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The detrimental impact domestic abuse can have on women’s employment

The 25th of November marks the first day of the 16 Days of Activism for the elimination of violence against women and girls, an international campaign dedicated to raising awareness that violence against women is an enduring social problem.

This year as part of the 16 days of activism, we wanted to share an experience from a victim-survivor of domestic abuse, Kate, to highlight the impact it had on her life and experience at work. As a result of domestic abuse, and despite her employer having a domestic abuse policy in place, Kate was forced to move from a senior, full-time, permanent job to a lower-paid, part-time, temporary role with a different employer. She had to trade her professional status, income, job security, current and future earnings and pension in order to feel safe at work.

I was working in a senior position doing a job I was good at and felt confident in, although that had been in decline after my husband joined the same organisation. It gave him more access to me and control, which he exploited. He ended up working in close proximity to me and could even come into my office. I was losing confidence at work because, when my husband was working in the building, it brought the fear I had at home into my workplace.

His cycle of abuse would always culminate in him apologising and bringing me bunches of flowers. So, he’d bring the flowers to me at work. He’d come in and make show of hugging me but then would whisper threats into my ear, “If you effing tell anyone, I’ll …” He phoned and sent texts of the same nature: he kept me in a state of fear. No-one at work knew what was happening. My attendance was OK but when I was at work, I was exhausted and anxious and my moods were unpredictable. I’d burst into tears but I’d blame it on pressure at work.

Kate was with her partner for 21 years. ‘I dreamed of a way out for over ten years, waiting for an opportunity. Eventually, it all broke down in a massive incident when he was arrested and then released on bail with restrictions on coming to the house.’ While her husband was in custody, Kate wrote to HR to report what happened and access support. However, she never received a response.

Kate went on a leave of absence and when she returned, ‘They expected it to be all over. They thought that the one incident which resulted in court orders was the extent of domestic abuse. They didn’t understand about coercive control, and that they were allowing him to continue to manipulate me at work.

While she was on leave, her employer conducted a risk assessment and implemented a safety plan. Kate wasn’t involved in any part of the process, and therefore her employer was unaware of the risks the perpetrator posed.

The safety plan was limited to saying that we should park in separate car parks, and that he was not allowed to come into my office. I’d often find his car parked next to mine when I left work; and if I went to the loo, I’d bump into him. It made it impossible to function at work. A year down the line I got an agreement that I’d be told if he’d be in my area of work, and I would then be expected to take annual leave if I wanted to avoid him. I was also allowed to lock my office door as my office was in a quiet corner of the building. But over time, any safety measures they put in relapsed or were forgotten.’

In spite of having a policy to support employees experiencing domestic abuse, Kate felt unsupported by her employer and felt that they didn’t take the situation seriously. ‘My manager did her best to be sympathetic but she didn’t always say the right thing, such as “oh, but he didn’t hit you”’.

The disciplinary hearing resulted in a written warning, which expired after a year. He was able to minimise what happened and put it down to one event fuelled by alcohol. It felt as if my employer colluded with him. They should have invited me to participate and should have taken a statement from me. They should have had a woman on the panel or at least someone who knew about coercive control. All the ideas I had about what might help me feel safe at work were dismissed.

Although I could have raised a grievance, I had limited scope as to who I could approach. And I was exhausted. From the responses I’d had I didn’t think the end result would be any different, and I didn’t want to put myself through any more. So, I eventually ended up long-term sick and didn’t go back. I left because they compounded the domestic abuse by their response. I felt let down by them. I’d worked for them for ten years; it felt like it was a strong working relationship; and they let me down.’

What could have been done differently? Kate says that her employer should have, ‘Listened to me, believed, spoken realistically about what they could and couldn’t do and signposted. They should have made sure that there was some kind of written response to my initial letter which said: thanks for telling us; this is what we will do; and your safety will be our first priority. In not listening to my story, they didn’t get the full picture. And in not understanding about domestic abuse, they didn’t take the right action although I’m sure they think they did the right things.’

Kate’s experience outlines the importance of creating a supportive workplace that prioritises the needs of victim-survivors. Having a workplace policy is in itself not enough. It’s critical that capacity is built in line managers and that employers are raising awareness in the workplace of the impact of domestic abuse and other forms of VAW, including the tactics perpetrators use.

This case study also demonstrates how domestic abuse has a detrimental impact on women’s economic and labour market equality. When women leave jobs as a result of their workplace being unsafe or unsupportive, their skills and experience are lost. This leads to increased economic insecurity which restricts women’s independence and choice in employment. As a result, as seen in Kate’s experience, victim-survivors may be working below their skill level, in lower paid or part time roles further contributing to occupational segregation and women’s underemployment. Ultimately, this also represents a drag on economic growth.

To find out more about what you can do to best support victim-survivors of violence against in the workplace, you can:

Take the Think Business, Think Equality test on domestic abuse at www.thinkbusinessthinkequality.org.uk. The self-assessment tool enables small and business sized business to assessment their employment practice on gender equality, including domestic abuse, and provides a detailed action plan and best practice guidance.

Learn more about our world-leading employer accreditation programme, Equally Safe at Work. The programme enables employers to better support employees who have experienced gender-based violence and work towards creating an inclusive workplace culture that prevents violence against women. The programme is currently being piloted in local authorities in Scotland. For more information visit, www.equallysafeatwork.scot or you can read our blog post on the launch of the progamme.

You can read Kate’s full case study here.

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