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The infrastructure sector needs to work together to address sexual harassment in the workplace

03 July 2024

Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any setting, but we can work together to reduce and ultimately eliminate it from our sector.

The infrastructure sector needs to work together to address sexual harassment in the workplace
'We must work with industry to ensure it is a safe place for everyone.' Image credit: Shutterstock

The ICE’s recent sexual harassment survey makes for difficult reading, with nearly half of all respondents having reported being a victim of sexual harassment in the last four years.

We have worked hard in recent years to showcase the industry as one that is open and welcoming to women and girls.

We have been at the forefront of supporting initiatives such as International Women in Engineering Day, regularly highlighting the lived experiences of women in the industry on our blogs and most recently we partnered with Girlguiding UK to inspire guides and rangers to explore the world of civil engineering and STEM.

As the institution’s director of membership, I am proud that our efforts have been having an impact and we can now say that a quarter of those on ICE training agreements are women.

However, having played our part in developing a more diverse workforce, we must work with industry to ensure it is a safe place for everyone.

If we do not address this issue openly, we risk alienating the very people we sought to include and reverse the progress we have made.

“I commend my predecessor for initiating this survey. Whilst sexual harassment is a wider societal issue, I am pleased we are acknowledging there is a problem.

"Together with our partners we can use the data to work towards achieving a zero-tolerance policy ensuring that women not only feel safe, secure and respected but are able to thrive in our industry.”

- Prof. Anusha Shah, President of the ICE

Sadly, sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse is not limited to our sector.

A similarly sized poll for the Trades Union Congress in 2023 found that three out of five women said they had experienced harassment at work – rising to almost two in three women aged 25 to 34.

Given the prevalence of this behaviour in our industry, what are we doing about it?

Well, talking openly about the issue and publishing the data is a good start.

Surveys such as this validate and acknowledge experiences, and help everyone understand the prevalence and impact of problems faced by our members.

Being transparent about the extent of the problem helps stimulate debate and focus the industry on taking action.

And it offers us a benchmark against which to measure the impact of actions in the coming years.

We must address this issue together

The ICE’s members come from many of the top contractors, consultants and clients who already have strong policies in place to deal with sexual harassment when it's reported or witnessed.

However, more needs to be done to ensure those policies are enforced.

We have already met with senior leaders across the sector to discuss the survey results, allowing them to share best practice on mitigating these issues.

We have also spoken with our academic partners, other professional engineering institutions, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Council to collaborate on action.

At the ICE, the FIR committee and others are working to create content for our channels to highlight the issue and would encourage any members who wish to share their experiences to get in touch with us.

The content we create will include active bystander training, which will be particularly useful to small and medium-sized enterprises.

What happens now?

Our initial survey focused solely on women to help us better understand their lived experiences.

We are incredibly grateful to those who participated and shared their personal stories with us.

Talking about these difficult experiences is not easy. With their insights, we can begin taking steps to address the issues raised.

However, we also know that sexual harassment can affect anyone, not just women.

A key next step for us will be to broaden the scope of further surveys to ask all our members, so we can better understand people’s varied experiences as either as victims of harassment, or as witnesses.

This will give us a more rounded understanding of the issues, as we work with the rest of the industry to address them.

To ensure we fulfil our duty of care to the members who have reported harassment and recounted specific incidents, we are following up with support and pastoral care, with the help of the specialists from the ICE Benevolent Fund.

Unfortunately, we are not alone in facing the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, so we all need to work together to be able to combat it.

"I warmly thank the huge number of members who responded to our call; taking the time, effort and courage to share their stories. They are not alone.

"Sadly it is no surprise to see these shocking results; this is an issue pervasive in society.

"While we do commendable work in attracting women to the profession we must do our utmost to ensure our workplaces are fair, inclusive and respectful; and that means safe.

"It's a necessity if we are to retain the wealth of talent, expertise and diverse thought which is crucial to successful output of our industry in making a meaningful contribution to society.”

- Kate Cairns, chair of the ICE Fairness, Inclusion and Respect Committee

Later this year the government is due to introduce legislation that puts the onus on employers to prevent harassment taking place in the first place, rather than only dealing with the effects.

This is a big step in the right direction.

By working with partners, both in our sector and across society, we can learn from best practice and ensure that all ICE members have access to information that will help them challenge sexual harassment in the workplace.

To that end we are sourcing materials from other organisations to curate a list of essential resources that will be available to all members.

If you or your organisation have any materials you would like to share, please get in touch.

  • Séan P F Harris, director of membership and deputy director general at Institution of Civil Engineers