University of York report: UK screen industry failing employees over sexual harassment

New research from the University of York suggests that the UK’s film and TV industry is “failing employees” in its approach to tackling sexual harassment, with some victims punished or victimised if they do speak out.

The Safe to Speak Up? report is based on research interviews with 18 people working in the UK screen industry and reveals that sexual harassment and abuse is still occuring in the industry six years after the #MeToo movement came to public prominence. It also found that some reports are being covered up, with staff exposed to further discrimination – some interviewees even described being encouraged to speak out about harassment and abuse, but then being punished or victimised when they did so.

Interviewees detailed a range of damaging impacts associated with their experiences, including feelings of shame and self-doubt, panic attacks and the loss of career opportunities and confidence.

Lead author of the study, Dr Anna Bull from the Department of Education at the University of York, said: “Sexual harassment can occur in many different workplaces, but it is more prevalent where there are greater levels of inequality between staff. The screen industry has high levels of gender inequality, with more men in positions of power, as well as a steep workplace hierarchy. An obvious example of this is in the treatment of ‘the talent,’ who are given higher status and protections compared to others on set.

“This study shows us that six years on from the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment and violence are still occurring in the industry. The research shows some of the devastating impacts that sexual harassment and violence in the workplace can have, and reveals that women are still losing their jobs and careers as a result of reporting it. Despite these life-changing impacts, in many workplaces, the minimum legal requirements for addressing this issue are still not in place.”

The 18 interviewees described in detail 22 instances of sexual harassment, assault or violence experienced at work since December 2017, with most occurring since 2020.

Many interviewees were not aware of any initiatives to tackle sexual harassment in their workplace and reported a strong reliance by employers on informal responses to complaints which were not adequate to address the situation and sometimes resulted in further discrimination.

Some interviewees were blocked or dissuaded from reporting what had happened to them. One, ‘Sarah,’ said: “I look back and I realise probably even that informal phone call to [my bosses to raise concerns] was a mistake because they turned around to me and said, ‘Oh look, it would be very bruising if you raised this formally. You know that, right?’ And I said, ‘Oh okay,’ and I kind of read between the lines, [and] didn’t raise it formally [at that point].”

The interviewees worked across different genres including high-end television and film, drama, documentary, factual, unscripted, and journalism, in a variety of roles including pre- and post-production, crew, producers, runners, researchers, and an actor.

The incidents of harassment and abuse occurred in a variety of workplace settings. Particularly risky spaces were work social events, filming on location and international industry events.

Dr Bull recommends that more regulatory oversight is needed for broadcasters and commissioning channels to incentivise them to take more responsibility for sexual harassment on productions that they have commissioned. She also hopes that the report will raise awareness of what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace and why it occurs.

She added: “I’ve been researching sexual harassment for seven years and have carried out multiple studies in this area. In Safe to Speak Up? I’ve uncovered evidence of some of the worst – but also the best – responses from employers that I’ve ever seen. This range of responses shows that while there is good work happening in some parts of the industry, there’s still a lot of work to be done. My hope is that this research – and the industry and policy briefings that accompany it – will contribute to making the screen industries safer and more equal places for everyone.”