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Sunita Gordon and Ruth Sparkes have created a new platform to make it easier for people to report sexual harassment and discrimination so that their employers can take action.
There has been a lot in the news of late about sexual harassment at work. Whether it’s the CBI, McDonald’s or the Ministry of Defence, employers are increasingly finding themselves facing allegations of not doing enough to address harassment at work. New legislation, recently passed, will strengthen their obligations to protect staff, although it doesn’t extend to harassment by third parties.
One reason that these cases blow up is that employers either don’t have the processes in place for people to report abuse or employees don’t feel encouraged to do so. Two women are on a mission to change that. Ruth Sparkes and Sunita Gordon have set up an app, SaferSpace, where people can report harassment and discriminatory acts quickly and, if necessary, anonymously.
The app came about after Ruth read that the college she used to work for had failed its Ofsted inspection. She wondered what had gone wrong as she recalled it being a good place to work with a good leadership team. She read the report and it highlighted that there had been regular reports on sexual harassment and homophobic abuse. The principal said they didn’t recognise that. “That made me angry. I felt it was dismissive and I wondered why the principal didn’t know about it and why people weren’t officially reporting it,” says Ruth.
She spoke to Sunita, who she had known for some time and had discussed other potential projects with, and the two started to research the subject. They found the vast majority of people don’t report instances of harassment or discrimination. The main reason was because they didn’t think any action would be taken. They also found the process of reporting it was often intimidating. And they weren’t sure if something would be construed as just ‘banter’.
Sunita and Ruth decided that they could do something about that.
They devised an app where people could report abuse in a confidential way that was then passed on to their universities and employers to investigate. Given those most affected seemed to be in the 16 to 30 year old age group and they were always on their phones, they thought this would offer a quick, safe and intuitive way to show the scale of the problem and get redress.
The app includes the ability to upload photos or text material that can be used as evidence if HR needs to investigate reports. Some using the app may prefer to be anonymous and Sunita and Ruth felt this was important to encourage wider reporting. Even with anonymous reporting, HR can pick up any patterns of abuse and can investigate.
Sunita and Ruth have also been developing a chatbot which draws on the Equality Act so they can check whether the incident they are reporting officially falls under sexual harassment or discrimination.
It’s not just about the app, though. The two women have created a platform for employers which can provide them with a report so they can decide what action they should take, for instance, if they spot a pattern of reports about a particular individual or in a particular geographic location. The employer can decide how they disseminate the reports and how they respond and the system can be tailored to their policies. “The idea is not to call the organisation out or create more work or to disrupt their HR processes. It is about supporting those in such a way that every organisation can bring about a culture shift so their employees feel safe, especially women and young people who are often not very confident about reporting incidents,” says Sunita.
Ruth adds that there is also a talent attraction and reputation issue involved. By adopting the SaferSpace logo, employers can show that they are proactively doing something to ensure they are on top of the issue of harassment and discrimination and know what is going on under the surface at their company.
Ruth and Sunita feel the issue will only get worse without serious attempts to address it, with social media multiplying the ways in which people can be bullied and abused. They hope eventually to be able to run equality and diversity courses that will give people a nationally recognised qualification and will help them understand better what constitutes harassment and abuse and so that they can promote best practice.
Both Ruth and Sunita have day jobs – Sunita in technology and Ruth in PR and marketing – but they are excited about the prospects for the app. It is early days – they only registered the company four months ago, but they say the constant press reports demonstrate the need for what they are doing. They are currently working with some employers who are interested in signing up and are seeking wider investment.
“It’s all about making people feel safe in their work environment,” says Sunita, “and we hope that those good habits flow into society generally.”