East Anglian lawyer says enforcement is key to stopping workplace sexual harassment, not more legislation

Jeanette Wheeler, partner at Birketts. Picture: Birketts

Jeanette Wheeler, partner at Birketts. Picture: Birketts - Credit: Birketts

Employment lawyer says while we should set clear boundaries, the onus should be on the perpetrator and not the victim.

Poor enforcement, not legislation, is the main obstacle to curbing sexual harassment in the workplace, according to an East Anglian solicitor.

The issue has come under renewed focus in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer accused of sexually assaulting and harassing numerous female actors.

That has led to soul-searching in many other industries about sexual harassment, with a TUC report last year revealing 52% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Jeanette Wheeler, employment lawyer at regional law firm Birketts, said 'cultural issues' still lay behind such harassment, with industries holding different views on what was acceptable and some senior managers failing to act on problem behaviour.

'I meet people of all ages who are very switched on and have huge respect for men and women. There are just some individuals who have failed to grasp the fact that there are certain behaviours that are no longer acceptable and that society has moved on,' she said. 'The discrimination acts [of the 20th century] brought about cultural change and were ahead of their time, and people found it hard to comply with.'

She added: 'I think it is a matter of enforcement. We have law on harassment and it is very clear, so it is about people speaking up and being listened to.'

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She conceded some subtler acts of harassment could be harder to identify and eventually eradicate, but said it was important to 'draw the line clearly' in any situation.

'Some behaviour is so explicitly bad that it is not hard to tell, but some is less obvious,' she said. 'We all have personal responsibilities to make clear what is acceptable and what is not, but the onus should be on the perpetrator and not the victim.'

As the Christmas party season approaches, Ms Wheeler also warned of the tendency for some employees and managers to blur the lines between work and play.

'Some people find it hard to distinguish between what is appropriate and what is not once you're having a sociable time,' she said.

Have you experienced sexual harassment at work? Share your story – email bethany.whymark@archant.co.uk

A 'very male culture'

A prominent female figure in the finance sector has explained how sexual harassment is holding women back in the industry in her evidence to a government inquiry.

Jayne-Anne Gadhia, chief executive of Virgin Money, which has a significant presence in Norwich, told the Women in Finance Committee that she believes her gender may have been a barrier to promotion.

She explained that while working for Norwich Union Aviva in the 1990s, she was told she did not have the 'necessary characteristics' – such as a 'thick skin' – to progress in the firm's sales force, adding that there was an 'alpha-maleness' to the remarks. Ms Gadhia also told the committee about the 'very male culture' at RBS, where she also previously worked.

Jan Gooding, Aviva's director of inclusion, said: 'We have come a long way and learned a lot in the last 20-plus years and Aviva has zero tolerance for any sexist behaviour.'