By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

March 22, 2021 | 8 min read

Sexual harassment comes in many guises. But that doesn’t mean business leaders shouldn’t work to prevent it. The Drum assesses what marketing businesses can do to make their workplaces safer for employees, both at work and at home.

The death of Sarah Everard has sparked a social movement in the UK, as women demand safety from male violence. The response has exposed the sexual abuse that many face daily, revealing how little has been done to protect women since the #MeToo movement three years ago. Yet somehow, this movement feels different from those before.

Debate has focused on how to help women feel safer in public, with suggestions including a night curfew, undercover police in nightclubs and more officers deployed on streets. However, less emphasis has been placed on the virtues of better education and reform – which could be pivotal.

Just like the rest of society, the marketing industry has lagged in making workplaces safer for women. Last month it emerged that a mere seven of the UK’s 273 ad agencies signed up to the ’#timeTo’ cross-industry anti-sexual harassment initiative had actually completed its sexual harassment in the workplace workshop.

In the wake of protests, vigils and fierce public debate, The Drum assesses what more marketing industry bosses could do to make their workplaces safer for employees, both at home and when they return to the office.

Insidious and hidden

“The ways in which businesses are failing are less important to me than the why,“ states Kerry McKibbin, president at Mischief @ No Fixed Address. “If we get to the why, we can try to solve it.”

Sexual harassment isn’t top of mind, she argues, because daily hallway ’ass grabs’ aren’t really a thing any more, and allows bosses to give themselves a pass.

“This means our defences are down and offences are looked at with derision. Agencies are failing to protect women because of their lack of attention to the insidious and hidden, which makes it harder to police. But it also gives more reason to pay more attention than ever.”

When Nabs' director of wellbeing services and culture change Lorraine Jennings helped to found ’#timeTo’, she recalls how there was disbelief whether sexual harassment was even happening. “It’s sometimes the case. Just because you don’t see or hear about it happening, doesn’t mean it’s not,” she insists.


Jennings advises setting up a confidential hotline that enables staff to report harassment anonymously. ”That will then give you an indication of whether it's happening and it gives you that sense check,” she says.

McKibbin concurs on the need for bosses to be hypervigilant. ”Be constantly aware, as a manager, of the situations you put your employees into,” she insists. ”Are you exposing them to a possibly uncomfortable or dangerous situation? Are there ways you can support both physical safety, such as free Ubers after dark or safety in numbers for after-hours office work? And there’s mental safety, like free mental health support services or a culture of victim belief.”

On top of that, she says leaders must ensure their organizations have a solid HR game plan in place, that ensures the anonymity of complaints, and backs up policies with real consequences.

Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and chief exec of, a global nonprofit that supports women in tech, says it's imperative that businesses set up a strong internal committee that will investigate issues on a monthly basis and recommend actions that should be set up. ”Create pathways for female employees to explore additional workshops that will help protect them, such as counselling and life coaching sessions or self-defence courses,” she argues.

Making difficult conversations easier

No one really enjoys raising sensitive issues – it makes you feel silly, fearful and a little on edge, questioning whether you're overacting. Beyond setting up a confidential hotline, how else can bosses make it easier for employees to raise concerns? Jennings suggests identifying where there are barriers stopping people from speaking up.

“Do they know that you’re going to believe them? From an intersectional approach, if someone is experiencing daily microaggressions around racism, why would they then put their head above the parapet and raise the issue that they’ve been sexually harassed?”

McKibbin says people will feel more comfortable opening up in an environment where representative leaders are visible, vulnerable and transparent at the helm of the business. ”Staff will feel more comfortable having hard conversations in an environment where vulnerability and transparency are championed.”

Education is key

Without better education around harassment, employees may find themselves navigating grey areas between recognized patterns of harassment and other types of behavior. What one person regards as a line crossed might not be clocked by another. #timeTo addresses this directly with its campaign ’Where Do You Draw The Line?’

”It can be so nuanced for people, on an individual level,” explains Jennings. ”Part of #timeTo's training covers sexual harassment that isn't obvious. Some people think sexual harassment is like the ’Carry On’ films, but how does it play out every day on a micro level?”

Jennings stresses that businesses shouldn’t rely on those who’ve got lived experience to do the educating. ”Everyone has got an individual experience. So you need to look at education. At #timeTo, we did the research, and that helped inform us and give us the education. Then we produced the code, which is founded in that research that educates organizations on the steps they can take,” she details.

Likewise, Wilkerson agrees education is key. To create awareness around workplace safety for women, she says educate all employees – male, female and non-binary – about behavioral ethics and developing the right culture that supports female safety.

”This includes training and having regular meetings on workplace safety, specifically creating a dialogue to allow women to voice their concerns,” she says. ”Businesses should also have an employee manual that includes a well-defined zero-tolerance policy and a yearly review where employees undergo a training session to review the organization’s policy.”

More women in leadership roles

Cindy Gallop, founder of the IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, insists: ”Make every level of your company gender-equal or more female than male, starting at the leadership level.

She explains that sexual harassment lessens under gender-equal or female-led businesses. ”Firstly, men no longer have the upper hand in power and implicit bro endorsement that it's okay to act like that,” she says. ”Secondly, when men are surrounded by women, their professional equals or bosses, they will see them less as objectified roles, girlfriend or secretary.

”Marketing businesses are failing to protect women in the workplace because they are failing to hire, promote, celebrate, champion, value, pay, bonus, invest in and give equity and board seats to women versus men.”

Abuse at home

UK government instruction over the past year of global lockdowns has been designed in the interest of safety. Staying home, it says, save lives. But for those faced with domestic abuse, staying home is far from safe. So how can businesses help those who are affected at home?

”Now that we’re working more at home, I’ve got a window into your world, and you have a window into mine,” Jennings muses. ”It’s hard to spot if you’re relying on an individual to share it with you, and sometimes they might not label it as domestic abuse.”

Jennings says leaders should try to understand what the traits are of domestic abuse, pointing to resources by charities such as Women’s Aid and Refuge, that give clear indications and guidance. There is also Nabs ’Advice Line’ which employees can point their staff towards.

 Domestic violence hand gesture

According to Mordecai, global innovation leader, workplaces need to provide a resource toolkit to employees around domestic abuse at home. ”Make sure leaders know the ’domestic violence hand gesture’,” she insists. ”That is a call for help and can provide easy access to tricks like ’pizza delivery’ lines that call support workers.

”Provide wellness days for employees to take at no cost to their paid leave. Remember, domestic abuse is not only a women’s issue and resources must be provided to all employees regardless of gender,” she suggests.

Unilever is an example of a company taking domestic abuse seriously. Dovetailing with International Women's Day, earlier this month it launched a campaign, which its exec vice-president, marketing and chief diversity and inclusion officer, Aline Santos, says was part of a long-term commitment to tackling the issue.

“Through these initiatives, we hope to encourage people inside and outside Unilever to speak out and help victims of domestic violence be heard,” she says. “Together we can work towards a future in which violence towards any human becomes a thing of the past.”

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