‘Sobering findings’: Survey reveals rampant sexual harassment in UK media and advertising

For all the talk of equal opportunities and diversity targets in media and advertising workplaces, sexual harassment remains woefully prolific.

In the U.K. alone, 1 in 5 women between 18 and 24 years old has been sexually harassed within the first few years of working in the media and advertising industries, as well as 5 percent of men in the same age group, according to a survey of 3,500 U.K. respondents who work in media and advertising, published today.

Twenty-six percent of respondents said they have been harassed while working in the media and marketing industries. Of the respondents who have been sexually harassed, 72 percent said they were more than once, and 25 percent said it had happened six times or more.

The study, commissioned by Women in Advertising and Communications London, the Advertising Association, and media and advertising industry charity NABs, shines a spotlight on how rife sexual harassment is in media and advertising in the U.K. Along with a high volume of female employees citing either single or multiple experiences of sexual harassment in the report, other patterns emerged: Both men and women remain unclear on what specifically constitutes sexual harassment and therefore are often unsure what their rights are, and most refrain from reporting issues, for fear of being fired or demoted. Just over 80 percent of the respondents that said they have been harassed experienced it from people a more senior level than them. The result is that the issue is perpetuating rather than diminishing.

WACL and the AA have devised a #TimeToo Code of Conduct that they’re encouraging businesses to adopt. The code details how to know when you’ve been sexually harassed, how to deal with it and what the reporting structure should be. It also advises on protocol for when an individual witnesses harassment, along with guidelines on how senior management and human resources departments should treat it, including whether or not it’s appropriate for people who have made harassment claims to sign nondisclosure agreements.

“These are sobering findings,” said Kerry Glazer, president of media and advertising industry charity NABS and outgoing president of WACL. “What we hope in publicizing this code and getting it endorsed where possible is that it is acted on in the most senior levels. If the C-suite sets the tone for the rest of the company and it becomes part of their harassment policy, then they are making a statement this behavior is not to be tolerated.” Agencies including BBH London, Havas London and Karmarama have endorsed the Code of Conduct, as has broadcaster ITV.

Sexual harassment is a broad spectrum. It can be anything from bullying language and behavior dressed up as “harmless banter” to physical assault. “In some old-school agencies, there’s a belief that it [sexual harassment] is part of doing business,” said Mary Keane-Dawson, co-founder and CEO of the agency Truth.

Sixty-six percent of the respondents were women, while 39 percent were from creative agencies, 34 percent from media agencies, 8 percent from media owners and 4 percent were brand marketers. The remaining 15 percent of respondents came from production companies, public relations, events companies, charities and trade bodies.

“In reality, it’s probably more,” said Amy Kean, head of strategic innovation for Starcom Global Clients. “But at least these findings prove that even now these issues are real, and they have to be addressed at every level. It’s time for the commentary to stop, and the real action to start. This research should be conducted every year to make sure the numbers go down.”

“We need to make this a thing of the past,” said Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association. “For all the positive initiatives and incredible industry ambition in terms of helping women achieve their potential and getting more diversity at a senior level, if this [level of sexual harassment] isn’t addressed, those initiatives will always be undermined. We’ve got to address this to ensure there is a fair and humane platform for everyone to work in.”

The fallout from the high-profile Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal reverberated across the media and advertising industries both in the U.S. and the U.K. last year. Women spoke up about some of their experiences, albeit under the cloak of anonymity. Ugly truths surfaced around how HR departments hadn’t supported women through the process, but instead got them to sign NDAs to stop harassment claims and gender-related bullying from becoming public.

Similar stories have surfaced in the U.K. But the attention on the topic doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference. Approximately 70 percent of the respondents in the WACL and AA study who said they had been sexually harassed said the harassment occurred within the last five years, but 28 percent said it happened in the last 12 months.

“Because there have been no high-profile sackings for sexual harassment, there’s no deterrent for men or women who do this to be afraid of the consequences,” Keane-Dawson said. “No high-profile sackings, so no Harvey Weinstein effect.”

Agencies have welcomed the focus by the report and #TimeToo guidelines on HR departments’ role in addressing the issue. “The fact that so many women and men are either scared or apathetic about reporting incidents means not everyone feels protected and represented by HR departments,” said Kean. “These teams need a revamp to be more equipped to deal with people’s emotional needs and personal stresses. Individuals need to feel safe in their own workplace, and hopefully this survey is an important step in making this happen.”

For now, WACL and the AA’s approach will be more carrot than stick. The bodies don’t want the code to be used as a tool to publicly name and shame perpetrators, but more as a constructive method of changing internal culture to stamp out sexual harassment in the future.

But some believe a hard line is the only way to truly knock the issue on its head. “A code can be hidden behind,” said Keane-Dawson. “It’s time to take action and set up a system, perhaps run by NABS, that allows whistles to be blown without fear of being fired or forced out.”

“Victims need proper, legal support if they choose to step forward, to protect them in their current roles, and to protect them from discrimination if they do choose to move to a new job,” said Fran Cowan, chief marketing officer at Inskin Media and vp of marketing for the International Advertising Association U.K. “Otherwise, the cycle of perpetrators protecting each other, people turning a blind eye because it ‘doesn’t concern them’, and victims being continuously punished for their experience will continue. The TimeTo Code is timely and important.”


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