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Ruth Sparkes is co-founder of SaferSpace, a tech-for-good company trying to address unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. To mark International Women's Day, she has released a free AI chatbot.

Image of Co-founders of the SaferSpace chatbot
(l to r) Ruth Sparkes and Sunita Gordon, co-founders of SaferSpace

The chatbot was originally designed as part of our SaferSpace app – a tool to manage unacceptable behaviour, such as sexual harassment, in the workplace and on campus. It’s trained using the UK’s Equality Act.

In the UK, 58% of women have encountered sexual harassment at work (TUC), 68% of students have faced harassment on campus (NUS), and a staggering 79% of these incidents go unreported (Fawcett Society). 

The arts and culture sector is not immune to these issues. In fact, the unique dynamics in the sector might actually exacerbate the problem. There have been numerous reports in recent years about unacceptable behaviour in the music and the performing arts industries and in conservatoires.

Urgent need for effective reporting mechanisms

The need for SaferSpace is the arts is, sadly, supported by alarming statistics. Arts Professional’s survey (2017) on the subject revealed that 80% of respondents were aware of sexual harassment incidents, 48% had personally experienced harassment, and a significant majority of harassers were in senior positions. 

These data sets highlight two things: the widespread and insidious nature of the problem and the urgent need for effective reporting mechanisms and policies.

The survey's findings about the lack of formal policies and training in organisations reveal a critical gap in protection and support for workers, especially freelancers and those in vulnerable positions. 

Harassment is widespread

The idea behind SaferSpace came about when I read a recent Ofsted report about Croydon College, a former workplace of mine, once home to the Croydon School of Art. The college leaders seemed to dismiss reports made to inspectors that students were suffering from incidents of sexual harassment and homophobia. 

This, coupled with widespread national stories of harassment across various other sectors - the NHS, the police, MacDonald’s, the military, the government - revealed a systemic problem that demanded innovative solutions. 

It is clear to me there is a pressing need for clearer policies, better training and a more supportive approach to complaints. But for this to happen, people need to report in the first place.

Fear of speaking out

SaferSafe co-founder Sunita Gordon and I originally decided to create the chatbot within the SaferSpace app because eight out of 10 victims do not report incidents when they have been harassed. 

Research shows there are various reasons for this silence. Many victims lack information on how to report an incident, they fear they won't be taken seriously, or they find the process of reporting too intimidating.

There is also fear that reporting an issue might lead to a backlash at work, or to losing their job. But the most common reason for a failure to report is not knowing whether what they've experienced actually warrants a complaint. 

That’s why we created the chatbot

You can ask the chatbot a question, such as: “My boss keeps making lewd suggestions and keeps brushing up against me inappropriately, is this sexual harassment?”

And the chatbot will answer something like: “Yes, this would likely be considered sexual harassment under subsection (1) of the given context, as it involves unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and has the purpose or effect of violating the employee's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

Our decision to offer the chatbot for free reflects our commitment to creating safer, more inclusive work environments. These questions can be asked in complete confidence, giving victims knowledge to help them decide whether they should make a report, or not.

The full SaferSpace app is not just valuable to employees, but to employers too. It offers organisations actionable insights providing them with the data they need to make real change. When organisations understand the frequency and nature of issues, they can develop effective interventions - such as additional training - or put disciplinary procedures into motion.

Creating meaningful change

My personal journey with sexual harassment, which began during my time in the Royal Navy aged just 17 and continued through various other professional settings, has showed me the insidious nature of this issue. These experiences have not only shaped my understanding but have also fuelled my passion to try to create meaningful change. 

This work is deeply personal to me, as it is to Sunita. We believe no one should face barriers to reporting harassment, and by making our chatbot tool accessible to all, we hope in some small way to help victims.

As we celebrate International Women's Day, we invite individuals and organisations alike to explore the capabilities of our chatbot and join us in our mission to promote worker protection, inclusion and equality. 

Ruth Sparkes is Managing Director of EMPRA and co-founder of SaferSpace.
 saferspace.io | empra.co.uk
@SaferSpace_io | @EMPRA

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Headshot of Ruth Sparkes