Fragmented Careers, Fragmented Lives: Why protecting female victims of violence means safeguarding their jobs

The Green Bangla Garment Workers' Federation demand the ratification of ILO Convention-190 to prevent workplace violence against women, Dhaka, 5 March 2021. Banner image: Shutterstock/Mamunur Rashid

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Violence against women remains a global pandemic. Today, more than one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual intimate-partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Furthermore, we know that these statistics have surged significantly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a consequence of governments imposing nation-wide lockdowns and measures to protect the health of their citizens. Twenty-one out of 37 governments that adhere to the OECD Gender Recommendations suggested that violence against women was one of the three most pressing gender equality issues in their countries.

These statistics mean that all workplaces are inevitably touched by domestic violence. 

Around the world, around two out of ten full-time female employees are currently victims of domestic violence, and around one third of female employees report that they have experienced domestic violence from an intimate partner during their working lives (ILO/UN Women 2019).

But why are we talking about domestic violence in the workplace?

We are talking about domestic violence in the workplace because it is a workplace issue.

It is impossible to imagine that a woman going through all this could just push it to one side when she comes to work. The International Finance Corporation found that 80% of women who have suffered from violence report it has negatively affected their work. Women lost two and a half working weeks per year because of domestic violence. Similarly, in the United States it was calculated that victims work 10% fewer days per year because of domestic violence. A Home Office report in 2009 found that 20% of victims of domestic abuse had to take a month or more off work in the previous year due to the abuse. And research found that 56% of abused women arrive late for work at least five times a month, and 53% miss at least three days of work a month.

This means that she will be absent more, arrive late, and be present without really being productive. Aside from dealing with the case of domestic violence itself, the woman will likely have to be focus on getting medical help, finding housing, engaging in court proceedings, filing police reports, seeking counseling and managing childcare, often alone as a single mother. It is easy to see how dealing with domestic violence and its consequences takes over much of a woman’s life. Of course, although domestic violence takes a direct toll on the victim it will also have an impact on her team and her organisation. The employer may have to face lost productivity or lower quality work, recruitment and turnover costs or potential reputational risks. Obviously, all this impacts a woman’s ability to keep her job and progress in it, often with consequences she will have to bear for her entire career. It is estimated that domestic violence costs United Kingom businesses in excess of GBP 2.7 billion each year due to decreased productivity, poor performance, absenteeism and employee turnover.

Those affected often have less capacity to carry out their job effectively or to reach their full potential. They may risk losing their jobs and can experience difficulties reintegrating into the workplace following an absence. All of this, in turn, can exacerbate inequality and vulnerability. Women who experience domestic violence are employed in higher numbers in casual and part-time work, and their earnings are up to 60% lower, compared to women who do not experience such violence.

Read more on the Forum Network: One in Three is Too Many: Taking action on violence against women by Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy Division, OECD

Read more on the Forum Network: One in Three is Too Many: Taking action on violence against women by Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy Division, OECDRead more on the Forum Network: One in Three is Too Many: Taking action on violence against women by Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy Division, OECD

Violence affects work, but work also affects violence suffered at home. If a victim’s work is significantly affected and she loses her job, she risks even greater precarity and fragility, even more so if she has children she will have to care for on her own. Losing income may also mean a woman may not be able to leave the abuser (in some cases even in life threatening situations). That is why it is the responsibility of society to protect victims and their ability to work, and at the very least prevent their economic fragility—just like we protect them with housing and other emergency services.

Our organisation, Led By HER, works with victims of violence to help them rebuild their professional lives, and we can attest to the difficulty in terms of time and cost of helping women who have fragmented career paths, not worked for long periods of time, and have sidetracked their career because of their situation.

That is why we need to protect victims from losing their jobs in the first place.

Most of all, we need national legislation to protect the jobs of victims. Led By HER has worked with Thomson Reuters, Dentons and the Kering Foundation to create a comparative legal report between the laws of Canada (Ontario), New Zealand, Australia the United Kingdom (England and Wales), Italy and France on this matter. Although Canada was the only country with a comprehensive legal framework to address domestic violence, other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Italy have some measures in place, for example giving women days off from work. In most countries (including the United Kingdom and France), the issue is not appropriately addressed and often left to health and safety laws, which are not sufficiently targeted and thus ineffective. 

Today, ILO Convention No. 190 addresses domestic violence as a workplace issue. It recognises the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment. It is the first convention that places an obligation on countries to "take appropriate measures to recognize the effects of domestic violence and, so far as is reasonably practicable, mitigate its impact in the world of work”. We are still a long way away from this because, despite the fact that the ILO has set a new standard, only two countries, Fiji and Uruguay, have ratified it since 2020. Where are the other countries in recognising our rights?

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Some countries are taking steps through national legislation to protect workers from domestic violence, while in others policies are in place at the company level. It is important that all countries address this issue so that all women who suffer from domestic violence benefit from equal protection, regardless of the company they work for. Of course, in an ideal world we would want this to be in governmental legislation rather than leave it up to individual companies. Leaving the responsibility to companies means that not all women will be protected, and it leaves many women vulnerable to the effects of violence and to the real risk of facing economic precarity as a consequence. What is likely to happen is that larger companies will be able to put measures in place—with their reputations to protect and greater resources at their disposal—while smaller ones will not, leaving many women in a vulnerable economic position.

And even while we talk about this, only few employers today have a plan for dealing with domestic violence. But this can change if companies can precede the law by implementing measures today.

So what are some of the measures that can be put into place to protect women who have suffered from violence in the workplace?

  • Have a clear policy on domestic violence that is included in the company’s violence and harassment policy—a functioning and confidential system for reporting cases, which is well communicated to employees and visible, is important. The system also needs to involve different parts of the company (legal, human resources, security), and should extend to consultants, volunteers and contractors.
  • Offer temporary protection against dismissal for victims of domestic violence, as appropriate, except on grounds unrelated to domestic violence and its consequences.
  • Include domestic violence in workplace risk assessments.
  • Invest in awareness training so managers and employees recognise the signs of domestic violence. This will raise awareness about resources available in the company and how to refer victims.
  • Offer flexibility to victims at work to be able to address important issues (court hearings, rehousing).
  • Offer paid leave to victims so that they can address their issues.
  • Guarantee safety of victims (transferring them to other locations, changing their phones, providing security, assuring them that the place of work is safe).
  • Alleviate financial strain on victims by giving them an advance on salary, or implement other measures that would allow victims to access financial support.
  • Create a referral network of local organisations to refer victims, as well as groups that can train the company on domestic violence. (Companies should not do or replace the work of professional organisations that are trained in providing services to victims.)

Whether it is as citizens calling for our representatives to ratify the ILO convention; employees or leaders in our companies implementing measures; or public officials finally putting measures in place to protect women, let us all take this opportunity to create change—where we can and at our level.

If you want to learn a lot more about this subject, please read our comparative legal report to know about where to start when tackling domestic violence in the workplace.

Visit the OECD Gender Portal

Visit the OECD Gender Portal

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Tackling COVID-19 Gender Equality

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Chiara Condi

President and Founder, LED BY HER

I am the founder of Led By HER, an organization that works on promoting innovation, women's rights and entrepreneurship.

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