Cracks in the fabric of society: Complaints by women soar: Sexual harassment

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The Independent Online
COMPLAINTS about sexual harassment have leapt by nearly 60 per cent in a year, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Officials believe that the big increase has been caused by a growing awareness among women that sexual harassment can be successfully challenged. But it is also pointed out that the growing trend towards part-time and casual employment have made women more vulnerable.

One of the main sources of complaints and inquiries is women employed in smaller organisations where the manager or the owner of the business are often the culprits.

The commission, which defines harassment as anything from sexual attack to sleazy jokes and pin- ups, is campaigning among employers to ensure that there are procedures in place to deal with the problem. That is particularly difficult because the perpetrator often holds a more senior position than the victim.

The number of EOC-backed harassment cases taken to industrial tribunals has risen from 32 in 1991, with a success rate of 41 per cent, to 58 last year when 45 per cent were successful. Commission officials point out that generally only one-third of cases stayed the course to a final judgement by tribunals.

Another serious challenge faced by the EOC is a Government plan, due to be confirmed in a White Paper published today, to raise the state pension age of women from 60 to 65. The commission is campaigning for an equal retirement age of 60 for both genders.

Officials will also be seeking to ensure that women have equal access to state pensions. Because of the increasingly fragmented nature of their employment, women find it difficult to qualify.

In a foreword to the report, Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the EOC, describes the Government's pension proposals as 'very disappointing', arguing that it will result in women working five years longer for what is a lower pension effectively.

The annual report showed a 53 per cent increase in inquiries to the commission about equal pay for the same work and a 45 per cent rise in queries about training. Ms Bahl said that while significant progress had been made last year towards equal opportunities, unequal treatment remained entrenched. 'Our goal is for a society which is enhanced by equality not hampered by discrimination,' she said at the commission's London headquarters.

One of her main strategies was to demonstrate to employers that equal opportunities policies made good commercial sense. 'Our aim is to ensure that we make the most of human potential and individual choice and that such strategies are cost efficient. The economic and business case for equality has never been stronger.'

It is understood that research due to be launched in the autumn on the Government's Compulsory Competitive Tendering policy will show equal opportunities is one of the casualties when work is taken over by contractors.