Online reporting of sexual harassment 'lacks empathy', MPs told

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Almost half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work, according to a recent BBC survey

Encouraging women to report sexual harassment online is no substitute for talking to someone, MPs have been told.

Yvonne Traynor, from Rape Crisis, said she had a “real problem” with claims that it would help women come forward.

She said automated services had no “interaction, empathy or humanness” and “women wanted to talk to other women”.

Gender inequality campaigner Kathryn Nawrockyi welcomed as many “avenues” to report as possible but said technology could “never be the solution”.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has said anonymous reporting tools could allow more women to report cases of harassment by overcoming the “significant barriers” stopping many doing so at the moment.

In a report in March, it urged the government to develop a confidential online tool to facilitate reporting and help “employers improve their practice by identifying persistent issues”.

‘Human response’

But at a hearing of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Ms Traynor – who has led Rape Crisis South London for more than 20 years – said in her experience filling a form in online was not what women who had undergone a traumatic experience wanted.

“I did go on an online tool to check it out and it was just awful because there is no interaction, no empathy and no humanness,” she said.

She said the NHS had tried online reporting to help those suffering from depression to reach out but this had proved a “complete disaster” and a waste of resources.

“We are women, we like to talk to other women. We want to say what is going on. We want a human response. We don’t want an online automation to be honest.”

Labour MP Tulip Siddiq said if a woman had no-one else to speak to at work and all their colleagues were male, than surely an online tool was valuable as a last resort.

Ms Traynor replied: “If you are looking at setting up an online tool or a human tool, I would go for the human tool. If you are going to set something up, let’s do it properly. Let’s not just do it because it is cost-effective.”

‘Formal channels’

Ms Nawrockyi, a consultant and campaigner on gender inequality, bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, said technology could be used to help address under-reporting of harassment but was not a solution in and of itself, with deeper “structural change” needed.

“We need to create as many avenues as possible to enable someone to report, quite often someone who prefers to deal with something on an informal basis rather than going through formal reporting channels.”

Speaking earlier during the hearing, a senior official at the EHRC suggested it had been “caught off guard” by the rise of the #MeToo movement in response to the wave of sexual harassment allegations concerning high-profile, powerful men in the entertainment and other industries.

Elizabeth Prochaska, the organisation’s legal director, said it and other regulators had been focusing on other aspects of discrimination in recent years and their job now was to reflect the “cultural change” going on in society with regard to harassment as much as addressing gaps in the law.

“For me the essence of the #MeToo movement is that we should not be expecting individual women to endure a protracted legal process to get access to justice and remedy a terrible experience at work,” she said.

“What that movement is really about is about solidarity rather than individual action.”

She said a mandatory duty on employers to take reasonable steps to protect staff from workplace harassment would “lift the crushing burden off the individual and say, ‘We expect employers to put in place those protective measures’ so women don’t have to end up seeking an individual remedy in the courts in the first place”.

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