Have you ever been harassed at work?

You also? Sexual harassment at work

Have you ever been sexually harassed in the workplace? And what is it, sexual harassment? Would you even know if you saw it? Would you talk about it if it happened to you or someone else?

Instead of behind closed doors in the tea kitchen, sexual harassment in the workplace has recently been hotly debated in Germany as well as in other countries.

It was a spate of reports of sexual harassment, abuse and rape that hit the headlines after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein became public. The scandal surrounding the sexual assaults of the Hollywood magnate has catapulted the former taboo subject into the light of day. The #metoo campaign in the social networks caused victims to make their experiences public and forced perpetrators to make public apologies or - as in Great Britain - a minister to resign. New allegations against celebrities are becoming known.

But what has only recently received media attention has long been a problem for those affected. While researching for this article, two things became clear: Many women - and men, it turned out - have experienced sexual harassment in the professional environment. Even so, few are willing to talk about it or take legal action.

The long arm of the law - and the perpetrator

Christine Lüders, head of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, confirms that many victims do not dare to go public. "They are afraid of losing their job, of being held responsible for the attack themselves and of being accused of damaging the reputation of a colleague or a superior," she told DW.

"We also found in a survey that many employees know too little about their rights. Eight out of ten employees do not know that their employer has an obligation to protect them from sexual harassment in the workplace. Conversely, many employers do not seem to comply with this obligation to be aware. "

Although German jurisprudence leaves little room for interpretation. The General Equal Treatment Act from 2006 lays down the far-reaching rights of employees and precisely defines the offense of sexual harassment.

In addition to the obvious and particularly serious cases of physical assault or worse, unwanted physical contact is also a form of sexual harassment according to the law, as is suggestive grins, gestures, slippery comments or jokes and the showing of pornographic material. The employer's legal obligation to deal responsibly with allegations and to protect employees is clearly regulated in the law - and yet there are still loopholes in the law that have to be closed, says Christine Lüders.

So far, allegations of sexual harassment have to be brought to court within two months of the assault. According to Christine Lüders, this period should be extended to six months. You have to give victims more time to come to terms with what they have experienced and the fear of losing their job. You should be able to decide without great time pressure whether you want to go to court with it, says Lüders. Another loophole concerns the fact that the law only regulates the rights of university employees - but does not deal with cases where students are harassed by university employees.

Christina Stockfisch, an expert on gender equality issues in the jurisdiction of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), is also calling for changes to the law. "We want not only individuals, but also us as a trade union to be able to initiate legal proceedings in cases of sexual harassment against employers," she told DW. "So far, only individuals can sue."

Christine Lüders from the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency calls for awareness to be raised in order to prevent this

"Of course you can hear nasty things"

Laws are one thing - but everyday work and corporate culture can be completely different when it comes to the problem of sexual assault.

Laura (name changed) worked for ten years in a particularly male-dominated profession, as a pilot for one of the largest German airlines. Although she has never been sexually molested herself, she remembers numerous times when men have treated her derisively. For example, when passengers made funny comments or wanted to be photographed with her just because she was a young pilot.

She believes her status as a pilot has largely protected her from lewd remarks from male colleagues. Still, she remembers the sexist way some male colleagues treated crew members. "You can hear a lot of nasty sayings, with clearly sexual innuendos." But although she has heard and seen a lot in which boundaries were clearly exceeded, she also found some colleagues a bit overly sensitive. "Sometimes I thought that one or the other remark was being taken too personally. They thought, 'I'm in this men's domain and I always have to be on my guard.' I find that sometimes you're a little too tense. "

Christine Lüders believes that many things are too simply downplayed 'as a misunderstanding', as a 'flirtation attempt' or as a 'compliment'. There is still a belief that people who report assaults are weak or over-sensitive. "The difference is very clear," she says. "If sexual behavior is unwanted and violates the dignity of the victim, then it is sexual harassment and nothing else. Studies have shown that men and women know exactly what the difference is."

Create awareness, break taboos

In a 2015 study, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency found that between a third and half of all women have experienced some form of sexual violence in the workplace.

Another finding from the study was that many men are also affected. They are harassed or threatened directly by colleagues with derogatory, suggestive comments or macho sayings - almost always by male colleagues, according to Lüders.

For her and for Christina Stockfisch, a lot still needs to be done in German society to counteract the problem. Perhaps the most important thing is to create heightened awareness among employers and employees in order to clearly identify sexual harassment in the workplace and, if possible, to do something about it in advance. In addition, employees and employers should be aware of their rights and obligations in the event of attacks.