IDA-member: "My boundaries were violated again and again”

One in five female IDA-members have experienced sexual harassment at their workplace within the past year – most often in the form of unwanted touching or inappropriate comments. IDA wants to step up the responsibility of employers for preventing harassment and offensive behaviour.

In the beginning, she objected when her colleagues commented on her clothing and physical appearance – often using strongly sexualised language – and she turned to her manager to complain about their behaviour. But her manager only responded that such was the culture in the industry, and it was to be expected because she was “good looking ". That way, the harassment was allowed to continue – at the office, during lunch breaks, and at social gatherings.

“Here I often experienced that some of my colleagues compared my body to those on the pages of tabloid magazines in front of everyone. Several times, they loudly discussed the things they wanted to do to me  while I was present in the room. They also loudly speculated whether I was pregnant because my breasts appeared bigger, or remarks were made that you could see my nipples through my clothing,” a female IDA-member, who is anonymous, describes.

“There was nothing to be seen, and whenever I spoke up or asked them to stop, they shrugged it off as just a joke or joked that I was on my period. The same colleagues asked me multiple times whether my sports bra could handle the pressure, if we discussed running and exercise. One time, a colleague whispered it to me. That was even more uncomfortable and violated my personal boundaries more than when it was spoken aloud for everyone to hear. I am not sensitive and I'm fully capable of laughing at a fun remark, but my boundaries where violated again and again,” she says.

The woman, who is a science graduate, is not alone in her experiences of offensive behaviour and harassment at her workplace.

A new survey by IDA shows that 21 % of the female IDA-members and 6 % of the male members have been exposed to sexual harassment at the workplace during the past year. More than 17 % of the women experienced offensive remarks or suggestions of a sexual nature, and 8 % have experienced inappropriate physical contact such as embraces, hugs and kissing.

For 6 % of the women, the harassment and abuse has been of a particularly serious nature, including suggestions or demands of sexual favours.

Harassment has devastating effects

The personal consequences are most significant for those who have been exposed to harassment or abuse of a particularly serious nature. In this group, many state that they have experienced a lowered self-esteem, sleep problems, and challenges in their sex life. But around 20 % of all the women who have experienced sexual harassment respond that their well-being has been affected in some way, or that it has been uncomfortable for them to go to work afterwards.

Bullying and harassment

If you experience inappropriate conduct at your workplace, never hesitate to contact IDA for help:

Contact IDA.

That was also the case for the female science graduate who began by saying no to her colleagues, but who, as time passed, started having doubts about herself and experienced serious stress symptoms due to the harassment.

“I changed my behaviour. For instance, I did not touch spirits at the Christmas lunch because I was not sure what could happen, and I needed to be able to react and have a clear mind. I stopped using makeup and started wearing loose and preferably thick-layered clothing – but of course, this did not help. Instead, I had to listen to suggestions that I give my co-workers something nice to look at – because men don't like boring women.”

Today she is no longer at the same workplace, but her experiences of harassment still affect her.

“There was complete radio silence”

If you are exposed to harassment at your workplace, you risk having to face the offender again and again. In the survey, 22 % of the women and 7 % of the men say that they have changed their behaviour to avoid certain people and situations on their job. That is also the case for an anonymous female engineer, who describes two episodes concerning a manager at her workplace:

“I was the only woman in a group of co-workers. We were around 10 people. There was also a manager present – someone a lot older than me. When the meeting is over and he is heading out the door, he stops and caresses my cheek as one would do to a child. It is both humiliating and overstepped by boundary. He had left before I had time to react. No one said anything. There was complete radio silence” .

“During another episode, I was having breakfast with 9 or 10 male colleagues when the same manager entered the room. There was an informal atmosphere and we were joking with each other. Suddenly he directs his attention to me and says, that with the salary I receive, he has heard that I have a second job at home at night where I make some extra money. He clearly suggested that I was a prostitute. Completely out of nowhere."

“Everyone was gobsmacked for a moment and cringed with embarrassment. Except this one manager, who continued the informal tone until everyone else quietly and calmly loosened up. I left uncomprehending and full of anger."

“I'm very satisfied with my colleagues and my job, and in general, the episodes have not affected my behaviour when I am at work. But when that particular manager is present, these experiences have definitely meant that I pay extra attention. I position myself physically far from him in order to avoid him”.

Tighten the legal responsibility of employers

IDA’s survey shows that our members at STEM-workplaces not only experience sexual harassment. In total, 49 % of women and 34 % of men state that they have experienced one or several personal or professional instances of harassment within the past 12 months. These include slander, hurtful comments, or belittlement based on their work effort, age, gender, or competences.

That so many members experience an unhealthy and problematic working environment comes as a surprise to Chairman of IDA, Thomas Damkjær Petersen.

“We knew that there were significant hidden figures because we have received so few inquiries from our members about sexual harassment and offensive behaviour in general. But I had not imagined that so many members have experienced sexual harassment at their workplace in the past year”, he says.

IDA’s survey also shows that only one in four of the respondents who say that they have experienced harassment say that there is a high or very high degree of preventative work at their workplaces. An equal number say that there are few or no preventive measures dealing with harassment at their workplace, and 40 % of leaders and employee representatives do not know whether there are any plans for dealing with cases about sexual harassment on their workplace.

That is why IDA calls for a tightening of legal measures, and for introducing an indirect objective employer’s responsibility. The way legislation is set up today, employers only have to pay compensation for employees who have been exposed to harassment if the employer has been aware that the harassment has taken place. But by introducing indirect objective employer’s responsibility, employers are obliged to introduce preventive measures, and can only be considered free of responsibility if it can be documented that the harassment could not have been avoided, despite the preventive measures.

At the same time, IDA wants to, as a minimum, double the amount of DKK 10 million which has been set aside to Arbejdstilsynet (The Danish Working Environment Authority) in the Danish Finance Act. Raising the amount gives Arbejdstilsynet a better capacity for monitoring whether employers live up to their responsibility in preventing harassment. At the same time, IDA wants to increase the compensation for employees who have experienced harassment. All these measures are meant to increase the incentive of employers for preventing harassment.

Thomas Damkjær Petersen notes that it is also important to confront the culture at many workplaces, so that employees are taken seriously when they come forward in cases about harassment. We must also show that it has consequences for those who commit the harassment.

“Here, the management, along with both employee representatives, working environment representatives, and employees, has to build an understanding that it is okay to speak up when one experiences offensive behaviour, and that it is always the victim who decides whether a certain situation violates their boundaries or not. There is definitely also a huge need for educating both managers and employee representatives in handling the dilemmas and preventing harassment. The road to a strong mental working environment goes through these considerations and the willingness to face problems before they grow out of hand,” says Thomas Damkjær Petersen.