Merthyr Tydfil and Pembrokeshire councils both admitted paying £8,000 each in NDAs following sexual harassment complaints
  • 10% of authorities said they were against the use of NDAs, while 44% have no NDA policy
  • Seven public bodies refused to give the information (Cardiff University; the BBC; the Wales Office; the Ministry of Justice; the Home Office; the Department for Work and Pensions; and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
  • Despite Cardiff University's refusal, it was reported in October that it had paid out £3m in non-specific settlement agreements

"It started off with saying I was 'a big girl' then it would be that I was uptight and other sexist comments," Rachel said.

"People got really friendly and tactile, and sort of patronising because you are a woman and it's a man's world.

"It was all demeaning me, belittling me because I was a woman."

She was paid £40,000 by her former employer to keep quiet about allegations of bullying, sexism and sexual harassment.

After raising concerns with senior leadership about the way money was being spent in her department, Rachel said her views were dismissed and she was labelled "unprofessional".

The disagreements continued, and things came to a head in 2011.

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Media captionThese young women told the BBC about their experiences of sexual harassment at work

"It was getting to the point where I was standing my ground and I got summoned to the boardroom allegedly about the progress of the project," she said.

"I was worried because it seemed unusual so I thought 'I'm going to cover my own back here'."

Rachel decided to record the conversation between her and two male managers, which included her senior manager "laying into" her and saying she was not wanted anymore.

She claimed they then lied about the nature of the conversation, and that her employer only took action when they became aware she had recorded it.

But they wanted her gone too.

"I didn't want to leave but it comes to a point when it is not a joke anymore and you have to let go," Rachel said.

"They basically said to me 'here's your money, they will be dealt with, take your money and go'.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act of 2010

"I was a single mum. I was scared because I wasn't going to have a job and I had no-one to talk to. It was hard, really hard."

Rachel said there is a particular problem with sexism in the public sector.

"These places are run by men," she said.

"You hear about [sexual harassment] all the time. You have got to play the game, particularly woman with children who have got no choice but to accept it."

The Unison union said 60% of public sector workers recently surveyed had witnessed or experienced sexism in the workplace.

"As well as suffering sexual harassment, women are belittled at work, called pet names, overlooked for promotion and frequently told to defer to husbands or male colleagues who 'know better'," Unison Wales secretary Stephanie Thomas said.

A Welsh Women's Aid spokesperson added: "Non-disclosure agreements were set up to protect employers from employees trading secrets.

"The use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment can lead to perpetrators' behaviour going unacknowledged, unchallenged and unpunished."

Help and advice

  • Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas): 0300 123 1100
  • Citizen's Advice, England/Wales: 03444 111 444
  • Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work): 020 7404 6609
  • Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS): 0808 800 0082

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