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Harassment at work: 52% of women report bullying

More than half of women have experienced harassment and bullying at work, according to the biggest-ever study of women in the workplace, and the sectors where it is the worst might surprise you.

Some 52 percent of women said they'd experienced bullying and harassment at work over the previous three years, according to a British online survey of 25,000 people carried out by workplace gender campaign Opportunity Now and global professional services firm PwC.

And experts warn that the impact of workplace harassment could also be felt in the damage it causes to companies' reputation and ability to recruit top talent.

Frederic Cirou | PhotoAlto | Getty Images

Examples of bullying and harassment ranged from being deliberately undermined – which more than one in four respondents reported – to victimization, or the intentional blocking of career progression, which more than one in six said they had experienced.

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A further 12 percent of those questioned said they had experienced sexual harassment, which was defined to include sexual comments, texts or emails, unwanted physical contact or leering, being asked for sexual favors or the displaying of offensive materials.

PwC's Head of People Gaenor Bagley, who is a member of the firm's executive board, said she was surprised by the findings.

"I think that often people don't report it, or talk about it, and that's why it's so shocking," she told CNBC. "There's a fear of repercussions."

And it wasn't just women who reported awareness of workplace bullying, with some of the 2,166 men who took part in the study, called Project 28-40, highlighting it too.

"Senior males in my office are known for going after the younger women. It's a joke (and) goes on too much for that to be acceptable," one of the men who took part in a focus group, under a condition of anonymity, said in the report.

Sector discrepancy

Interestingly, some of the sectors where women were most likely to experience harassment were those with a higher female-male ratio than other, more male-dominated industries.

Over 60 percent of those surveyed in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, and 59 percent of those in the media industry reported harassment.

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Bagley said this demonstrated that the bullying of women wasn't always being perpetrated by male colleague, and was often female-on-female.

"There are some queen-bee issues going on here," she said. "And it's clearly pretty widespread."

The charity, construction, uniform and armed services, and transportation sectors also fared poorly, with between 56-59 percent of respondents from these industries reporting harassment.

Reputation is important

One risk of not dealing with harassment and bullying in a responsible way is a loss of reputation which can hit an organization hard – both in terms of talent and future business.

The risk of a poor cultural reputation had to be assessed like any other business risk, Bagley stressed.

"It affects how we're viewed by people applying for jobs here, and also by our clients," she said.

"It goes to the heart of good professional behaviour. We're inclusive, keep an open mind and are objective and fair – but if you're not with your own people that's a hard argument to sustain."

Executives call for change

The report called the findings regarding harassment and bullying the "most striking illustration" of the gap between organizations' policies and employees' experiences, and said they should "galvanize organizations into action."

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And action appears to be needed - almost a third of those surveyed disagreed that there were good policies around harassment at work.

The heads of some of the U.K.'s largest companies expressed shock at the findings, with Debbie White, CEO of facilities management company Sodexo, saying she was "horrified."

But White added there were a number of things that could be done: "Zero tolerance - you have to take decisive action. You have to make examples (of people) you really do and I have no fear at all of doing that."

While Inga Beale, the newly-appointed CEO of insurance market Lloyd's of London, talked of an "automatic protectionism" among senior men – and said it was time for women to upset the status quo.

"At the moment we have guys protecting each other - it's a club," she said in the report.

"Women traditionally have not had that network of support that men tend to have, so in that sense they have nothing to lose by rocking the boat and challenging the way things are."

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